Philadelphia Magazine’s Top Dentists 2010: This Bites

After much weeping and gnashing of (long-neglected) teeth, I’m going to the dentist. God help me

It was somewhere just after the Bridge Street exit on I-95 North that I had serious thoughts about turning the car around and coming up with some excuse — carjacking? Burst pipe? — to avoid my impending appointment with terror. It had been five years since anyone with a DDS or DMD had seen the inside of my mouth — I am one of those tens of millions of Americans afflicted with a serious dental phobia. At the mere thought of going to the dentist, I get it all: sweaty palms, racing heart, shortness of breath, upset stomach. I can’t bear the sound of the drill, the sight of the needle, the prospect of injection, or the anticipation of intense pain shooting through my head.

But, not surprisingly, by the latter half of 2009 I began -feeling real pangs of pain shooting through my head — pain I was sure preceded total mouth failure. So I finally broke down and scheduled an appointment with a sedation dentist, one of those guys who put you under and manhandle your teeth while you’re blissfully oblivious. Then some sadistic soul at the magazine (a soul who wanted a story out of all this, naturally) convinced me instead to face my fear awake and give Jerry Gordon a try, explaining that the Bensalem dentist specializes in treating phobic patients. “He’s quoted in Men’s Health a lot,” she said, in her most reassuring tone.

And thus I found myself inside the unassuming rancher that houses Dental Comfort Zone, an aptly named practice for the calm, friendly ginger-haired dentist who appeared before me. Gordon is by no means the only dentist in the area who specializes in fearful patients, though he seems to have built much of his solid reputation on helping people like me work through their fear. He’s even treated big, strong NFL players, including one six-foot-five-inch former Eagle — he’ll remain nameless — who was a trembling kitten in Gordon’s chair.

The first step in overcoming my problem, Gordon tells me straight away, is to define my panic. “Patients’ three most common fears,” I later read on his blog (yes, my dentist has a blog), “are associated with the potential for pain during dental treatment, the fear of being scolded about the condition of their mouths, and the fear of loss of control during dental treatment.” And so before we did anything, he calmly asked me questions about my anxieties (I fall into the pain category) and my past experiences (all bad) with dentists. He said he would do everything in his power to avoid hurting me, and noted, paradoxically, that people who fear the dentist are actually better at handling pain than your average Joe. He promised to go slow and check in often as he gently talked me into letting him do his thing.

After examining my mouth (no scolding), he decided that his thing would consist of a numbing, a root canal, a deep filling, and a constant flow of nitrous oxide. I won’t lie: So-called laughing gas notwithstanding, it was not an entirely happy two hours. As had happened before, my mouth wouldn’t go numb right away. In the past, dentists have forged ahead anyway, through my pain. Gordon, though, was patient, making extra injections with his special extra-thin needle, and taking more time to let the drugs work.

My mouth finally ready, he started the work, stopping frequently, as promised, to check on my wellbeing and give me a pat on the shoulder. Only once did I feel a twinge of pain, at which point he immediately stopped, numbed some more, and kept going. In the end, the procedures were a success, with no complications; I arose feeling lighter. Gordon was pleased but unsurprised that I made it through unscathed. “I only see two or three phobic patients a year who actually require sedation,” he said. Not a bad record.

“So,” my work friend asked a few days after my appointment, “are you cured?”

“Mmm, not exactly,” I told her. But I can now, I think, take it appointment by appointment. With sweaty palms, I made my next date with Gordon, for a cleaning.

Dental Comfort Zone, 2734 Street Road, Bensalem, 215-639-0571;