Attention: Employees at The Devil’s Back Office
I am dozing off when the machine labeled “Tuttnauer” to the right-hand side beeps for the fourth time of the day, a stentorian wake-up call for my sleep-deprived mind. Funny how I first thought the noise belonged to the microwave oven from the other side of the counter. Is it already lunch break? The answer is a cruel yet terse no, rather, it’s time for me to unscrew the lever of the sterilizer, let go of the vapor without getting burnt, and rescue the manifold of surgical handpieces that are probably worth more than everything on me combined before they overheat and malfunction.
Yet what I fear the most is the cold, disappointed gaze from Marie J.
The September of 2022 was when I decided against the idea of taking a gap year since my math told me that doing so would entail not having a real job until the age of 30. It’s certainly impossible to expedite the process of finishing dental school, not to mention oral surgery as a specialty alone doubles the years of training, but I do not relish the idea of being confined at school for another year. I had already conquered the Dental Admission Test at the cost of ditching summer reading for stacks over stacks of review books, perhaps I should check off what’s left on the pre-dental checklist when my sanity is still somewhat intact.
Why dentistry? Why Oral Surgery? I had ceaselessly questioned myself the same way future interviewers will do so to me, and frankly, I had no concrete answer no matter how much I pondered. To save lives? “I doubt that cavity kills”. To make people smile again? “How original”. To make my parents proud? “Why don’t you become a real doctor then?”. It’s probably because my childhood dentist drove a really nice and flashy convertible, but I already know the outcome if I answer those with bare honesty.
I shotgunned every single dental clinic within a 3-mile radius of home, regardless of specialty or ratings — totally eight of them — North Arcadia sure has no shortage of tooth doctors. A week after I cc’ed the Endo, Ortho, Prostho, whatever-tho clinics the most sincere, essay-like email I had composed, to my devastation, only a local general dentist’s practice granted me a reply and I never heard back from the oral surgeon. Not the best outcome, I frowned upon the laconic, slightly halfhearted reply from “MarieJDental@gmail.com”, but all I really wanted was to glean and slam that glistening “100-hr of shadowing experience” on the imminent application portal in June. If biting the bullet is a must, I’d rather do so now.
I was gleefully surprised to find out Marie J., DMD stood right by the corner of E Bloom Ave and faced the despicable exit of the 210, a route I was too familiar with after nearly half a decade of living. From the look of it, the practice is the opposite of showy and grandiose, a single-story building with a plain exterior. Its subtle disguise as just-another-residence surely succeeds in dispelling any unneeded attention from non-customers and despite that, there were yet 300ish positive reviews. I wondered if those general dentists are like food stalls in East Asia, the homelier they seem the better service they give?
The next day at 7:30 am, I found myself in front of the door with Marie J., DMD etched on it. It was at that moment I realized that aside from review books and those “Mental Dental” videos on youtube, I don’t know shit about dentistry. Should I just barge in? Are they even actually open on Saturdays? I’m not trespassing, am I? I mused while rotating the doorknob with much apprehension. The lobby was infused with much-expected quiescence, while a hodgepodge of chatter oozed out from the second door that’s left ajar. Tiptoeing, I pried slightly through the tiny space, attempting to find the source of it.
“Can I help you?” A woman about my age who’s supposedly the receptionist held the door wide open, almost spooking the soul out of me. “Hi..nice to meet you in person and I am..Jeffrey?” I stammered as I gave and almost second-guessed my own name, which didn’t seem to do away with the woman’s qualm. “I’m the pre-dent, here for shadowing”. “You are on time, come on in. I’m Katie, by the way”.
The clock ticked 7:35 am when Katie, who turned out to be the associate dentist Dr. Katie Okamoto, DDS., led me into the hectic atmosphere of the clinic. I learned Katie’s role as the freshly dental graduate from UCLA, thanks to whom as she salvaged my message from the spam folder during her “email chore”. The actual receptionist is only here for 2 days a week, for some reason.
“You are reeally lucky, we rarely check that email, like not even the inbox..Dr. Marie J. urges us to transition to calls only”, says Dr. Katie as she swiftly passed me a spare scrub, “next time try calling, actually forget it, you should just walk right in”. There went the icebreaker, no subsequent “why dentistry” or “why us”, so much for my rehearsal. In mere seconds, we were in front of the conference room.
I was yet to digest the idea of being a receptionist and a dentist, another crash course had already begun. It seemed that Dr. Katie was not the only one to arrive at the clinic on Saturday mornings at 7 sharp, but rather the whole team. Susu and Jose are the hygienists (like nurses but for dentists). Joanne takes care of accounts and instruments at the back office. Everyone was well-equipped with everything dental and all of them gave me a nod followed by a slight squint, a pretty standard way of greeting with masks on.
