• Dental Phobia Support

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Have A Seat In The Big Chair Dental Phobia



Junior member
Dec 18, 2023
HIllsboro Oregon USA

Kathleen A. Baker EFDA

[email protected]



Spoken with Positivity, Humor, Honesty, Intuition

and over 36 years of experience by sitting Chairside.

X ray Certified 1979 - On the job trained!

EFDA Certified 1985 - Retired 2016..what a ride.


It's not a typical decision in ones life to pick a career in Dentistry.

I had no idea what would lie ahead of me for the schooling or the practical

training it would take. After wasting time and money on going to our local

Community College right after high school, it just didn't work the first time

out, so I was faced with finding a job.

Did the odd jobs and one day I woke up feeling pretty good. Was slated

to meet up with some friends for dinner and just relax and enjoy.

It was at that dinner that my best friend asked me, "Have you ever

considered Dental Assisting?" "Well NO!" I didn't see that coming.

My biggest fear and phobia the world. I'm not working for a dentist, no

way no how. But something happened instead. It rang true to me in a

way that seemed like the right thing to do. Go back to school!

So I registered at Umpqua Community College (again) and took Dental

Radiology State Certification for Oregon. Yep, Go big or go Home.

It's the certification in something that taught me more than suctioning

saliva, mixing materials and taking dental xrays.

It taught me a little bit about life in general, managing time, touching

someone's teeth. It took time to get use to the idea, starting with taking

dental x rays was the start of something that I didn't see coming as a

career path. I stayed on this path throughout most of my adult life. Looking

back on where it really started and how I overcame my own worse

nightmare. Jumping in with both feet and learned skills that kept me in my

creative self, only adding that the benefit of learning perfection was

tossed in for fun.

Some might call it Fate. In my case it's when I started to get cavities.

Young and loving candy and not being taught dental care at home.

I knew to brush my teeth but rarely floss.

Both my parents had full set of dentures at an early age in their lives so it wasn't

thought about much or seemed important enough. I watched them clean their teeth

in their hands and popped them in and get on with their day. Nothing unusual there

for me as a kid to watch. Funny looking tooth brush and all.

So going too the Dentist was a total nightmare for me, trauma and

phobic of a different sort.

Anxiety that I didn't understand but felt sickened by. Lot's of stress producing


The only thing I felt safe with was coolness of the spit bowl. Cold water swirling

around creating a time out, so I'd hang out there as long as I could till I had to

sit still and behave.

This is the telling of a story, a journey that was full of surprises, bad teeth, dental

trauma that didn't get resolved until I became a Dental Assistant. Again, a path I

never would have taken but somehow I stuck to it and it led me through all my

life's joys and sorrows.

I found skills that I never knew I had and was naturally capable of doing.

A job of distractions, acts of kindness and gentle understanding for the children

that needed to sit in the big chair. Little kids like me back in the day. We shared

one thing in common, the fear of Dentistry.

It takes a certain kind of knack, that light that comes from within and have

it connect to those little souls that just needed to be helped. Getting treatment

done was the end result. Taking the fear of the staff, the smells of the office,

the sound of the drill, let alone the taste of the topical gel. To get past that

phobia, well, there's a lot of Show and Tell.

I was able to calm children's fears and work things out in their world in

order just to have treatment. Children who were like I was, crying, nausea,

phobic of needles. I'm thinking that there were so many out there that

I could relate to, and somehow knew what to say and have them understand.

This is where my intuition stepped in and helped me to help care for them


Many, many pictures of teeth drawn in red or blue pencil to animate and

teach kids what's going on with their tooth. Taking the mystery out of it

so they can visualize what might make sense and try to help be still.

The action of the drill is discussed and then the foot peddle gets tested.

Grinding is actually "cleaning" the problem and fixing the issue.

Getting the trust of a child that's put in a vulnerable position to relax

and trust us and hope for a good result. Lots of prayer and hope.

It's "Please God, may this go good and get this cavity fixed". For everything is

at the ready and the other assistant loading the amalgam capsules.

Lots of Show & Tell made it less scary and focused them on being helpful and

maybe getting us all through the appointment.

