Over twenty years ago, when I was a brand-new nursing student,, I did not know what dentures were. I had not grown up around anyone who had dentures. We saw my grandparents yearly – if they had dentures I do not remember them. If there was a chapter about dentures or mention of them in the first two months of nursing school I missed it. Perhaps it was assumed by the time you were in your late teens you would have been exposed to dentures. I was not.

My first practical rotation for nursing school was in a nursing home learning how to assist patients with daily needs. Bathing. Walking. Dressing. Brushing hair. Brushing teeth. My very first patient was bedbound, meaning he could not get out of bed without significant (three or more people or a mechanical lift) assistance. I remember his papery, fragile skin and lots of bones and angles. His entire bath was done with him in his bed. His linens were changed. His hair, what remained, was washed. As I dried his hair it frizzed into a white fluffy halo.

He brushed his teeth in bed. I had never brushed another person’s teeth. In school we practiced on mannequins and plastic heads. It is not the same. I started brushing. Moments into the process something audibly “popped” and I could feel and see the Mr. A’s upper jaw shift in his mouth. He sat there, mouth open, calmly submitting to my fearful learning. I tried to “brush” his jaw back into place. It did not work. Utter panic set in. I broke his jaw. On my first day, I broke someone. He is now broken and I did that. Why is he not in pain? Why isn’t he yelling and moaning? This makes no sense. Wouldn’t you have pain if your jaw were broken? I should get help. Oh my gawd they are going to kick me out of school only two months in, I broke someone.

I continued to work the toothbrush around his mouth. I was determined to finish the job and not break anything else.  I moved to the lower teeth still hoping his jaw would go back to where it belonged. He sat there. Mouth open. Eyes closed.

I finished his lower teeth uneventfully. I was sweating and mortified. I had broken my first patient. I set down the toothbrush. I told him I was going to get the head nurse to assess his jaw. I was sorry I had broken it. I felt my eyes sting and tears started to form.

He opened his eyes. He looked at me. Shook his head. Muttered something I was not able to understand. Reached into his mouth and took out a set of upper dentures. Then he popped out a set of lower dentures.

“Neth time,” he rasped, “tay thuu teeth ouu bufaw you bruth them.”

He unceremoniously dumped the dentures in a small basin on his bedside table. Then he closed his eyes again.

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