Monday, May 19, 2008
Dentistry, Mainstreaming and the Zionist Dream
Any parent of a special needs child probably has a catalogue of "Things People Have Said but Should Not Have." It was difficult, for example, for me to hear the words of a friend on Simchas Torah who, upon seeing me at the shul celebrations, shook my hand gravely and said, "everyone has to suffer" (he apparently did not see Shmuel who was bouncing off the walls, dancing with glee). Comments like that one, one comes to understand, are almost never said out of malice. But there are some remarks to which one has to pay attention--like that of the dentist: "if you want his cavity filled, we'll have to put him under."
My wife Leslie is hesitant to give Shmuel a non-organic cup of carrot juice, so the prospect of general anaesthetic and a hospital visit was not a happy one. But asking around, we heard the same conclusions: "can't treat them like normal children; there's no other option." True, we have come to learn (from Elizabeth Mueller of Cincinnati who has thought seriously about "Dentistry for Children with Down's Syndrome" http://www.mvdsa.org/JimS/DentistryforChildrenwithDowns.pdf) that a Down's child provides a special dental challenge, but it's one that does not have to end on the operating table. Fortunately we didn't have to go to Cincinnati to have Shmuel's cavity filled.
Enter Dr. Joshua Daniels of Jerusalem. He hadn't heard of Elizabeth Mueller, but he had heard of the Kolbrener children (all a joy in the dentist's office!), and he treated Shmuel as he treats the other siblings. That is, Dr. Daniels practices mainstreaming in dentistry: so for him, Shmuel may have required special attention, but in the dentist's office, not in the hospital. Such attention means that a visit to the dentist is more like a family visit, or a neighborhood visit, or even a chaotic block party--with various friends and families playing their appointed roles (holding Shmuel, caressing his hand, coaxing open his mouth). But yesterday, when Shmuel's sister Avital departed from her role, instead imploring the dentist to heed Shmuel's protests and refrain from pulling his infected tooth, Dr. Daniels responded not by silencing her empathic (and emphatic) cries, but by caressing and kissing Shmuel, and praising Avital's middos (character traits). Because Dr. Daniels is a tzaddik, as well as a great dentist, the visit ended in dental improvisation and musings on rachmonos (or mercy): "if a girl is crying for her brother as if she were crying for herself, how could I, as his dentist, ignore such cries?"
There are undoubtedly great dentists in other places, but the way in which the decayed tooth of a little boy became the focus of not only the dentist, and the boy's siblings, and the siblings' friends, and my wife, and her friend, not to mention the patients in the waiting room (who were inevitably drawn into the drama) was one of those Israeli events which resonates as much as any Independence Day celebration. Because the appointment transformed from a mere 'visit' into something like a community event, it also revealed another of the benefits of mainstreaming: like every other child, a special needs child reveals, through his difference, a particular aspect of tzelem elokim, the image of G-d. And in the process of engaging with that difference, we also come to encounter unexpected aspects of ourselves.
I do have to add that, unknown to Dr. Daniels, Avital had the upper hand all along. Sensing that the appointment might end in the pulling of Shmuel's tooth, Avital had, already that morning, davened for divine intercession, promising to donate one hundred shekels of her babysitting money if the extraction would be averted. That night, an old Yerushalmi came to our door asking for money to marry off his seventh child. The money was waiting.