Death In The Dentist's Chair
Dr. Paige Barrett bit her lower lip nervously and then started in. "That was the first time I'd ever seen him," she said. "That day in the office. I recognize all of our patients, and I'd never seen him before.
"Connie had a new file made up--I could tell because we use these color-coded tabs to distinguish between new patients, regulars, and ones who haven't been back in a couple of years." Then she nodded to emphasize the fact. "He was new."
She took her mug off the desk, fidgeted with it, and looked down into the coffee as if it might hold an answer, but she didn't take a drink.
Dr. Barrett's shoulder-length blond hair curled slightly in at the ends, framing a face that was free of makeup. She wore dark-green slacks, and a matching tie over a charcoal-gray dress shirt. It was a warm day in August and she wasn't wearing a jacket. On her feet were brown penny loafers over white ankle socks, and on her ears, tiny emerald earrings.
She took a breath, recrossed her legs, and continued. "God, he was such a nice man, my age, forty or forty-one, I think." Delicate eyebrows furrowed over her brown eyes for a moment and then she put her coffee cup back on the desk. "This thing is killing me."
She pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of her slacks as tears welled in her eyes. "First I looked at his medical history--I always do that with a new patient. Connie circles and highlights anything that isn't checked no, so I won't miss it. He'd had a broken arm a couple of years before, but nothing else. On the line where it asked for allergies he'd written None.
"He was from Latvia or Lithuania, one of the Baltic States, and he could barely speak any English. His name was Andre Matulis."
Paige smiled bravely. "It was kind of fun in the operatory trying to communicate with him. We used hand signals, pantomime, and with the few English words that he recognized we managed to get out of him that he was having some temperature sensitivity in one of his teeth.
"When I examined him I found a lot of decay in one of his molars, number eighteen. My explorer stuck so deep it almost wouldn't come out. That was it, though. He really looked pretty good otherwise. I had Vi ready a syringe of Novocaine and after the injection he seemed fine, so I went to look in on another patient while I waited for the anesthetic to take effect. I hadn't even washed my hands when Vi yelled from the other room. I was so glad she hadn't screamed.
"When I came back to the operatory, he was breathing rapidly and sweating. He looked so frightened. I could tell he wasn't getting enough oxygen, and when I felt for a pulse there wasn't one. Jesus, that scared the living hell out of me. I knew then that it was anaphylactic shock. I asked Vi if she'd called an ambulance and she said that Connie already had. Then he stopped breathing altogether.
"While I was trying to get a syringe of epinephrine ready he jumped out of the chair. He was in a panic. Luckily, Marcy came in a second later, and between her and Vi they were able to get him to sit back down. But before I could even inject him he grabbed for his chest and passed out. He had a heart attack.
"I gave him the epinephrine anyway, and then we lowered the chair all the way back and I started CPR. Marcy was doing the breathing, but she wasn't able to get any air down his windpipe. We were about to do an emergency tracheotomy when the paramedics finally arrived. They did what they could but I'm pretty sure that he was already dead.
"Ten minutes," she said, and the tears started again. "The fucking hospital's right next door and it took them ten minutes to get here.
"The medical examiner said that the heart attack was brought on by stress, and that's what he listed as the cause of death, secondary to the allergic reaction. The inquest was yesterday. The police had taken the medical history as evidence--it had Mr. Matulis's signature on the bottom, and on that basis I was exonerated. Now I'm just waiting for the malpractice suit.
"He had a family, you know, a wife--I don't know how many kids. He worked at a bottling plant. He was an electrical engineer. He was taking English lessons so he could get on at Boeing. God, I feel like shit."
Paige used the fingers of both hands to pinch the bridge of her nose. More tears came, and she dried them.
"I'm so sorry, Paige," I said. "I wish there was something I could do."
"There is." She looked across the desk at me with red-rimmed eyes. "His whole family had appointments. They hadn't had dental treatment in years. Needless to say, they won't come near my office now-not even to see Marcy or Jeanette, but I have their phone number. Is there any way you could call them up and offer your services? I don't want them to have to go without."
