On the TV monitor, the backs of my incisors loom as big as Mount Rushmore, only yellower and shiny with spit.
The mouth-cam pans to my canines—jagged and craggy, like mountain peaks on a Chinese vase. My bicuspids leap into view, live and in color! My molars, like I’ve never seen them before!
I feel queasy.
My guide to intra-oral videography, dentist Cheryle Baptiste-King, is demonstrating the patient-education hardware that she bought about a year ago, a video setup that promises to be the shape of dentistry to come. Her $13,000 package includes the TV monitors in her treatment and waiting rooms, a video-CD system, a high-fidelity color printer, wiring for her office, and most important, a SpectraVu2000 camera. The promotional literature bills the SpectraVu as the “Gateway to the Dental Image Highway”—proud words for a plastic box connected to what appears to be an undernourished curling iron.
At the moment, I look like roadkill on the Dental Image Highway. A clear plastic “cheek retractor” pulls my lips away from my teeth, clearing the way for the camera. On the TV monitor, I can see that the effect is pure Halloween, as if the flesh on the lower third of my face has been peeled away. “It’s not exactly a gynecological exam,” Baptiste-King laughed when she inserted the retractor. “But it’s going to hold you open for me.”
She points the curling iron at one of my molars. “See this silver filling here?”
Cheeks retracted, mouth open wide, I grunt.
“Now,” she says brightly, “see the dark spaces between the filling and the tooth?”
I grunt again.
“The dark spaces show us that that filling needs to be replaced.” With a note of satisfaction, she continues the travelogue, pointing out the metal lip on the inside edge of an ill-fitting crown. The cracked tooth surfaces that beg for sealants, lest cavities take up residence. The backs of my lower incisors, where tartar dwells.
She mentions that she could make videotapes. I am thankful that she doesn’t.
She could also connect a microscope to the camera and show me my blood, saliva, or plaque, magnified gazillions of times. I don’t ask her to.
She says that patients prefer to watch video CDs while she gives them fillings. I can see why.
Rob Hix owns NetworkOne Media Systems Inc., the Vienna, Va.-based company that sold and installed Baptiste-King’s gadgetry. By his estimate, Baptiste-King is one of perhaps 175 camera-wielding dentists in the Metro area—not a large number, he says, less than 20 percent of the local D.D.S. population. “The technology started in California,” he explains. “Just about every dentist there has a system. But like everything else, it takes a long time to reach the East Coast.”
It occurs to me that the SpectraVu stands as a metaphor for all things Californian. In this single piece of equipment, the Golden State is writ small, a fizzy combination of high-tech, New Age, and showbiz. The amalgam seems perfectly at home in Baptiste-King’s office, an outpost of Left Coast dental thinking. Besides the fillings and cleanings common to eastern dentistry, she and her associates offer trendy homeopathic and holistic treatments, not to mention something called “enzyme therapy.” They help some patients quit smoking and send others home with anti-snoring devices. And in a fashionable touch of multiculturalism, services are rendered not only in English but in Spanish, French, or, when the occasion demands, Farsi.
Baptiste-King leaves the treatment room for a second and returns with a souvenir of my visit: a postcard-size color printout showing four video images of my teeth. For the next week, it will lie on my desk at home, reminding me that I could use a bleach job and some heavy-duty cosmetic work on my lower incisors. And in a wider sense, it allows me a glimpse of the future, a time when we Washingtonians attain a California-quality awareness of our tiniest physical imperfections. When we have all seen our teeth on TV, the world will become a prettier place. And by then, California will have found something new to obsess about.