If those kiddo's got a tooth pulled, they got to see it get cleaned with hydrogen

peroxide in a paper cup and visually see it in the bubbles. I'd get it ready for the

Tooth Fairy and then they'd be thinking more about the good helper box and

potential money under the pillow that night.

It's just a part of being on their level and they in turn tolerate the visit, and being

rewarded with a really cool toy from the treasure box.

They'd proudly walk out with folded gauze to bite on, a good helper surprise

and baby tooth ready to donate to the tooth fairy. Wondering how much money

she thought it was worth.

It was like calming my own trauma as a child for those little ones that don't

understand. Call it all in a days work, but actually, healing my own phobia, making

it a non issue for them and being proud of the children who got through it.

For thirty six years I did this. My Boss's would let me do my best skill

at chairside. Calm the patients fears. Children and Adults alike. It's common

to see the childhood trauma come back to haunt us as adults. Reliving it again.

I spent a lot of time in a career that's known for fear and negativity. The noise of the

drills, the smell of pulverized tooth dust wafting through the air. Dentistry makes

us all use many of our senses and some are worse than others. Forever locked

in that trauma vault that sit's in the back of our brain. Seeing ourselves as children

again in there eyes and learning from them how to cope with this type of trauma.

My story comes from the years of "being the patient" to working with a

Dentist and then taking someone through the day and life of a

chairside assistant, turning the Phobia frown upside down.

What I did for a living helped so many people get through anxiety driven

trauma, sweaty hands, and possible nausea. It's all very real, very cautious

moments in a vulnerable position, stress level on high alert.

As a child, I suffered from multiple head traumas. From common bumps to the head,

sliding off a car and splitting my head open on the a hitch on a car to doing

face plants on the inside of windshields. So when it came to me seeing a dentist as

a little kid, I had to walk too his office on my own. How convenient that

I lived around the corner from my dentist. I call that one hundred yards,

The walk of dread. I knew what to expect, the smells, the sounds, the noise

of the drill. The Dentists fingers in my mouth touching my teeth, feeling the

explorer test for cavities. Yep, there was a few to find in there.

I had plenty of reasons to be fearful of needles and I didn't like certain smells.

So why did I choose chairside assisting?

It was something I didn't expect to be interested in. If I think about it,

it might have just chosen me. Getting past the fear of being vulnerable, getting an

injection and laying in the big chair with my mouth wide open.

As a little kid, it's not a positive thing to go through.

Fearful of needles beyond compare. In the 60's, who ever heard of

I.V. Sedation for dental phobic children. Not where I was from that's for sure. I

was that little patient that when they saw I was on the schedule, there might

have been a huddle and an eyeroll from the staff. At least a brief conversation

I'm sure, I can imagine now what the staff went through.

Cherry flavor topical, didn't fool me much, I knew there was a needle coming and the

sting of the cold anesthetic.. this phobics little nightmare.

My first boss I worked for was someone special. I didn't understand about I.V.

Sedation until I went to work for him.

How lucky was I to have my first job as a chairside assistant to learn about and sit

next to hundreds of people under sedation. Learning on the job and taking courses

about I.V. Sedation, be up close and personal about mentally taking a break

to have dental treatment. Go to sleep and let the process begin.

A dental trauma's best friend is sedation. I was the patient for half day of treatment

plans under I.V. sedation, and guess what, I didn't miss the next days work.

Thank you Dr. Novick.

He taught me the skills that got me as far as I did and then some. It was the

creativity of doing the lab work and creating functioning temporary crown and


The purpose of writing this story is to help ease and explain the anxieties that

inhabits this profession. To point out that there's a bit of humor, and a

whole lot of reasons why we grew to like the Big Chair.

There's the ability to change someone's smile, to watch a patient view their new

filling, Crown or bridge, a new set of dentures or partials that replaces broken and

missing teeth. To go from a traumatic situation to a completed remodel of someone's

mouth is fulfilling not just to the patient but to the entire staff.

There's a twinkle of magic in those moments. If the shape and shade is right, it's a win.

Rewards received through "Smiles". Looking at themselves and hearing them love

how they look. That was my feel good moment as well. It takes a team effort but

the reward is big. It's a lot of time spent in the Big Chair and happy with the results.