The one who did not recognize my existence was laying out the “blueprint”, or the presentation of the patient schedule; that was Dr. Marie J. I glanced at Dr. Katie, who was frantically jotting down every word that the presenter enunciates:
- J. Kims: 20-year-old customers whose teenage daughter will come in for her wisdom teeth removal. Susu/Jose should have the X-rays (bitewing) ready. Katie will be responsible for the cleaning. Category: family
- T. Ramirez: recently divorced, must avoid talking about anything familial. Gift card. Referral to Arcadia Endodontics. will be needed if the root canal worsens. Category: endo/specialist referral
- G. Scott: in his sixties and may be in need of prosthetic care. Very staunch conservative and Trumpster. He likes Joanne so let her handle the reception. Has yet to pay his dues from the last procedure, bring it up. Not too explicit though. Category: prostho/specialist referral
- *We are out of network for 2022, make sure to inform patients of this info.
“That’ll be all”. The meeting lasted five minutes maximum, with everyone in the perfectly laid-out pecking order dispersed to their station with the alpha’s single gesture. When exiting the conference room, Marie J. seemed to notice a new face, “Welcome Jeff. You will be at the back office for today. Get the instruments running. Capish?” I was impressed that she remembered my name, though the bigger problem was I did not capish a thing. The briefing was overwhelming, to say the least, not to mention my lack of knowledge regarding the back office’s whereabouts. Also, why do people still come to Marie J. for their molars and incisors and cavities regardless of the “We’re out of all insurance network for the 2022 fiscal year” printed in bold font? I cared to find out.
This is the sixth week after I voluntarily replaced my extra hours of sleep on Saturday mornings to play the minion role here at Marie J., DMD. The whole thing commenced and continued since the day I walked in, out of curiosity and necessity, and I was beyond grateful (and still am) when Marie J. implicitly offered me this unpaid internship-ish position called shadower when she gestured me to the back office, which I now understand as in carrying out irksome procedures for hours. This is a learning process that Dr. Katie unadornedly calls “slave labor”.
You put on scrub and gown, head to the back office aka the snack/washroom, and finish off whatever Joanne left off, usually data entries. This will take about 30 minutes, after which plates after plates of used, overpriced dental equipment will flood into and accumulate beside the sink, all or some stained with patients’ blood, used crown, and sometimes scraps of dentures. Dump everything into the Biosonic so that people’s gum tissue leftovers will be washed off after 15 minutes. The wait time does not entail a break, but rather more petty work on the computer: “email chore”. Bagging and plating are not as fun as they would sound, since a mixup of color would mean a delay in the sterilizing procedure, and even the slightest delay could affect patients’ satisfactory rating. Guess who would be blamed if this happens?
The “beep” signifies the end of a sterilization cycle. I carefully fumble the Tuttnauer sterilizer’s interior with a pair of s-size surgical gloves as my sole protection from Tetanus. Getting the burning hot handpieces out of the machine at the right time is the foremost step, now I have half a minute to plate them before Marie J. comes back for them, though she is more like the head chef while I’m the dishwasher. This is apparently what dental school will be about half the time according to Marie J., it’s a bit dreadful to think this will be half of the destiny of my youth.
The creased Saturday schedule is partially affixed on the cabinet. I glimpsed to have noted down the following: Prophy (short for prophylaxis), teeth whitening, and regular. Dr. Katie lectured me a whole lot about color-coding on my first day, which I shouldn’t have mindlessly dismissed. Now it’s haunting me more than ever. Despite our gap in the hierarchy, Dr. Katie and I quickly formed an alliance at the back office. I would bother her about what dental school is like and she would retort with the bluntest and most honest answer possible.
“You thinking about the Airforce scholarship? Put Army as a backup bc they are too competitive.”
“You learn about 30% of dentistry in dental school, maybe 25%.”
“You should do the Sweden exchange thing, enjoy while you can until high school 2.0 hits at UCLA Dentistry. No, sorry, you won’t get to pick your classes”
“See these goggles? Their fancy little name is Lumadent and they cost me 6 grand. How often do I use them? Never”.
“Your patient won’t care if you went to Harvard, FYI”
From our minutes of praters, I also learned about Katie’s pilgrimage, starting from a puny pre-dental shadower as I do now at Marie J.’s, getting accepted to the most competitive dental school in the nation. People of our profession are like handpieces but made of human flesh, spearheading into an exorbitant school (basically “Tuttnaur” but for humans) for four years to achieve that piece of paper with Doctor of Dental Medicine written on it. Then the cycle repeats, except we only go in this giant machine once.
