A Puka Where A Great Dentist Was
Wednesday - September 21, 2005
I’ve always had bad teeth. I mean miserable teeth.
I’ve always attributed my fetid teeth and gums to my sainted parents, Pete and Bid. Each owned a sweet tooth. My dad loved chocolates: chocolate covered nuts, chocolate-covered caramels, cream-filled chocolates, chocolate-covered cherries (Oooooh, those chocolate-covered cherries.), caramels. The good stuff.
My mother liked chocolates too. But she also liked hard candies. Peppermints, to be precise. You know, those 5/8-inch in diameter red-and-white drops of pure sugar and fructose. Biddy used them as tranquilizers: when driving, after a meal, with her coffee in the morning. For a few years of life, I picked up the peppermint habit as well.
Oh, my aching molars. Between the chocolates and the peppermints and the pre-fluoride 1940s and ‘50s, toothache and I became intimate. Too intimate. I visited dentists early and often. Bid and Pete paid, of course.
But I left home at 17 - for college, graduate school, the Peace Corps, graduate school again. Through many of those years, Mom and Dad weren’t around to pay the dental bills, so ... well, let’s say I put off the preventive dental health visits.
I came to the University of Hawaii-Manoa as a teaching assistant in 1970. The job paid $4,000 or so, dental insurance not included. I hadn’t been in town a month when one of my molars decided to remind me of just how low my threshold of pain is.
I started calling dentists - close to home. I was living in a garage in Kahala, so I called dentists in the neighborhood. Needless to say, they weren’t taking patients - or only a week from Thursday.
I went to the University, holding my jaw, chewing more than the prescribed dosage of aspirin. I was a desperate young man.
A secretary in the department, the wife of a graduate student, told me about a dentist who had responded to situation similar to mine, i.e., a prospective in great pain but with no money.
His name was Naoki Sakada. When I called, he asked me if I could stand it until 5 p.m. when his last patient of the day left. I told him I had no insurance and, for that matter, no money either. “I’ll see you at 5,” he said.
He shared an office with another dentist on Kapiolani Boulevard. There was nothing fancy about it: a small waiting room, two chairs - only one of which I ever saw him use, a tiny office, an equally tiny lab. It was a one-man operation - neither receptionist nor dental assistant cluttered Dr. Sakada’s space.
Thirty-five years ago Dr. Sakaka was a no-nonsense dentist. He didn’t talk to you. His visage seldom changed. He spent a good hour on me that 1970 evening, pricking and drilling and relieving me of my misery. He gave me an appointment for a week later.
I reminded him again that I had neither money nor insurance. “Pay me when you can,” was all he said.
You pay a guy like that “when you can,” and you go back to him - for 35 years.
Dr. Sakada grew up in Kona, the son of a coffee farmer. He graduated from Konawaena High School and the University of Hawaii. He then spent five years in dental school at the University of Missouri, Kansas City.
By the time I first visited him, he was in his 40s, married and the father of three children. Thanks to all of Bid’s peppermints and Pete’s chocolates, I would spend a lot of hours in his chair over the years. He filled my teeth with silver, then gold. He pulled ‘em, capped ‘em, did the best he could with a bad situation.
When the time was short and the task monumental - which it often was given my mouth, Dr.
Sakada wasted no time on small talk. He got to the job at hand, careful not to get a garrulous Irishman going. But as the years passed, he would complain to me about the transgressions of liberal political friends.
Dentists are small businessmen, and almost all whom I know resent government regulations, excise taxes and the like. Dr. Sakada is no exception. He made it clear on many occasions that he found the Democrats who governed both state and nation profligate with our taxes.
But we talked of our kids, too, and of Kona coffee country when he was growing up. A couple of years ago I asked him why, in his late 70s, he continued to practice dentistry. He smiled and said, “So I can come down here every day and do what we’re doing - talk with my friends.”
Last week Dr. Sakada called to say that he’s retiring in October. He’s lost his lease; they’re tearing down his building to make room for a Nordstrom’s. I made a final appointment. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with my teeth at the moment, but I want a chance to say goodbye to a good man - and talk with a friend one last time.
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