"Sure," I said, as she slid me a folded piece of white paper. "I'd be glad to."
I'd only met Paige Barrett once before that day, even though I'd seen her a thousand times. It had been at least two years before, at a Washington State Dental Society function held at the Sheridan in downtown Seattle. I was late getting there that night, and as a pleasant consequence I found myself seated at a table with three female dentists, Paige Barrett and her two partners, Jeanette Burke and Marcy Miller.
I recognized them all, of course, because our offices are in the same building. In addition to our two general dentistry practices, the Elliott Bay Dental Health Center is home to two orthodontists, an endodontist, two oral surgeons, and a pedodontist.
The scramble for patients, sometimes the very same ones, is the only drawback I've encountered in my five years of working there. Paige and her partners were in the building several years ahead of me, so I still haven't been able to fill up my appointment book every day. But that aside, it's a nice building to be in.
With Marcy and Jeanette on the other side of the table, I spent nearly the entire evening of the Dental Society meeting talking with Paige. At first, our conversation was mostly about work, but after dinner and the program, we ventured into more personal territory. She told me about her divorce several years earlier, that her husband had been a writer and was now living somewhere in Grays Harbor. My family life was considerably better off, and I showed her pictures of my wife, Janet, and my two kids, Cathie, now nine, and Timmy, now seven.
Though we had exchanged greetings in the hallways and in the parking lot many times since then, this was only the second time we'd ever had an extended discussion. I felt awful that it was under these circumstances. I'd had my share of dental emergencies in my five years of practice, but no one had ever died in my chair before. I wanted to do whatever I could for her, and told her as much now.
"Thank you, Steve. This really means a lot to me."
"Don't even mention it. Are you going to be taking some time off?"
She nodded. "My hands shake at just the thought of picking up a syringe. I'll be spending the next couple of weeks down on the coast. Ocean Shores. I have a summer place there."
"That sounds like a good idea," I said, and with that the conversation had come to a close.
Paige Barrett wasn't what you'd call a classical beauty, but she was beautiful nonetheless. The tiny wrinkles around her eyes and mouth couldn't detract from the openness of her face and the brilliance of her smile. She had fine, delicate features, soft golden-blond hair, and a slender, enticing body. I knew she was forty-two, ten years older than I was, but for my money you'd have to go to a college campus to find someone who looked as youthful and radiant as she did. She'd always had a smile for me, and it felt strange now to see her crying.
"Well, I should let you get back to work," she finally said. "I've kept you long enough."
"That's all right. I'm just glad I could help." We both stood up and I walked Paige out to the reception desk. "If you need me to see any of your patients while you're gone . . ."
"Thanks, but Marcy and Jeanette are going to pick up the slack. I should be fine."
"Okay. Don't worry about the Matulis family, though--I'll take good care of them."
"Thank you, Steve," she said again, and I stood there watching her as she left.
I didn't know whether Paige was seeing anyone, but I hoped, for her sake, that she was. It made me sad to think of her alone at the beach for two whole weeks. Janet and I had gone through a rough time a while back, and we had almost divorced. At the time that had seemed like the most painful thing in the world to me. I couldn't even imagine how it must be for Paige, and then for her to have this tragedy happen at work. My heart went out to her.
"Dr. Raymond?" a voice broke in, and I realized that I had been staring at the closed door Paige had gone through. I turned to see Nona, my receptionist, looking back at me over her glasses and holding out a file. "Your next patient is waiting."
I took a deep breath and sighed as Nona handed me the file.
"New patient," she said as I pulled out the medical history, and I felt an irrational knot in my stomach. The name on the file was Cham Tuong. "I don't think he speaks much English."
The knot wasn't going away. I looked over the history and the only thing out of the ordinary was a surgery several years back. Next to the blank for allergies, in a tiny scrawl, was the word None.
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