So come with me on a typical day and life of a patient and chairside assistant.

It's not what you think and yet relatable. Sitting in the Big Chair isn't as scary

as it seems but a place to sit and be taken care of.

The dentist and the staff will get you through it all.


The phone rings and on the screen says its "The Dentist Office". Your brain tells your

stomach to start churning and your blood pressure goes up. You can feel your pulse

in your throat and your feeling a little clammy from the top of your head to your


You say to yourself to suck it up and push the button to answer, it's just a phone call.

Yep, that's all there is to it. "Hello", "Hi there how are you", "it's that time again?"

Like you buried that experience so far back in your mind that absolutely nobody

would ever find it, "what time of day?", "sure I'll be there".

Do you think they could tell that you had a lump in your throat and that you really

needed to hang up and grab a cold rag for your face and begin to breath again?

Little does one think that it's not just that their helping you to keep teeth healthy, but

they are filling the schedule and keeping the office running like a well oiled machine.

Pretty simple strategy. Of course they never intended to create a mild panic attack,

but it happens none the less.

Anything dental related, It's a true phobia, dental nightmares waiting to happen for

some folks. I don't care how much you love your dentist and the staff. It's being in

a vulnerable position.

Your subjecting, I mean voluntarily setting up the appointment that only takes an

hour but it's the "what will happen. What will the x rays show, what will the explorer

touch on when the dentist investigates the mouth."

Haven't flossed in weeks or months. Do you think they'll notice? Naww..you just

think " I'll just brush and floss the night before and none the wiser". RIGHT!

Behind the mask is a dental assistant, Hygienist or Dentist with a straight face and

listening to everything your saying.

Trust me when I say that as soon as you opened up your mouth for the x rays,

there was a dead give away.

Red gums, lacerated tissue from the frantic flossing that went on and tenderness

that will be noticed when the hygienist goes to scale and clean.

Blood everywhere...lots of rinsing and suctioning. The taste of salt and just then

you realize that you are so BUSTED!

Over the years I've seen a lot of patients, Good hard working folks that have busy

lives. No time for the morning flossing and definitely not taking the time for the

evening flossing.

It's not a habit or routine that we mean to ignore but it's not something that we

consider as crucial and mandatory.

There's no test to take and nobody is standing over our shoulder, it's a choice.

After the time spent in the dental chair just brings it a little closer to home that

flossing and brushing everyday is a positive thing to do, that maybe spending

more than 35 seconds brushing isn't enough. It's pretty simple process to do

at home, it's a priority to have your teeth and gums your entire life.

That's the goal anyway. Not every bodies goal but if a good steak and lobster

is in the future, hang on to your natural teeth and gums. Much better experience

and flavor with eating delicious meals.


It's the day before your appointment, your at work or at home, and absolutely no

time during the day have you given your appointment much thought.

The phone rings, it says The Dentist Office, and you punch that button like your

fearless and in charge. "Hello", they say that they are reminding you of your

appointment for tomorrow and they'll be looking forward to seeing you.

Your mind just cramps up and you say, "I remember, I'll see you then thanks

for calling". Did you really think that they were calling to change or cancel

your appointment?

Silly thinking... It's universal to feel some level of anxiety.

No worries, you'll be there. Nervous enough to use the bathroom

before you get called into the clinic. That's right, probably shouldn't have

drank so much coffee before the appointment.


Well, you made it to the dental office and walking towards the front door and as you

walk in the office, that mental image blows through your mind and you suddenly

get the chills.

The smells of clinic and the coolness of the air conditioning in the waiting area

hits you.

You made it this far, now go to the window and check in. That phobic feeling

kind of shows up and starts upsetting your stomach and your brain just gets ready

for whatever the future holds for your teeth.

The "Unknown Cavity" lives on x rays and it's time for a Full Set of films. Toss in the

Panoramic that shows the anatomy of your mouth. There's the show and tell part

on film.

Even as adults, we still appreciate the visual of all the different shades of gray.

Lets get started shall we?

The door to the clinic opens and your name is called. The Assistant in their scrubs

or paper gowns greet you.

She's so pleasant and kind. You're feeling a little clammy, might need to use

the restroom.

