War stories: A touching encounter between two dental patients

June 21, 2016
A chance encounter between two dental patients uplifts the spirits of a staff in a Florida dental office in the days after the Orlando tragedy.

By Polly Ward, RDH

In the days after the terrorist attack at Pulse, the Orlando nightclub, survivors—both injured and those who escaped unharmed—began to share their harrowing tales of dodging bullets and playing dead. The stories that trickled out in the news as the days unfolded were both heroic and heartbreaking. Many who were injured held both friends and strangers as the life seeped out of their bodies.

For those of us who live in Florida, Orlando is our backyard and our playground, and we felt a range of conflicting emotions—sadness and anger, courage and fear, and an overwhelming sense of heartbreak for the friends and family of those lost. Like much of the rest of the country, my coworkers and I spent the days following the terrorist attack scouring news sites looking for answers and new information.

Now that this war has hit so close to home, we know that it could strike any of us at any time.

As a hygienist, it’s part of my job to ease the fear in patients. That was a difficult task the week after the tragedy in Orlando. Smiling and making small talk was especially hard, as each and every patient wanted to express his or her thoughts. We tried to change the subject, to find another topic to discuss, but that wasn’t an easy to do.

A Chance Encounter

Our smiles returned, however, when a chance meeting in our lobby restored our faith that things were going to be OK.

With two patients left before lunch on Tuesday, June 14th, I stepped into our reception area to call my next patient. She was a thirty-something mom with her nine- or ten-year-old son in tow. When I called her name, she asked if her son could come back with us, just to watch.

I looked at the boy and smiled. It wasn’t that long ago that my own sons were that age, and not ones to sit still. I have had experience with youngsters sifting through drawers and shoving handfuls of stickers in their pockets when my attention was focused on the patient in my chair. I suggested that he stay out front because there wasn’t enough room for him to see much that was going on.

The boy stood up and flopped back in the chair where he had been sitting. He mumbled something about being bored as I closed the door after his mother. I assured him we wouldn’t be long.

I treated the mom, maybe a bit faster than normal since I know what can happen when a youngster is bored. When I was finished, I walked her up to the front desk to check out. I peeked out front to see if my next patient had arrived, and he had, a few minutes ahead of schedule.

Mr. Bill is a 95-year-old World War II veteran with a bullet scar just below his right temple to show for it. He is soft-spoken, polite, and lonely since his wife passed away about four years ago. His wife, Carol, was 23 years his junior and took wonderful care of him until she unexpectedly fell ill a few years ago. We were all shocked to hear of her passing within a few short months of her diagnosis. Considering the age difference, no one expected him to outlive her.

Since losing his wife’s company, Mr. Bill has gotten chattier at his appointments. He has told me of war stories about when his unit was pinned down by the enemy fire with nowhere for his men to escape. He was stationed in Guadalcanal in the early days of the war. Bullets were flying overhead, and he didn’t think anyone in his unit would make it out alive. He and his men were trapped for days and rescue seemed impossible. I don’t know at what point during that battle he was shot in the face or how long he lay bleeding, but he was one of only a handful of survivors.

He sometimes gets choked up on water during his prophy and reminds me each time, “I had shrapnel lodged in my throat, you know. It doesn’t work right anymore.”

I cleaned my room as the boy’s mom was checking out and making her next appointment. She finished up as I was walking out to the lobby for Mr. Bill, so we walked out together.

Mr. Bill stood up and turned to the boy to tell him goodbye. The boy said something back, but I couldn’t hear what it was. I hoped that the boy was polite to the man. The boy grabbed his mom’s hand, and they walked out the door together.

Mr. Bill took a seat in my operatory. He has gotten a little slower as time has progressed, but his mind is still sharp. The appointment went smoothly, although, as usual, he choked a bit on the water. He reminded me of his war wound and the shrapnel that made swallowing difficult. I assured him that it was fine and waited for him to clear his throat.

As I walked him back out, Mr. Bill told me that his daughter wanted him to come live with her in New York. I smiled, thinking that moving to his daughter’s might ease his loneliness a bit and told him that we would miss him if he decided to go.

At the front desk, Kim, our receptionist, was on the phone, so I started to say my goodbyes to Mr. Bill. Savannah, our dental assistant, was also at the desk and told me to stay there until Kim got off the phone. She said that Kim had something to tell Mr. Bill and that I should hear it, too.

When Kim hung up the phone she pulled out a grocery store receipt from underneath a stack of papers. She told Mr. Bill that the boy’s mom came back inside a few minutes after they left and handed her the receipt. The mom told her that her son wanted to give it to the man he had been talking to in our lobby. On the back of that receipt, the boy had written a note.

“Its amazing that you survived all that happend (sic) to you in WWII. I really liked your stories and am glad I got to meet you today. My dad was in the army. Thank you for your service, It means a lot to me.” (See photo of note here.)

Kim had copied the note so I could read it, too. Kim, Savannah, and I began to tear up a bit as we saw the huge smile across Mr. Bill’s face.

“I’m going to have to show that to my daughter,” he said

War stories have been told for thousands of years. The people that lived through them are often called heroes, even if they do not think of themselves that way. Times have changed, and now civilians have war stories of their own. The entire world has come together to show Orlando the support it needs to heal from this tragedy.

And as for Mr. Bill and the staff in my office, all it took was one young man to restore faith that there is still some good in the world.

Polly Ward, RDH, has practiced in Florida for 18 years. She graduated from Pensacola State College in 1998. She resides in Clearwater, Fla.