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Hanging On By My Teeth

January 26, 2018

When I was a child, back in those "good old days", trips to the dentist were horrifying. I actually hid under the house once with my brother trying to avoid going. I had a really good reason though. Back then, in the "good old days" children were not given anesthesia. Those who felt like this was a good thing advocated it, because, the pain would teach us to take better care of our teeth.

 

The only thing it taught me was to look for a better place to hide next time. The pain was so horribly bad. It was child abuse, seriously, would you let a stranger drill into your child's teeth without any anesthesia?

 

Lots of people, like myself, are born with teeth that have a thin veneer of enamel. No matter how hard I tried to brush my teeth and care for them, the results were always the same.

 

"Cavity! Get the drill!"

 

I won't go into how much slower and ineffective drills were back then either because I think you get the picture that this was a miserable time.

 

Fast forward into adulthood.

 

 

 

Somewhere along the way, some brave soul, a hero to me whoever he or she was, figured out that cavities were not always the fault of the person owning those particular teeth. Trips to the dentist though were still filled with trauma for me because of the "good old days", but I did my best. Many times I would jump when that needle started to go into my mouth. I knew that the anesthesia in the needle would make my trip there easier to bear, but it didn't matter. The damage was done and I have spent a lifetime, always seeking out a dentist who caused me the least amount of stress, pain and anxiety. 

 

During the mid 80's I was living in San Francisco and working on my Master's Degree in Medical Illustration. I had a miniscule amount of money, so, if I ever got sick or had a toothache, the medical school would provide services for us paupers, errrr, students.

 

And so, severe pain started to develop in one of my teeth on the upper right part of my mouth. Because I so avoided going to the dentist, I tried to pretend for as long as I could that nothing was wrong and everything would be just fine. All I had to do was ignore the pain and it would all go away. Unicorns and fairies do exist, they do!

 

As practiced as I was at ignoring certain things, the pain unfortunately, did not go away, and actually got worse. Throbbing, horrible pain that shot right up behind my eye. I could only eat soup, I could not breathe with my mouth open. I had to sleep sitting up. Just such a fun time. One evening, I could not take it anymore and headed up to the university where I knew that they had an evening clinic in the dental school.

 

Believe me, I was so grateful that the school provided health and dental services free of charge to us poor little students. The caveat though, was that, being a school, the students in those departments could work on the patients. It is sort of like going to have your hair cut at a barber college. You may not get the best cut, but it was cheap, and you helped a student learn. The main difference though, is that, the students here had needles, drills and the bedside manner of a furious husband driver refusing to ask for directions when lost.

 

I must say, I was terrified at the thought of how this was all going to go, however, I could not handle the pain anymore. I tiptoed into the waiting room of the clinic half hoping no one would see me and I could flee.

 

Nope, didn't happen. It was a slow evening in the old dental clinic that night. I was ushered right in and plunked down into a chair and had that forever crooked bib whipped around my neck. I signed the consent forms, what choice did I have. I was almost to the point of tying a string around this sick tooth and attaching the other end to a bus. I actually wondered out loud if that was one of their methods at the school. I got a weird, silent stare from the assistant helping me with the paperwork, so, apparently it was not.

 

Finally, in came a real live dentist. She actually bounced into the room, but was very nice, an instructor at the school and a practicing dentist. She was highly regarded, so I felt a tiny bit more at ease and bonus, no students were with her.

 

"Open wide please," she said with a smile.

 

Less than a minute later, after examining my tooth, she snapped back upright and gleefully said, "I've never seen one of these before! I need to get the students on rotation in here to look at this."

 

Off she went, leaving me there in the sterile, cold room with the intense lights in my eyes. I just could not imagine what an experienced dentist like her had seen in my mouth. Should I wait to find out or just run for it?

 

Too late. She was back with about 5 students in tow, all eager to look at the interesting surprise she had discovered.

 

Cranking the light down to shine into my mouth, one by one, the students rushed in to poke and prode and ooh and ahh. One tapped my sick tooth with a metal tool! After the dentist peeled me off of the ceiling, she warned the other students not to do that, and to just look, not touch. I felt like my mouth was Toys R Us, and a group of children had stumbled upon it.

