Risking My Life to Take Care of My Health

How I barely survived 4 trips to the dentist and 3 trips to the optometrist in the time of COVID

Even in normal times, I hate going to the doctor. When mine asks why I’m so nervous, I remind him that if I am going to hear terrible medical news, I will most likely be sitting in a doctor’s office. The odds are that sooner or later, one of my routine check-ups is going to end badly.

Giving up the crown

I got a notice from my dentist a few weeks ago that he was retiring. I was pretty sure COVID made it happen sooner than he would have liked. For the 10 years I had gone to him, I felt comfortable like he was a familiar old shoe. Whenever he asked, “How are you?” I’d reply, “How do you think I am? I’m at the dentist.”

I decided to wait to find a new one when hopefully everything settled back to normal. That plan worked until my husband Saul made his famous homemade caramels.

“Be careful chewing this batch,” he warned. “They’re pretty hard.”

“I’m not 90,” I replied as I chomped into one.

Wow, I thought to myself. These really are hard. Some parts of this caramel feel like pieces of teeth.

A moment later I was staring down at a crown of my tooth in the palm of my hand.

The search for a new dentist moved to the top of the list.

The dentist — trip #1

I nervously waited in a parking lot as a woman in scrubs and mask walked out and handed me a clipboard with forms. After filling them out in my hot car, I called her and she told me to come into the waiting room. Before I could say “hello” the receptionist zapped me in the forehead with a device. Depending on which articles you read on Facebook, she was either taking my temperature or inserting a tracking chip into my brain. Then I had to fill out yet another form promising I didn’t have COVID. Finally, a woman looking like one of those guys in the hazmat suits from E.T. escorted me to the exam room.

“You can pull your mask down,” she said as I settled into my chair.


“We can’t look at your teeth unless you pull down your mask.”

I tried to argue with her logic but couldn’t. I slowly pulled down my mask for the first time in four months for anyone but my husband. I felt like a virgin on my honeymoon.

A dentist wearing a huge mask and large plastic visor came in and put in a temporary crown until my permanent one was ready. I told her if I ran into her on the street or at a dinner party I would have no idea who she was even though she had spent the last hour with her fingers in my mouth.  

The optometrist — trip #1

For the second time in two months, my glasses broke and had to be superglued together. Glasses are important in the time of COVD. They are part the part of you that people see the most on Zoom.

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When I walked in the front door of the glasses store for my eye exam, I quickly discovered this place was nothing like the dentist office. There were several people looking at glasses and one customer running around with her mask around her neck loudly talking and spewing COVID everywhere — at least in my mind.

I had made a pact at the beginning of all this if I didn’t feel safe somewhere I needed to get out of the situation. I yelled as nicely as I could to the front desk that I had made an appointment but didn’t feel safe and was going to leave. I ran next door to the grocery store and bought a new tube of superglue before heading home.

Serenity interrupted

Certainly the universe would take good care of me for taking good care of myself. Right? Isn’t that how that works?

The universe was on my mind on Saturday, July 4th, when Saul and I scheduled a meditation Zoom session with a friend. As we were about to start, I felt something stuck in my teeth and grabbed a piece of floss.

“Be careful,” Saul warned.

“I’m not a child,” I responded.

A moment later, my temporary crown was sitting in the palm of my hand. I had a raw exposed nerve. It was a holiday and it was Saturday — no dentist until Monday. I canceled the meditation. I was in no mood for Zen.  

Saul ran to the drugstore to get adhesive to stick the crown back on. We bickered over the correct way to glue it. We were lousy at repairing our broken dining room chair so how were we supposed to figure this out?

By the end of the afternoon, I definitely didn’t feel like a child. There’s noting like staring at a tube of Polident on your counter to make you feel very mature.  

The dentist — trip #2

Temperature check and/or tracking device inserted — form filled out saying I didn’t have COVID.

As the hygienist peered into the back of my mouth, she told me a story about her son’s wife’s friend coming to her house for 4th of July and drunkenly diving into their pool and breaking her tooth. I think it was supposed to be an ironic story since she is a hygienist, but all I could think about was that this woman who was mere inches from my respiratory tract was having drunken and most likely maskless strangers at her house all weekend. I tried to not breathe until she was done.

