Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Happy Ending to Dental Hell

At a recent 4th of July picnic, someone offered me an ear of corn. I hesitated, then remembered that I could now enjoy this treat I had not eaten in years.

I have spent a lifetime in a succession of dental chairs, getting multiple fillings, crowns, root canals and extractions.  Despite the fact that I brush and floss faithfully several times a day, despite the fact that my gums are healthy, I inherited a dental condition from my father that involves unusually thin enamel on my teeth, making them more vulnerable than most to decay.  My sister Tai inherited the same condition and has been even more unfortunate than I: she had full dentures before she was 50.

My tooth loss started to accelerate around 2007, leaving embarrassing gaps.  During one of my last extractions, the oral surgeon suggested that I get two implants to replace the teeth that I was losing, explaining that it was much easier to put an implant in during an extraction.  "How much would it cost?" I asked.  He looked annoyed. "Oh, it would be about $10,000 for the two implants," he said casually, as if that amount were minimal. I shook my head. "I can't afford that," I said as he scowled back at me. "Just pull the teeth."

I knew insurance didn't cover implants. I knew I had to have them.  I started saving money, dreaming of the day I could replace those missing teeth.

In the meantime, there were some embarrassing moments.

I learned to tame my wide smile to a minimal grin.  I stopped throwing back my head to laugh.

But there were times when the tooth loss was painfully evident.

In late 2007, I had a series of screen tests for the MTV show "Sex and Your Parents" featuring a psychotherapist helping teens and their parents talk about sex. It had been a hit in England and the American version had been under development for some time. I was under consideration for the role of the psychotherapist.

In the early screen tests, I smiled just enough to look friendly, not enough to reveal my dental problems.  Encouraged by the success of each screen test, I ordered a set of "flippers" to mask the gaps in my mouth without affecting my speech.  But, as the date of the pilot filming in New York loomed, my final screen test in L.A. -- a half hour show segment featuring me working with a teenager and her family -- was set to film before my flippers were ready.  As the filming began, the director stopped the action to reposition me. "From this angle, you look like you have no teeth on one side," he said. "We want you to look great in this!" My cheeks burned with embarrassment as the director repositioned me and the camera several times before my dental defects weren't immediately noticeable.

Just days before the pilot was to shoot, I was notified that, while I was a close second choice, the doctor who was chosen to do the show was veteran media doc Dr. Drew Pinksy.

So I went back to my regular life, secretly a bit relieved, and kept saving my money for implants.  I also started researching dental services offering implants and found that there was quite a variation in prices.  To my surprise, the lowest price and most experienced surgeons I found were in Beverly Hills. It was a clinic called Secure Smiles in the heart of Beverly Hills and they charged less than half of what the oral surgeon who had done my extractions cost.  I contacted them and went through an evaluation process.  They proposed to do eight implants and an extraction during my surgery, implanting the posts and then, six to seven months later, depending on the speed of my healing,  placing the crowns covering the posts.

I dreaded the surgery terribly, planning to take a week off work. However, it all went so smoothly that I was up and around, on my computer answering emails within hours after my Saturday morning surgery. To my boss' surprise, I was back at work on Monday. Healing went wonderfully and I have had my implanted teeth for nearly two years. My sister has a full set of dentures, anchored by implants, and is also delighted.

Why am I mentioning all this?

Some of my companions at the 4th of July picnic were curious about my joy in eating corn on the cob for the first time in years -- and also wanted to know about what it was like to get dental implants.  I thought some readers, too, might be curious or be thinking of taking the step.

Also, I mention it because the cost has become less prohibitive. I recently received notification that some dental plans - such as Delta Dental, the plan I have - are now covering 50% of the cost of an implant. Along with falling prices, this might make dental implants affordable for many more people.

When you have implants, dental hygiene is even more important. I use a rotary toothbrush and floss religiously. I also have four dental cleanings a year.

But I couldn't be more pleased with the result.  It really isn't a matter of now being able to bite into an apple or eating corn on the cob. That's a real treat, after all these years. But my greatest joy is feeling free to smile broadly and throw my head back in laughter. It's wonderful to have my smile back!

The following video, which is featured on the Secure Smiles website, under the humbling title of "Got Time? Listen to Kathleen's testimonial.." is one filmed last year just before I left L.A. to move to Arizona. Punctuated by the clinic's logos at certain intervals, this six minute video details my experiences of the process of getting and enjoying dental implants. Obviously, unless you live in or around L.A. and need implants, the clinic might not be of interest, but I'm sharing my excellent experience of implant surgery in general with anyone who may be thinking or wondering about this terrific dental procedure.



  1. I have lost a couple of molars that were really handy for chewing but couldn't even afford the bridge which is the equivalent to three crowns. I wondered how much the implants cost and how good they were. I did have a friend who got horrible infections with his.
    Maybe when my lotto ticket comes in. Smile large Kathy and enjoy.
    Arkansas Patti

  2. Prices vary a lot. Mine weren't covered by insurance at the time and were $2200 each. (Which is why I saved up for some years for them!) Now with some insurance plans covering half, implants would be more in line with crowns and bridges. Yes, the risk of infection is there -- which is why careful oral hygiene is essential. I haven't had any problems at all with the implants. I did have infections with bridges, causing me to lose some perfectly good anchor teeth. So that's why I wanted implants so much. But I can empathize with you about the cost. Everything gets so expensive, especially as one ages and develops more serious dental problems.

  3. Thanks for sharing your experience. I've filed it away for future reference. I read on another blog about dental clinics in Mexico that have US trained dentists and charge a fraction of the cost of US dentists.

    Why is health care not available to all Americans? It is frustrating to me that we can have so much in the US, yet not have this basic need filled.

  4. Dental implant placement is not a dental specialty by itself. Many times it takes several dentists, working in different specialties, to provide the full treatment.

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  5. That's true: usually one dentist does the implant surgery and another does the crown placement. You make an excellent point that people can't simply expect to walk into a dental office and get full treatment. It really pays to do some research and find the best possible services in one's own area. This may be a combined practice or individual practices of different specialists.

    What I experienced in the service I used was a group practice that combined all these skills in one office. An oral surgeon did the implant surgery and follow-up to surgery and the cosmetic dentist, who had been present at the surgery, took over the long process of preparing the crowns to fit on the implants. The whole process -- from initial consultations to final placement of crowns -- took a year. It was good to be able to work with some excellent dentists who had different specialties but shared an office so all treatment could be coordinated.

  6. It cost me a fortune (and took 5 years) to get 13 implants, but I don't regret it for a second. After growing up with parents who had dentures in their 30's, I knew I wasn't going to live that way. I am so pleased with the results. My quality of life is much more important than leaving the money in the bank.

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