Asking how your day is going and how you've been doing. Directing you to the xray

chair and all the while trying to distract you with idle chit chat and throwing in

questions like, "do you have any teeth bothering you today?"

All of a sudden you think and say, "not really". "Well maybe". "Ya know I have this one

area that hurts from time to time". She say's "for how long" and you blurt out, " about

a month!"

It's a little shock and awe but it's pretty common to hear all sorts of stories and so

again, that's normal to feel a little embarrassed that you didn't call sooner.

That assistant tells you that your in the right place and we'll get to the bottom of it

when Dr. does the exam.

You feel a little foolish but yet at ease cause your there and now reality will be

what it will be.


Well, God in all his wisdom and mankind having evolved from the caveman, we as

humans have mouths that are shaped a certain way and that we are all different,

and let's just say "unique".

We get 20 teeth as children and once we spit all those out, most of us are left

with 28 - 32. Just like our caveman relatives, only not as big as theirs were.

Our facial structures are more refined, smaller in size and let's say complicated.

If it isn't hard enough for the patient to tolerate, let's talk about GAGGING ISSUES.

Yep, just come close to a gagger with an x ray and it's all over. No body likes

the gaggy face or the stomach heaves rejecting the process.

It's the stomach making the decision to leave lunch where it is or whether it's

coming back up. There's a little more anxiety for the day.

Tricks of the trade. Numbing agents such as Topical gel under the tongue a few

seconds prior to starting and then move out of the way cause it's going to be

a sprint to get it all done.

Believe it or not, SALT on the tongue. Yep, about a half a teaspoon is plenty and

if that's not enough, just hand the phobic the salt shaker and let them be in

charge of that. A distraction. Now the phobic has a task. Having control

with the salt shaker means a lot. Tricking the brain to think about the salt and

anticipating what's going on under your tongue and the back of the throat

where the fear and anxiety hangout with the gaggy face button.


Oh the dreaded chair. I can't even begin to tell you how many times I've heard the

question, "have you seen the movie Marathon Man and is it safe?"

I'm glad to say that nobody I ever helped work on ever had that experience in

this modern day dental drama.

I've had the priviledge to have worked with some of the kindest and gentlest dentist

and glad to say, I never witnessed "is it safe", it's usually, "is this almost over?" or

"wow, that wasn't as bad as I thought it would be."

It's a collective effort with everyone in the office.

Little breaks, give the patient a rest, talk it through quickly, read the body

language. Intuition showing up in kindness, asking if their doing ok.

Answering questions and giving them another potty break.

Get back on track and complete the procedure. It's not as simple as all that but in a

perfect world, it should always go that way.

Compassion, always a tool in the chair sides tool kit. Explanation and education on

a level that the patient understands the information.

Using intuition as a chairside skill that worked for so many phobics. Even though

"I know how you feel" wasn't mentioned out loud, but making it a positive experience

was my goal. I really did know how they felt and sensitive enough to understand.

I had their backs, I knew what dental phobia was and I gave them all special

attention and listened. I'd put a mirror in the hands of those who needed

to visually experience the process and talk it out. Held the hands of those who

needed human contact.

Amazing results of just reassuring and extinquishing the fears and trauma of all the

nervous Nelly's in this world doubting if they can make it through the appointment.

Turning it from true anxiety to a controlled non-issue appointment. Emotionally healing

them from dental phobia to someone who's glad to be in the Big chair to rest and

let us do our thing.

Subtle Humor in the dental workplace should always be required for any and all staff

and patients alike. Turning some ones dental nightmare into a somewhat non issue

dental experience is all we can hope to attain in the chair in the time scheduled.

What happens in the chair, stays in the chair. All the stories of lives that were in

crisis or just getting through their everyday life. Tending to the stress's for five minutes

or for as long as it takes to get numb. I listened to all of them. Gained my own

confidence and self worth while putting those with phobia at ease.


Being a Dental Chairside Assistant has it's perks. It's been the education from the

patients that made my career so much more enjoyable. The private conversations

with so many people from many communities. It was different every day

and it was always interesting.

