By Lizzie Vance
What matters is to be a human being with another human being, to recognize the other person as another being in there… if you are trying to help a wounded bird, the first thing you have to know is that there is somebody in there, and that you have to wait for that “person,” that being in there, to be in contact with you. That seems to me to be the most important thing.
—The Primacy of Human Presence, Eugene T. Gendlin
While Gendlin describes the relationship between the psychologist and patient, his work can be applied to any Conscious Capitalist in pursuit of the present moment, and in pursuit of connecting with the heart of why they do what they do, at every chance they can. Let’s take a look at one Conscious Capitalist who embodies this in his dental practice.
Maria sat hunched over in her chair. Her leg bobbed up and down, she checked her phone again, and then turned it over in her hand several more times. She couldn’t stop herself from fidgeting with her ring and her watch; she had been through this process—this interview—too many times before at what seemed like a dozen other offices. Maria was losing confidence that anyone would ever be able to help her son.
Brightly colored animals—giraffes, elephants, and others—pranced proudly across the waiting room walls. From what her coworker said, Maria hoped that Texas Dentistry for Kids might be the answer she was looking for.
Dr. Erik Harrington walked in to the empty waiting room with a gentle smile as steady as his posture, and salt-and-pepper hair that spoke to his time on this earth. Maria stood up to face him and shook his hand as he introduced himself.
“Please,” he said gently, and gestured for her to retake her seat.
As they sat, he reassured her. “We don’t have anyone else in the clinic right now, and if someone does show up, we can go back into my office.” Erik nodded toward the play area off to his left. “It seems your son is comfortable playing over there.”
Maria spoke. “Thank you, Dr. Harrington, for meeting with me.” Her voice wobbled with anxious, backed-up emotion.
“Of course. I am more than happy to do anything to help parents feel comfortable with bringing their kids here. Tell me about your son.” Erik had studied Diego’s dental history before he and his mother Maria had arrived, so this moment was meant for connection. Erik rested his focus on Maria.
“Diego is a very good boy, but he doesn’t like to be touched. He has special needs. We’ve never been able to find a dentist he will let come anywhere near him. But he has to see someone. I think his teeth are hurting him—I can hear him grinding his teeth at night—and I know there have to be cavities in there,” Maria’s voice cracked.
Erik nodded slowly before responding. “I’m happy that you came to meet with us, Maria—may I call you Maria?”
“Yes,” she answered, feeling her body relax with her answer.
Erik nodded. “It’s our—my—mission to make sure that everyone who walks through our doors gets the care they need. So, I want to know what’s important to you and to your child. I want you to share with me what this appointment means to you in terms of treating your child… how you want him to be treated.” Maria didn’t move to speak, but she leaned in slightly, her posture engaged. Erik gauged her receptivity before continuing. “We want all kids to feel safe, and we want to earn their parents’ trust. All of our pediatric dentists undergo several years of specialized training, beyond dental school. This extra training focuses on child psychology and children’s growth and development.”
As he spoke, Maria’s eyes moved involuntarily to a picture on the wall of Erik standing with the rest of the staff. The team was smiling and holding hands.
“We know how to make sure all of our young patients feel comfortable being here. That’s at the heart of what we do.”
Maria nodded out of habit, slowly, throughout Erik’s explanation, but didn’t quite meet his eyes, as her gaze darted often to the play area, where Diego sat coloring. She had heard versions of the same story before from lots of other pediatric dentists.
Erik saw that she couldn’t meet his gaze. He shifted his weight and leaned in towards her, ever so slightly in his chair. “Let me tell you a story about how I ended up here.”
Maria didn’t react. She was lost in thought, with a hint of nervousness starting to show up in the bounce of her left leg. Erik noticed what he interpreted as a combination of care, worry, and hope on this young mother’s face as he spoke. “Early on, when I was studying dentistry, I was devoting almost all of my work to becoming a dental researcher. My world was comprised of test after test and the majority of my time spent inside my own head. I didn’t have much interaction with other people… ” He paused, “certainly not enough.”
