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Remember that free dental care we used to have in elementary school?

When a chunk of my tooth fell out while chewing gum last week, I was reminded of the good old days, back when dental care was free. Yes, friends, free. If memory serves me correctly (which is a toss, at best…), once a year, a van would come ripping down the streets of Mariapolis, pardon me, the street of Mariapolis, and each student would take their turn being ushered into said van, where there would be a large chair accompanied by a dental student, expert, dropout, person grinning like a @#$%ing maniac from ear to ear, who would immediately jump-to and commence work on our teeth. I must admit, the first year the van came to town, we were all scrambling to get out of the classroom, drooling, begging to go first… we thought for sure it was just some random man in a van handing out candy. (Completely oblivious to, and sheltered from, the DANGER STRANGER campaign.) Needless to say, we learned our lesson for elbowing to be first in line; we ran screaming in the opposite direction next time we saw that van coming.

Now I understand the value of fiscal sanity and grabbing a deal when you see one, but really? Asking children to voluntarily jump into a stranger’s van to get their teeth pulled and polished? I feel completely blessed to be living in a country with universal health-care benefits, but people, there’s something wrong with this. I don’t even think the old leaders of the Communist bloc would have embraced the concept of the dental van.

Recently, I stumbled across a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Fast Facts article written back in 2005, about the free dental care that used to be available for elementary schoolchildren. And I quote, “We need to prevent the cycle of crisis and emergency response by establishing a comprehensive preventive program that will address the dental needs of children, and drastically reduce the demand for surgery. We need to do this not only to prevent the pain and suffering caused by tooth decay and related diseases, but also to improve the overall health of our population and alleviate the pressures on health-care resources. Manitoba did at one time have just such a program. It started in the 1970s and survived into the 1990s.” End quote. Sounds like the program coincided with the mullet era. Sadly, to each good thing, an end. This article went on to advocate the need for getting preventive dental care back in the schools. Being a proud survivor of both the mullet and free dental-care era, I respectfully disagree. What about the pain and suffering caused by visits to the dental van? I haven’t had a cavity since my first visit back in 1986. Quite frankly, there were no teeth left to fill after that first visit; they got ’em all in a two-day spree. Can you say social experiment? I don’t recall being in any sort of pain prior to receiving all those fillings, so you can excuse me for saying I highly doubt my entire mouth had bad enough rot to warrant a full excavation. It’s no wonder my teeth are falling out in chunks; that old metal filling is finally starting to give way.

The part I miss most about those dental vans? The little red pill. The dental person would slip you this red pill upon entry into the van; it looked like candy so they didn’t have to ask twice for us to throw it in our mouth. We were told to suck on it, the red dye leaving a stain on our teeth to show where the plaque buildup was occurring. It was supposed to be a deterrent for the filth mongers who chose not to brush. Not to worry, the red dye lasted for only six days. (And I never exaggerate.)

I’ll tell you this: it’s hard enough surviving childhood, never mind running around the playground wearing second-hand, snot-green polyester pants with a set of red-stained, plaque-covered bucks to go with it. We looked like a pack of 10-year-old Merlot addicts. If kids think they have it tough today, they have no idea.

Now all this had me recalling a recent shopping trip to Minot, North Dakota with my sister. A friend asked me to bring back this new mouthwash for kids (that wasn’t available yet in Canada)… apparently it turns plaque on the teeth blue, as a means to teach kids how to brush properly. (What’s with this plaque obsession? Although, I see the red dye has mercifully been abolished.) Needless to say, I agreed to be on the lookout. So my sister and I were cruising through the mall down in Minot, when I spot a pharmacy. I tell her to come in with me for a minute to look for this mouthwash. I’m wandering down one aisle, she another, when I spot this dude who totally looks like he works at the pharmacy. He’s wearing a nice green polo shirt, with some little emblem on the front which I presume to be the store logo. Did I mention I can’t see very well? He was talking to an elderly couple, and they all appeared to be slightly confused about something, talking in urgent whispers… so I waited for a break in the conversation, tapped him on the shoulder and politely asked: “Excuse me, sir… just curious if you’ve heard of that mouthwash you can use that turns the plaque on your teeth blue so you can learn how to brush better?”

He shrieked, held his hand up to his mouth and gasped: “Oh my God! Why — do I need it? You could see my plaque from there? Aaaaaaaaaaaah! I’m so embarrassed.”

The sound of a grown man shrieking is not something you want to hear very often. I managed to reply, “Er, no… that’s not what I meant.” And just as my eyes began to fill with tears (of organ-damaging laughter), they locked on the words written clear as day on his shirt — University of North Dakota. Apparently he didn’t work there. He was simply out with his grandparents, trying to enjoy the moment, when a psycho approached him, referencing plaque. Of course my sister had to witness all of this. She was rounding the bend into my aisle and saw it all go down. I looked up, begging her with my eyes NOT TO LAUGH, but it was too late. She was already in a mouth-wide-open grimace, shaking with uncontrollable laughter, coloured purple from the strain and turning to walk away. I managed to squeak out a rather feeble, “I’m so sorry to bother you,” before taking all of two steps and dropping to my knees, in a weak attempt to collect myself while pretending to look at new and improved products for wart removal. I was beside myself. I could sense they were still staring at me, but I couldn’t catch my breath long enough to explain. The look on his face, along with his comments, had reduced me to a pile of waste. Tears were streaming down my face and I didn’t dare move for what must have been five minutes. I had to make sure they were gone before I escaped from the store. I may have even urinated, just a little.

Moral of the story? There isn’t one, really. Thankfully Tommy Douglas’s strong advocacy for universal health care did not extend to dental van coverage; we’re blessed and we know it. And now our children have a better chance of keeping their teeth. As for the plaque-seeking mouthwash missile, last I checked, it’s now available here in Canada so there’s no need to harass our fair neighbours to the south. †

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