May 1, 2008

The "My Oral Surgeon Is Cooler Than Yours" Interview

In case you didn't know, I had my wisdom teeth removed this week. Practically the only silver lining to this miserable experience was getting to meet my new oral surgeon, Dr. Charles Ptak D.D.S. When I was in the chair he asked about my job, and within minutes he was cheerfully telling me about getting to watch The Hunger in Germany back in '83. This is why I love Brooklyn.

My editors thrilled at the idea of an interview with an oral surgeon—a figure scarier to some than Freddy Krueger or Peak Oil—so I'll share be sharing his fave scary movies with you on Tuesday. In the meantime, film-buff Dr. Ptak and I had a fine chat this afternoon about the ups and downs of being a gentle man with a fearful occupation—so fine, in fact, that I forgot to ask one of my most burning questions: "What's the craziest-looking thing you've ever pulled out of someone's head?" Guess I'll have to save that one for next time.

[Click here for the interview!]

TB: When people hear what you do for a living, are they intimidated?

CP: Many people don’t understand how you could handle the blood, or drilling in the oral cavity with blood and saliva and infectious material and so forth. It puts some people off.

TB: All that considered, are they pretty brave about it when it's their turn to get in the chair?

CP: I think just to be there they have to be brave! They’re dealing with it, and some deal better than others—some fall apart at the seams, but they’re there, and I have to give them a lot of credit for that. I’m there to help them; when people come in with problems, they may feel that I’m there to judge them because they may have neglected themselves, but not at all. I’ve seen a lot over the 25 years I’ve practiced; I can be amazed, but not surprised.

TB: No matter how sensitive a doctor you are, and no matter how necessary a visit may be, because of your specialty, you’re just one of those doctors that people go to assuming pain and discomfort are inevitable. Is it hard being that guy?

CP: It’s a challenge. I try to meet that challenge with good care and good judgment and patience so that they have as little discomfort as possible. I can’t eliminate it but I can mitigate it by giving patients options for their pain control, or a range of possible treatments—and most importantly, with careful, careful surgery.

TB: Did you have your wisdom teeth out?

CP: Sure, I was past twenty when I had them out. I was a Merchant Mariner then and we were able to receive care at public health service clinics. The guy gave me local and then put his foot up right on the arm of the chair and yanked my teeth out! [laughs] I was pretty shocked. Honestly, I’ve never put my foot up on the chair to remove a tooth! It was kind of startling, and I guess that was sort of like a horror movie. I recovered with no complications, so I won't disparage his work—perhaps just his style.

TB: Did you like scary movies as a kid? You were telling be about some TV show…

CP: Shock Theater? It was called Shock Theater in New York, and the host was known as Zacherley. He was somewhat scary, and pretty funny. We didn’t know what was campy then—it just seemed goofy at the time but as it got older you’d call it “camp”. He introduced a lot of the movies, and sometimes he would even comment while the film was rolling, like Mystery Science Theater 3000, except this was in the late fifties, early sixties—and that kind of added the humor to the shock.

TB: How is the stuff that scares you as an adult different?

CP: In the 80s there was Hellraiser. Being, by then, a surgeon, seeing people diced, flayed, dissected, pinned up like specimens insinuated the horrible side of this individual— he was a medical man, a surgeon of some kind. Are you familiar with Hellraiser? Here I am an adult, I was in college for thirteen years, and those movies scare the crap out of me.

TB: That actually ties into something I wanted to ask you: whether you feel your work makes you more sensitive to portrayals of suffering onscreen, or whether you’re able to dive behind a clinical perspective in order to cope.

CP: To a certain point, you can keep your wits, but yeah. I’m not so far removed from my emotions and empathy for other people that it doesn’t get to me. That film was horrible, very expressive—and that’s why we love movies.

TB: What’s another one that gets to you like that?

CP: We talked about this one before [at my previous appointment]: The Hunger. David Bowie, Susan Sarandon, Catherine Deneuve, they’re vampires. I actually saw it in Berlin. Seeing this movie in German, with English subtitles, seeing those three great and beautiful actors do this vampire story… I was attending a surgical convention and had a chance to spend a week there afterward, when it was still a divided city and the Cold War was still palpable. That in itself was scary.

TB: Why do you love horror or think it’s important?

They transport you out of the everyday. I think horror and science fiction really free the imagination of the creator of the story as well as that of whoever absorbs the story. That’s what I think. We enjoy being scared, and I suppose that, like when you were a kid, you enjoy when the movie’s over knowing that the monster didn’t get you.

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