By Sister Judith Ann Zielinski, OSF
I had a dental appointment—a routine six-month cleaning—a few weeks ago. As I pulled into the parking lot, I was surprised to see a new sign: No longer “Dr. Bruce Benefiel, DDS;” it now read “Michiana Smiles.”
“Michiana Smiles?” I got an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach as I parked. Was I in the right place? Had he moved? Had I missed a mailed notice or important phone call?
I asked the sweet young receptionist. “Is Dr. Benefiel here?” In a sepulchral voice she responded, “I have no idea where he is. I really have no idea.” I blinked. Was he dead? From COVID? A suicide? In jail? Had he abandoned his wife and children? What had happened? Six months ago all was normal; suddenly, I had entered Upside-Down-World.
Since 2002, when I first moved to South Bend, Bruce Benefiel had been my dentist. He was a tall, laidback, greying but vigorous man with impressive dental skills. He loved Bruce Springsteen and played his classic rock music exclusively all day on Thursdays. (Patients learned to book appointments accordingly.) Dr. Benefiel had treated me for everything from crowns to cavities to veneers on my two front teeth. Over the years I had observed large family portraits in the lobby featuring himself, his wife and their five sons as they morphed from toddlers and middle schoolers to teens and college grads.
Back at the desk, I tried a different tack: “Am I in the right place for a 3 p.m. cleaning that I booked last February?” “Oh, yes,” she purred, motioning toward a framed photo on the counter. It featured a smiling young dark-haired dentist in scrubs. “Even though Dr. Lynch has taken over the practice, we have all your records and X rays and history on file.”
Disoriented, I followed an unknown hygienist to the back. I had expected Kara, an Ohio State grad with whom I usually exchanged friendly Buckeye-Michigan trash talk. Where was she? Where was everyone I knew?
As the new hygienist worked, she filled me in: Dr. Benefiel had sold his practice to a group of dentists who added it to their “Michiana Smiles” group. He then retired in March. She assured me that he HAD sent an email notice to all his former patients, but since that was sent out from “Michiana Smiles,” many people ignored it or missed it completely when it landed in their Spam folders.
Some employees had taken new jobs; a few others stayed on. Kara, it turned out, was working in billing at the front desk.
When my teeth had been cleaned and flossed and polished, Dr. Lynch came in to introduce himself. It was a ”Doogie Howser” moment: He looked 25– although the hygienist had confided earlier that he was in his mid-30s, had two young children and was building a house. So, no need to worry, she said: He is not going anywhere anytime soon. Lynch proved to be pleasant, outgoing and expressive. I asked where he had gone for dental school and he told me “Indiana”—although his dream school was really Michigan. Only the out-of-state-tuition had kept him away. After a fist bump and a “Go, Blue!” he left.
I checked out at the front with Kara who took my Visa and offered some familiar Buckeye-Wolverine trash. I told her I had worn blue in her honor and then booked another appointment in six months. I carried my gift baggie of floss, a travel tube of sensitivity toothpaste and a soft-bristled toothbrush to my car and drove away.
I left still feeling uneasy about the poor communication that had surrounded this transition—from the receptionist’s cryptic opening salvo to the missed email and the abrupt ending. I HATE messy, unclear and inadequate communication. It always leaves me with a sense of missed opportunity and a nagging “Why wasn’t this handled better?”
I had never said goodbye or thank you to Dr. Benefiel; never formally ended 20 years of treatment. Maybe “Michiana Smiles” would be OK after all, but the ending of the Dr. Benefiel era still nagged at me. What would I have said to him if I had had the chance? Thank you, certainly, but also something about continuity, stability, longevity, fidelity… the satisfaction of having known what to expect when I went to him for treatment and then receiving that: Work well done. Professional pride and competence.
So, Dr. Benefiel, even though you won’t ever read this, thanks for the drilling and polishing, the crowns, the fillings and the floss. Rock on, even without Bruce on Thursdays.
As for Michiana Smiles— one next chapter with more graceful adjustments to changes great and small.