 

The pain was quite extraordinary by now. I was getting pale and shaky. The dentist was doing her best to instruct the students explaining to them what the anomaly was with my evil tooth. As soon as the last student took his turn to position himself as far into my mouth as he could, I turned to the dentist, tears in my eyes, and asked what was going on.

 

"I'm so sorry. I'm sure that must really hurt, but, you have a primary molar. We're not equipped her to handle anything like that."

 

My blank stare must have accurately conveyed to her that I had no clue as to what she was talking about. It did not sound evil.

 

She continued.

 

"A primary molar is a baby tooth. You didn't get all of your adult teeth, so, as odd as it seems, you still have a baby tooth."

 

How much worse was this going to get? Much worse apparently. After she instructed all of the students about my primary molar (good thing there weren't selfies back then I am sure they would be posing with my mouth) she pulled up a stool to sit and talk with me. All she could do right then was give me some of the really good drugs and send me on my way, because, they just didn't have the instruments at the school to work on such a tiny little, tooth.

 

The school referred me to a practicing endodontist down in Union Square who was also an instructor for a few classes at the school and did offer us discounts. So, no turning back now and bolstered by the fog producing drugs off I went the next day to see this new dentist.

 

I did not have a car back then and took public transportation everywhere. San Francisco had a remarkable transit system and got me down there in good order, although, one person during the 20 minute trip leaned toward me and said, “Wow, you could skate on your eyes.”

 

The really good drugs will do that to you.

 

It turned out that my poor little baby tooth had reached the end of the line. I would keep it a bit longer, but needed a root canal. AH! They are bad, they really are. This dentist who was working on my tiny tooth kept contorting himself into all of these shapes and positions trying to get the work done. He had been doing root canals a long time, however, told me he had to borrow children’s root canal files from a friend. He had never worked on such a tiny tooth before.

 

Might have been a small tooth, but it hurt plenty big.

 

He finally got it done, then, the next step was to go see yet another dentist to have the crown made and cemented into place. Her name, I still recall it all of these years later, was Dr. Fong. She was very nice, and, had a beautiful office up high in an office building, also in Union Square. In all of the rooms she had these huge, real plants and delightful art. The worst was over now, the root canal was done. I got to keep my baby tooth a bit longer and just to do the crown would, for the most part, be a walk in the park.

 

Or so I thought.

 

During my second trip to see her, the crown was done, and, she was ready to cement it into place. She tilted the chair back so I was staring up at the ceiling and put headphones on me. Nice touch. I got to stare up at the tops of the plants, and thought it pretty that they swayed a bit.

 

She was standing up on a short stool and had the cement and the crown ready. She warned me not to move, then, started to push the crown into place. I tried to focus on something else and watched the swaying plants again.

 

Wait, why were they swaying?

 

Quickly and tersely she told me to stop moving. I tried to speak, but of course, I could not. She had the tooth in my mouth now, with the cement and her finger holding it in place. I could see her look up and around, then said, “Oh crap, it’s an earthquake!”

 

I immediately tried to get up. I had never been in an earthquake before, let alone lying on my back on the 16th floor of an office building with cement in my mouth. She did her best to keep me calm and told me not to move. At one point, she even got up on the side of the chair and put her knee on my chest to keep me in the chair.

 

I was trying to yell at her, that we needed to run, but that was useless. All 98 pounds of her was going to keep me in that chair with her fingers in my mouth.

 

The vertigo was horrible. I had to hold onto the armrests as the building swayed deeply one way and then the other. Some things flew off of shelves and shattered. One of her big, pretty plants slid from the window sill and shattered on the floor. My stomach clenched badly and I thought that was it, I was going to be sick with cement and a crown and Dr. Fong in my mouth, but I managed to avoid that.

 

After about 20 seconds, although of course it felt much longer, the world stopped wiggling around.

 

She stepped down, getting her knee off of my chest, slowly removed her fingers from my mouth and made a comment about how glad she was that her glove did not get glued to my tooth. She grabbed up a light, and checked my tooth, then went through a few more steps with me that one would normally do to make sure a crown had been seated and cemented properly. She did all of this as if every day she had climb down off of a patient.

 

 

 

 

My hat’s off to you Dr. Fong. You kept your cool, and, you did a fantastic job with my toothy…that crown lasted 30 years. Pretty damned amazing.

 

 

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