I get to finish the round right before Marie J. steps into the back office, draped with her scarlet scrub and floral cap. Her average visits last less than 10 seconds, so she doesn’t have the time to either thank or even nod at me, taking the plate full of high-speed handpieces and a scalpel to head straight back. I count this as a win, for I still remember Marie J.’s interrogative gaze and the utterance of “Why is my Cavitron left in the Biosonic?” followed by “Why is the high-speed not separated from the scalpels?”, those are terrifying memories that still render me in a cold sweat. Marie J. never raises her voice, not even to me, because a simple look from her would suffice. “Good.” A rare compliment? “Get room 2 ready when you can, alright?” Deep down I mourn the much-longed lunch break. Time to figure out what Marie J. means by ready and which room is number 2.
Marie J. has two faces, and I have yet to earn the privilege to see the other directly through my eyes. Perhaps I never will since I am a measly colleague., not a patient.
Her voice in the front office sounds higher a pitch and more variegated. It’s not fabricated and you certainly cannot hear any false pretense of a money-mongering doctor’s attempt to lure the guests into the lair by pretending to be their best friend and devour them. One thing that amazes me is how well she remembers her patients. Name, age, schools they are alumni of, work schedule, possibly their SSNand mother’s maiden names as well. The convos never last longer than the procedures, however. Seriously, no matter how serene the lobby is with Chopin’s compilation playing in the background and how comfy the couch is with these adorable plushies scattered around, who in their right mind would willingly pay a visit to a dental clinic? Being here as a customer means something’s plaguing you, extra expenditure, and worse, a day off goes to waste, hence a complete job within the shortest time makes everyone a winner. Marie J. is an extremist who enforces this principle upon the practice and herself.
Of course, dabbling with instruments and the underbelly of dentistry were not the sole things I acquired during this boot camp. Marie J. might not be the most benevolent leader, but she’s far from a self-interested boss. “She used to be more intense”, Dr. Katie brought me Vietnamese coffee during lunch break. “I’m not saying you are having it easy, but you will get the gist of it. It took me a while too, I tell you what.” I sip on the coffee while a new cycle is running. Is Marie J. really a devil for not treating me as one of her patients? Is Marie J. truly evil for not handholding when I had a near-zero dental experience? Is it fair to judge Marie J. as stonehearted when the sentimental “open-up” moment in cinema doesn’t play out in reality? I am getting closer to these answers.
The same evening she bought me coffee, Dr. Katie resigned. I knew through a text that she will be starting a private practice in San Gabriel. I congratulated her, as I should. The following Saturday, Katie’s scrubs in the shared wardrobe were replaced by Dr. Cathy’s, a third-year student dentist.
It’s yet another Saturday morning. Routinely, I knock on the lobby door, put on my scrub, and head to the back office. Joanne’s seat is vacant, nor do I hear any Susu and Jose’s chatter. For once, the back office isn’t full of filthy handpieces ready to be sterilized and plated. This is my 90th hour at Maria J.’s practice.
“Hi Jeff”. That again almost spooked the living soul out of me.
“Morning! Am I here early?”. “Nah uh, we are not open open today”, Dr. Marie J. gazes at the piece of paper that’s titled “Monday, Feb 28th Schedule” while addressing my question.
“Now, before you go home, have you ever shadowed any specialists?”
“About that, I tried a few months ago but they never..”
“Go pay Dr. Cho’s Pacific Oral Maxillofacial Surgery a visit”, she interjects, “you need to bother the hell out of him, put me down as a reference if you wish”.
“Yeah hahah but I don’t know..” “You didn’t know a thing about general dentistry months ago either”. The first time I see Marie J.’s smile that’s exclusive to customers. “Well, I’m not saying you do now, but trying doesn’t hurt.” She pauses. “But come back if you need a job: it’s nice to have an extra pair of hands on Saturdays. That’s it, Take care now.” Stacking paperwork one after another, Marie J. struggles through the back door.
What a weird Saturday morning, I contemplate while walking home. I guess Marie J. read my very first email after all, or perhaps I was right about her being the omniscient devil. Now I just have to figure out where Dr. Cho’s office lies, although I bet it’s easier to find than room number 2. I try to picture the oral surgeon, will he be yet another “devil”? I don’t think that question matters any longer, for one day I will be the one to usher in the cavity-infested teenagers with a dazzling smile and have my own little minions at my back office. There’s not much charm nor romance in devil’s work, yet every year people like Katie, Cathy, I, and Marie J. opt for this narrow, windy, and sometimes a tad bit suffocating path.
Is it worth it to become the devil? I think only the devil would know.