It can't replace Novocain for a root canal, but dental office decor designed for maximum soothing can be a powerful tranquilizer.
Imagine an office that looks more like Old World Tuscany than West Linebaugh Avenue, Tampa. The only smell in the air is that of coffee brewing. The walls seem to be built of ancient ocher blocks.
In the restroom, a bird soars through a faux sky overhead. From The Chair, the view is of the dentist's garden - the real thing - just out of reach. His Agapanthus are (finally) in full glorious bloom, and squirrels are bickering over nuts.
Anesthetics and aesthetics - they even sound as though they work together.
This is where David Doering practices sedation dentistry, a specialty that aims to make the most drill-phobic patients comfortable before and during their visit. So in 2005, when he bought the building where he has worked for more than 20 years, the remodeling goal was to make it utterly serene.
Ah, serenity. Tranquillity. With what's going on just outside our front doors, couldn't we all use some sedative domesticity? Turning our homes into peaceful refuges won't fix the economy, end the war or avert natural disaster, but it can affect how we perceive and react to our worries and fears.
''It calms me,'' patient Jackie Smith says of Doering's otherworldly decor. ''It prepares me.''
Annette Namath used to put off treatment.
''I'm mortified of the dentist,'' she says. ''But it's beautiful here. The surroundings are very calming.''
Doering, a pretty relaxed guy himself, is in charge of the garden, which wraps around most of the building so that every treatment room has a nearly floor-to-ceiling view.
''I have to give credit to the dentist who built the building'' in 1969, he says. ''He had a great idea.''
Originally, the office had sliding-glass doors through which patients could look out on a woodsy landscape of trees, palmettos and bromeliads. Doering replaced the sliders with huge windows and tamed and expanded the garden.
Now, squirrels feed from sconces along the fence, one in view of each treatment room, and blue jays squabble over birdseed. A little black snake visits from time to time.
The wildlife entertains and distracts patients, who usually decline offers of magazines to peruse while they wait, hygienist Vicki Brown says.
The woods have given way to angel statuary, a pergola nearly overgrown by bougainvillea, plus colorful blossoming plants: plumbago, mandevilla, begonia, Agapanthus and angel's trumpet trees.
''My philosophy is, if it dies, I try something else,'' Doering says.
He shops at Home Depot and Lowe's, fertilizes with Miracle-Gro when he remembers to and often spends weekends weeding and planting, sometimes with the help of daughters Sarah, 16; Emma, 12; and Niesha, 10.
In fact, Doering gets a hand from just about all of his seven full-time employees, whose unusual cheeriness begs the question: chicken or egg?
Dental assistant Marcie Center looks after the wildlife and mans the Weedeater. Her co-workers help hose down parched plants.
''I always come with my camera. I take pictures of everything,'' dental assistant Maryann Pugliesi says.
The interior was the domain of Doering's wife, Deborah, who oversaw the yearlong renovation that turned two traditional offices into one very untraditional space.
She didn't have to look far for inspiration.
''We're a Christian office. Nature and God's creation are big on our list,'' she says. ''We wanted to bring God's peace into the office.''
To do that, she mimicked the colors of nature. That included overstuffed chocolate-brown leather couches and chairs in the waiting area and lots of natural wood, blue sky and green vines.
She's a fan of faux finishes and trompe l'oeil, paint techniques that can transform drywall into marble, brick - or a view of a cloud-studded sky. She hired painters who specialized in the various looks she wanted, including Glenwood ''That Paint Guy'' Sherry, a popular artist from Lutz.
In the waiting room, look up to see a rose-entwined trellis overhead, blue sky and birds visible beyond it. That's Sherry's work. He also turned the restroom into a magical space that seems to be built of stone and also opens to the sky and its inhabitants.
''I love that bathroom,'' Deborah says.
Elaine Shumaker, a faux painter and muralist from Hudson, created the old blocks lining the hallway, adding cracks and shading to give them a worn, natural look.
Faux artist Jodi Koehn, who has since moved away from the Bay area, turned the walls of the waiting room into what looks like Venetian plaster, an effect echoed in the treatment rooms.
Throughout the building, the finishes got an aged look through the use of plastic Publix sacks to swipe them with glaze and faux cream.
The whole undertaking, which included a lot of demolition and reconstruction, was expensive, Deborah concedes. But the special touches didn't add all that much to the bill.
''We could have gone generic and it would have cost close to the same.''
She often hears patients say how comfortable they feel in the office, how their fears are soothed and their spirits lifted.
''It makes me feel awesome,'' she says. ''They're getting good care all the way around.
''When they come to our office, they feel love.''
Create Your Own Refuge
Choose colors that give you a peaceful feeling.
If you hire a professional to create faux finishes or trompe l'oeil art, be sure to hire someone who knows what they're doing. Do a lot of asking around.
If you're on a budget and/or don't want to tackle the job yourself, look for talented art students at local colleges.
Try it yourself! Read up on techniques on the Internet, or take a class. Experiment on poster board - not on a wall.
Source: Deborah Doering