While her eyes wouldn’t meet his, they had stopped darting around the room and were focused on a single point on the floor, as though she were devoting all of her attention to listening now, so he continued. “Then one day, I was training at a children’s hospital, and there was a young patient who was brought in to have her teeth cleaned. This patient had a rare genetic disorder: she couldn’t move, but she could manage a sustained stifled, petrified wail.” Erik lowered his voice at the last word, as if to counter the intensity of the volume in his memory. He watched Maria; from how she leaned in and how her body was angled toward him, she was back in that moment with him.
“The resident and the assistant who was trying to clean her teeth had the young girl in a quasi-headlock, and they were using a mouth prop to pry her mouth open. The girl kept wailing.” Erik looked away for a beat, revisiting the weightiness of the event in his memory. “And there I was, sitting at the foot of her chair, feeling totally powerless. I couldn’t read her mind; I didn’t know if she was scared or if she was in pain… or if she just didn’t like what was going on.” Maria’s eyes drifted up to Erik’s face for an instant, and from the flash in her eye, Erik thought it likely that Diego, Maria’s son, had been through a comparable experience.
Erik squinted and pursed his lips with a sharp inhale at the memory. “In that moment, all I could think to do was to stroke the little girl’s foot through her little socks. Gently, intentionally… and gradually, over the course of the next minute, to everyone’s surprise, the little girl stopped crying.”
It seemed as if Maria’s fidgeting had also stopped, and Erik wondered for a quick moment if she was breathing. “And then I saw that little girl look down toward her feet at me, and I thought to myself, ‘Someone’s in there… someone is in there and we’re connecting. How would I feel if I were in her place?’” Erik’s voice crackled with sweetness and excitement.
“That was many years ago, back when I was still a dental student. I vowed to never forget how I felt at that moment, which was that I was taking care of her—as a whole person—and was addressing what she needed in that moment to feel safe. That’s what health care is to me. And that is how I work with all of our doctors and staff to view our patients here. We work every day to see them as whole young people, and we meet their needs, whatever those needs are.” Erik looked earnestly into Maria’s eyes. Simultaneously, he could feel that part of himself was still in that room with that young patient all those years ago.
Maria dared to smile ever so slightly as tears welled up in the corners of her eyes. “I’d like to be with my son, at his side, the whole time he’s here,” she said, as she raised her head up. Already, her burden felt lighter.
“Of course,” Erik replied. “If you feel that’s what’s best for him, we want you by his side. I want both you and Diego to feel welcome and comfortable. The mouth is a window into the body, and that means it’s a window into Diego’s overall health, so it’s important that we make sure he feels as relaxed as possible. All of us work together as a team to make that happen. There are guiding principles—and a Higher Purpose—to everything we do here.”
Maria, relaxed and with resolve, stood up and reached out to shake hands with Erik one more time. “Thank you, Dr. Harrington. I’ve spoken to so many dentists. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt a sense of hope. I’d like us to give your office a try.” She turned toward Diego to try and introduce him to Erik, but he didn’t look up from the page in the coloring book. Maria took a few steps closer, realizing how delicate this moment was to avoid having Diego associate this place with a negative emotional trigger, so she resorted to getting his attention for their departure. While she crouched near her son, Erik gave Maria one final reassurance.
“If you have any questions, we’re here for you. You can make an appointment any time you’re ready. I look forward to it.”
As Diego slid off his sturdy plastic chair and gravitated to his mother’s side, Erik walked him and Maria to the door. As the door closed, one of the office’s dental assistants approached Erik with some X-rays, but he was lost in thought as he watched Maria and Diego leave the building. Erik nodded his head once slightly and exhaled fully before turning to the assistant and speaking, half to her and half to himself.
“That woman and her son are why we do what we do here.”