But "getting to know you", the public was one of my best rewards. Common bonds made

in the time allowed. And yes it's the name of a song sung by Julie Andrews

in the King and I, but I'm not talking about singing a song to patients to calm

their fears or entertain them, even though it was known to happen on occasion.

But getting to know a total stranger in a way that warrants trust, compassion,

sympathy, hand holding, reading body language and most of all, listening.

Listening to what their story is. Finding relatable conversation and points of

interest to talk about and share the time. Laughing with folks in the chair and having

them be ok and easily distracted from the matters at hand.

Getting to know patients who just getting off work at a lumber mill covered in sawdust,

to the corporate executive that has more on their mind than a dental cleaning.

Call it a dental phobia distraction, but chatting it up and laughing about something

while in the chair is a really good thing. Dentistry and Humor find it's place in the

Big Chair more often than you'd think. It's those moments in this career path

that kept me in it for so many years. That was part of my Joy in life.


Well that certain shade of gray on that x ray tells the story as to why patients have

tenderness and pain. It usually doesn't lie about such things but conservatively

speaking there is usually a reason why teeth bug us.

Normally we go about our day without a care in the world about our teeth.

They chew food fine and there's cause for alarm, but one day you wake up and

notice that "somethings rotten in Den-Mark", did it just happened overnight?

What the heck happened?

Children suffer the worse cause there's no understanding it at a young age.

Kids haven't lived long enough to comprehend the problem. Making it about

"Creative learning" about tooth anatomy 101. To an inquisitive youngster it's a

positive thing and they're more likely to go along with treatment.

Not always the case, cause I always had a referral slip close by.


Ask about body aches and pains. If they have a bad neck, I'd have a heated

bean bag or heated towel for their necks. A blanket for their legs and feet.

Warmth calms the brain and the anxieties get treated with consideration and

feeling pampered. Phobics are so appreciative for those little things.

Acts of kindness.. Seeing to their fears. Keeping ones mouth open for an

extended period of time creates soreness in the jaw muscles, a temporal

massage was done every so often. Yes, a face massage.

Children in the dental chair are so willing to learn about what's about to happen.

Show and Tell before anything. That's always rule number one.

As a phobic dental patient as a child, nobody took the time to explain.

They don't have the spit bowls to cling to and wait it out. The "hook" saliva ejector

made of metal with a little pink pad on the end of it to protect under the tongue.

Children are fairly easy to comply with treatment as they get older, but then there are

those who are like I was as a child, a "meltdown waiting to happen", well that's

where the oral sedation, I.V. Sedation and Nitrous Oxide should be pulled

out of the tool box. Sometimes explaining the procedure confirms in a

phobics mind that finding a way to get past it and not remember isn't so bad

after all.

The sense of gratitude that the patient feels happy with a beautiful smile to

show the world.

Taking the nervous tension that walks in with the phobic and making it

a no big deal kind of visit. Nothing gets dentally better than that.


Some really great Boss's that taught me skills in being a Chairside Assistant,

a lab technician, and a Receptionist. Thanks guys.

May they Rest in Peace.

Dr. Clifford Heins, Sutherlin OR....1960s, Childhood Dentist that saw me at my worse.

Dr. Aaron Novick, Roseburg OR.....1970s, First Boss of my career. Taught me the skills

of chairside and lab duties, and started the healing of my Dento-phobia

with I.V. Sedation.

Dr. William Taylor, Beaverton OR....1980s, First Boss that was like family. He was

genuine and kind. I found humor and joy while working for him.

Dr. John McLoughlin, Hillsboro OR....1990s, Not the right Boss for me, but learned

how to use my skills and move on.

Thanks for the journey and the healing. I'm forever greatful.
Have A Seat In The Big Chair, deals with a deep seated phobia and anxiety as a child and not getting
healed till I became a dental assistant. Before I ever gave my intuition much thought or listened to what it was looking for. I finally figured it out when I was 19. Then looking for a real job with benefits and training. Found it in Dentistry of all places to land.
I can't say enough about finally finding a place for my success story to be told in a positive light.
Learning that a little bit of self gratitude isn't considered vain or ego, but a survival of a phenomenon called Dentophobia. I can only hope that Have A Seat In The Big Chair spreads a little light, humor, and compassion that is always from within.