After dental school, I served four years on active duty for the U.S. Army as a dentist. Part of my service included a 15-month deployment to Iraq where I provided dental services to soldiers, contractors, translators, and detainees.
Detainees were provided a humane level of medical and dental care. If they had a toothache they had their choice of Tylenol or a tooth extraction. Detainees came to my dental clinic in an orange jump suit, blindfolded, shackled hand and foot, with a soldier escort. Once they were seated in the dental chair, their blindfold was removed. A translator would help me determine the symptoms of their toothache, and I would numb and extract the tooth in question.
One day a detainee came to my dental clinic who was probably 16 or 17 years old. He was very agitated and could not be talked into sitting in the dental chair. I wondered if he was a true dental phobic–not the “I hate going to the dentist,” because it’s inconvenient–but a TRUE dental phobic. Maybe he was having a panic attack. When I asked if he wanted his tooth pulled, he said no. We gave him Tylenol and sent him away.
We asked the translator what the boy had been saying. He told us the boy was saying things like, “I’m not supposed to be here. I’m innocent!” My dental assistant wondered, “Do you think he was afraid we were going to torture him for information?” Suddenly his strange behavior made sense. He hadn’t left the building yet, so we found him and asked him a few more questions. We reassured him that we planned to extract only the tooth that was causing a toothache, and that it would be numb with anesthetic. It would not cause him any pain. He calmed down and agreed to the treatment. He came back to my clinic, and we extracted his tooth as promised.
I couldn’t believe he thought we were going to torture him. I wondered what he’d been told about Americans, or what had gone on during the previous Iraqi regime that made him believe it was a possibility. I hope our kindness and actions won him over in some way.