Julie Cunningham, CUNY Graduate Center's chief librarian, knew the dreaded feeling all too well. It was so paralyzing, she simply stopped going to the dentist for 15 years — and only for emergencies in the 20 years before that.
At 63, her teeth were breaking, her gums were inflamed. No matter how much she brushed, she worried about her breath.
Last year, Cunningham finally got herself into the chair, the gentle chair of Dr. Louis Siegelman, who specializes in dental phobia and dental anesthesia.
"He's changed my life," said Cunningham, who in the last year accomplished the major dental work she had been avoiding for years: A new bridge, a crown, wisdom teeth pulled and a deep cleaning and implants.
"My family was so thrilled I finally went," said Cunningham, who needed sedation the first several visits and is now able to be awake for routine dental work. "He is someone who understood, who appreciated I took the first step to overcome this fear."
Call him the Dr. Phil of fillings.
Siegelman truly feels your pain. Like a warm and wise therapist, he has helped thousands of New Yorkers overcome their fears and restore their health and self-confidence.
"When people call me on the telephone for the first time, I know they are suffering," said Siegelman, sitting in his W. 57th St. office. "It's like they are out there shivering in the cold. It's rewarding to be able to lift their burden."
Siegelman's manner and practice differ profoundly from the brutal dentists most everyone remembers from childhood. (Think "Little Shop of Horrors.")
The first visit, for example, is the hour he spends talking with a patient on the telephone. He listens carefully, asks questions about what has kept them from coming and tries to tame their terror.
Next is an office visit, where he explains the choices a patient has to ease pain and fear — from numbing the treatment area, to an oral medication to relieve anxiety, to general anesthesia where you are put to sleep and feel nothing.
Dr. Louis Siegelman's specialty is people who are terrified of the dentist and need to be sedated to get through a procedure. (Roca/News)
"People feel this sense of shame that this part of their body which is so personal is in a terrible state," said Siegelman. "And the more put-together they are in the rest of their lives, the more of a conflict it is for them.
"They need to know it's safe to come in — and that everyone here in the office understands and they won't be criticized," he added. "I want them to understand their fear is a normal fear, they are not unusual or crazy. We all have this mechanism to want to flee something that frightens us."
The staff — a team of receptionists, dental assistants and a hygienist — have all been trained to work with apprehensive patients.
Even the recorded message a person hears when the office is closed, or when someone is put on hold, is aimed at allaying the angst.
Melissa McEnerney, the hygienist who has worked with Siegelman for 10 years, said she reminds her patients two months before their scheduled appointments, two weeks before, and then again two days before. And still she gets cancellations.
"I know their patterns," said McEnerney. "The sixth time is the charm. If I didn't have the reminders, it would be another 15 to 20 years before I would see them again," she said.
According to the American Dental Association, 30% of Americans do not regularly go to a dentist. While many people cite cost as the reason, a third of Americans who have dental insurance don't go, sometimes for years.
"One-third to one-half of people have a fear of going to the dentist, but they get there," said Dr. Mark Wolff, professor and chairman of the NYU College of Dentistry. "For about 10% of the people, the fear is so bad they don't go for years."
Wolff said the profession needs more dentists like Siegelman, who combine certified skill in dental anesthesia with an excellent chairside manner.
"There are very few dentists whose practice is devoted to these patients," he said. "It's a very real and needed service. He doesn't just put people in a chair and knock them out. He treats their anxieties as well."
As in Cunningham's case, dental phobias are often rooted in bad experiences as a child. Siegelman says there is often some kind of trauma or abuse, something that may not even be related to dentistry. He once had a former prisoner or war who flew out of the chair as soon as he heard a loud noise from the street outside.
Others are upset by the high-pitched sound of the drill, or feel they can't breathe when the dentist has his hands and equipment in their mouths. One patient, who also suffered from a fear of claustrophobia, needed three staffers to walk her up the eight flights of stairs to his office.
Jennifer Rosenblum, 34, said she can't remember not being petrified of going to the dentist. Before Siegelman, she had never had a teeth cleaning in her life. Not in New York or in France, from where she moved five years ago.
"Unfortunately I waited until the pain felt like my head was going to explode," said the advertising designer. "It's so strange that when it comes to the dentist I completely transform myself from a mature woman to a little girl."
A few weeks ago, she had a root canal and crown done under sedation. "In three hours I was out. It was perfect. I hope I won't wait so long the next time. I'm so happy to have met him.
"I'm facing my fears because I couldn't end the pain myself," she added. "If I could, I would never go to the dentist."
Caroline Hightower, a Manhattan consultant, is glad she found Siegelman after lousy experiences with dentists.
On a recent visit, she reclined calmly in his chair for nearly an hour as he worked on her implants.
"He is gentle and efficient," said Hightower. "I've come to truly like him, which is very strange to feel about a dentist."
The son of parents who worked in the Garment District, Siegelman grew up in Bayside, Queens, the youngest of three children. His sunny and sensitive disposition were on display early in life, according to his 89-year-old mom, Elaine, who still lives in Queens.
"The dentist is the last place you want to go," said Elaine Siegelman. She knows about making people comfortable at the dentist; she recently retired from the front office of another dentist after 20 years there.
Asked why he chose this work, given the amount of patience and energy needed to help people in emotional distress, Siegelman smilingly made his own admission. "I have analyzed that in myself," he said. "I like to be needed."
YOU SHOULD KNOW
Here are three things you can do to ease your dental anxiety — and recognize when it's a problem.
- If just thinking of going to the dentist makes your heart pound, causes sleepless nights or intrusive thoughts, or you go only when you have an emergency, be open and honest with yourself and the dentist about your fears and your past experiences.
- Do your homework when looking for a competent and caring dentist. Ask about his or her training, how many years of experience, the number of cases performed with anesthesia, and the training and readiness of the support team.
- Home care is crucial for keeping your teeth and mouth healthy. Avoiding acidic and sugary beverages and foods, as well as foods that stick to your teeth. Brush and floss daily.
The longer you put off going to the dentist, the worse the decay and chances of more serious health problems.