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How to cure dentophobia: true stories and famous fudge

Karen O’Donnell came to storytelling from what might seem an unlikely place. 

Dentistry.

But she was always a rather unique dentist.

She’s known locally as the dentist who gives her patients homemade fudge. It’s not the sugar-free kind, either. It’s the sugary kind.

“It’s kind of like an annuity,” she joked recently, referring to the repeat business that could be generated if her patients consume too much of the tasty treat.

And she discovered the power of storytelling through her dental practice. It turned out the two things — fudge and stories — have something in common. They bring comfort.

Storytelling turned out to be a non-dental treatment for a common problem dentists face: Some of their patients are terrified of dentists.

O’Donnell points to several examples. Two years ago, she had a new patient who she had met during Zumba exercise sessions. When the woman learned O’Donnell was a dentist, she confessed her fear. 
“I said, ‘We’ve been dancing for months. How could you be terrified of me?'” O’Donnell said.

But she had seen the fear before, and she found that stories help patients relax and forget their fears, if only for a while.

She tells another story of a woman who was feeling stressed while O’Donnell worked with her. 

“I started telling her a story. She fell asleep,” she said. “I’m not introducing myself as a dentist any more. I’m introducing myself as a storyteller. I don’t know of anyone who’s terrified of storytellers.”

What kinds of stories does she tell her “helplessly mute” patients?

“Sometimes they are stories to help them understand the treatment they need or the treatment they are going through,” she said. “I usually tell stories that will meet them where they are, put them at ease, or make them laugh.”

One example was an elderly patient who wanted to have a gap in her front teeth closed. A family member chided her for being vain about something she’d had all her life.
The situation reminded O’Donnell of a story.

“I was to be a speaker at an event, and just before going on stage I snuck into the restroom to sort of check in, center myself, and I noticed my hair was all sticking up. I went under the sink cupboard (this was at a country club that I once belonged to and I knew where they kept the hair care products), grabbed the can of spray, straightened my hair and sprayed profusely — only to discover that the can I grabbed was not the Aqua Net for hair but scrubbing bubbles! And I was now drenched in white foam.

It made her laugh and lighten up as I told it, put her at ease, and dealt with my vanity.”

Another patient has become a loyal fan of Homewood Stories, attending nearly every session so far. Terri Winfree, president of Prairie State College, confirmed O’Donnell’s assessment of the effect stories have on dental work sessions.

“It takes you away from what’s happening in your mouth,” she said at the October show. “Time passes so quickly.”

She also appreciates O’Donnell’s skill as a teller, noting especially the dentist’s signature story about her mother’s fudge.

“When she told the story of the fudge, you could feel like you were in the kitchen, stirring,” Winfree said. “It’s so heartfelt.”

About three years ago, O’Donnell’s storytelling began to evolve from a dental practice to an avocation. 

A friend told her about a radio interview with Scott Whitehair, who said storytelling is exploding in Chicago. Whitehair is the co-host and producer of This Much Is True, and creator of Story Lab Chicago, according to the Story Lab website.

O’Donnell was intrigued. She went to Story Lab. She introduced herself to Whitehair and was quickly welcomed into the storytelling community. 

What impressed her about the events, she said, was the diversity of people there — people in their 80s and people in their 20s, black and white, gay and straight — and the fact that they were all listening to each other, revealing themselves, making connections. 

Soon she was telling at Chicago events and making connections with the regular tellers.

She discovered not all of them were from the city. She ran into several south side and south suburban tellers who were also going to the city to tell at shows, including David Boyle from Beverly, Jason Keller from Homewood and Freda Humbolt from Oak Lawn.

Several of them talked about starting a show in the south suburbs, and last fall, O’Donnell decided to make something happen.

Homewood Stories was born.

The path from idea to realization wasn’t entirely smooth, but every time she ran into an obstacle, she had a refrain — “storytelling is coming to Homewood” — and she found a new option.

“If you asked me a year ago how I was going to do it, I couldn’t tell you,” she said. “Next steps just suddenly showed up that were the right next steps. The path lit up underneath my feet.”

One arrangement she’s grateful for is the hospitality of the owners and staff of Grady’s Grille, who she said not only made the room available but seemed to know exactly what the storytelling show would need in terms of setup and service.

At the first show, members of the audience were asking when the next show would be.

“So I announced, Feb 18. ‘Who’s going to tell?’ I don’t know!” she said.

Another question that came up early on was from audience members who caught the storytelling bug. They wanted to know when O’Donnell was going to offer storytelling workshops. So she created workshops and a class to meet the demand.

The workshops are safe places for people to develop stories and learn about the craft, she said.

Her mentorship has already paid off. 

“We’ve had five brand-new homegrown storytellers” tell at Homewood Stories, she said.

Those new tellers will, she hopes, ensure the show has a growing and rich source of new stories for some time to come.

Note: Homewood Stories shows take place at 7:30 p.m. each third Tuesday at Grady’s, 18147 Harwood Ave. The room is usually full, so contacting O’Donnell in advance at [email protected] is advisable. There is no fee to attend, but O’Donnell does accept donations to help defray costs.


Related story:
Audiences warm to storytelling show in Homewood


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Contact Eric Crump at [email protected]


Editor’s note: The writer’s wife, Amy Crump, is a storyteller and member of Illinois Storytelling’s board of directors.


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