The dentist — trip #3

Between stories of the drunken COVID carriers she associated with, the hygienist somehow convinced me to come back a week later for a cleaning because it had been six months and an entire lifetime since my old-shoe dentist had done one.

Temperature check and/or tracking device inserted — form filled out …Wait…I do have a little bit of a sore throat — I’m sure it’s nothing but I don’t want to get the whole office sick. I quietly checked “yes” and handed the form back to the receptionist.

WE HAVE A YES! she screamed. WE HAVE A YES UP HERE!! Someone…either a hygienist or FBI agent…came running out in full protective gear and asked me all kinds of questions, trying to get me to break down and admit I was a virus carrier. Finally, they reluctantly allowed me to have my teeth cleaned.

As we finished the appointment, the hygienist complimented me for still having one of my wisdom teeth. It made me feel slightly old, but I’ll take what compliments I can get.

The dentist — trip #4

The next day, I was back at the dentist with my last remaining wisdom tooth in a plastic baggy. Earlier that morning, I had been absentmindedly chewing on the plastic cap for a dental floss soft pic of all things when I suddenly felt something hard in my mouth.

Temperature check and/or tracking device inserted — form filled out, saying I didn’t have COVID. My throat was still a tiny bit scratchy, but I didn’t see the point in re-convincing the same interrogator that it was just allergies.

“I don’t understand how this happened,” I mumbled to the dentist as she filed down my jagged tooth. “Could this have to do with you guys cleaning my teeth yesterday?”

“NO!” the dentist said emphatically. “IT IS PURE COINCIDENCE.”

I wanted to explain that I didn’t care if the cleaning did cause it. I didn’t want to sue. I just didn’t want to feel like my teeth were all randomly falling out.  I wanted to stop feeling like everything in my life was totally out of my control. I’ve had enough of that feeling in 2020.

The optometrist — trip #2

The receptionist had called me repeatedly during the last week. “I talked to my manager and you can come in early before anyone else is around for your eye exam. We will make sure everything is clean and sterilized.”

That last part didn’t feel like something special they should do just for me, but I’m a nice guy and decided to give them a second chance with my life.

This time when I walked in the front door of the empty store, a young clerk in a mask immediately took my temperature. I had a good feeling about this visit.

I went up to the desk to check in. “Um…I’m sorry sir. Your appointment isn’t until tomorrow.”

The optometrist — trip #3

Temperature taken again. If I am being microchipped, I feel sorry for whoever is tracking me. All I do is go back and forth between my home office and kitchen several times a day. On the bright side, I have learned my body temperature is, without fail, a consistent 97.1.

The staff was nice and followed me around spraying everything in my path with disinfectant. I could tell they had written something like DIFFICULT or HYSTERICAL in my chart but I didn’t really mind.

And I was at least allowed to keep my mask on during the exam. But as the doctor peered into my eyes from a mere six inches away, it felt odd. Five months ago, I would have worried about my breath. Now I worried one of us was getting the other sick.

I can’t see anything but a blur without my glasses, so trying on frames is already a challenge. That process was now compounded by having to do it with the lower half of my face covered in cloth. I ran outside in the parking lot to take pictures of myself without a mask wearing several options for Saul to weigh in at home.

Later, when I was trying to decide between two pairs — I did something madcap and stood very far away from the two clerks who were helping me and pulled down my mask and held my breath, so they could see how I looked in them as a normal person.

By the time I got home, I was exhausted. It hadn’t been physically hard, but after two weeks of navigating the new world with its new rules and new calculated risks, I was emotionally exhausted.

“Why don’t you just relax?” Saul said. “I will make you some nice soft food.”

I almost protested that I wasn’t a child and I wasn’t an old man, but then decided maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea.

About the Author: Keith Hoffman lives with his husband Saul and is finishing up a memoir. He has an appointment with a skin doctor next month. He is hoping his mask wearing has protected his fair-skinned Irish nose from precancerous growths.

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Keith Hoffman lives with his artist husband, dog and two cats in the small town Lambertville, New Jersey 72 miles outside of New York City. He has completed a memoir entitled The Summer My Sister Grew Sideburns.

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