Thursday, May 22, 2008

Of Mouth and Men, or, Down in the Mouth: Thirteen Years of Dentists and Dread

There aren't many cruel fates that have befallen me; my health, overall, has been good, and I've said before that, without knowing whether luck is something that you make or something that you get, I've always had a lot of the good kind. It's true that I can't cook, and I'm a terrible photographer--I know these things about myself, and I don't suffer much over them. There is usually little money in the things I enjoy doing the most. A coincidence, or a self-fulfilling prophecy? You tell me, Grasshopper.

There is one regrettable card I've been dealt, however, that causes me a considerable amount of scowling and pouting about once every five to ten years. It's this: My teeth could give a shit about Novocaine.

I discovered this, of course, in the worst possible way: At the hands of a totally incompetent dental technician named George. (After such an experience, you would remember his name after all these years, too.) George worked for the dentist I had chosen the year I finally landed a job with good benefits, Dr. P.V., DDS, a Denver dentist who owned one of those dental franchise-things called Perfect Teeth.

I was in my mid-20s; it made me feel all grown up and responsible to choose a dentist and actually go to an appointment. I was new to being a good consumer of medical and health services, and I believe I chose the good doctor by closing my eyes and pointing to the "Dentists" section of the Yellow Pages. I opened my eyes, my finger resting on a listing called Perfect Teeth. "Perfect Teeth," I gasped, opening my eyes. They must be good.

I went to my first checkup appointment after several years of not making any checkup appointments, and of course I had a whopper of a cavity making a tunnel between two of my bottom molars. What with being a grown-up and all who didn't need her mother to tell her that such things require attention, I made an appointment for a filling.

It was early, maybe 7:00 AM, and still dark the day of my appointment. I had taken the first one of the day so that I could still make it to work on time, even if the weather was bad. I took the chair and met George, the technician assigned to my case. He made chitchat as he set up the workspace, which included explaining that, because he loved snowboarding so much, he had his hands insured. "If I mess these up," he held up two meat hooks, "I lose my livelihood." I looked around at the otherwise empty office and asked, "Where's the dentist?"

"Oh, he's not coming. I'm filling your tooth." This sounded strange to me, but I figured it was just a no-big-deal filling, and could be handled by the superstar snowboarder whose dunlop* hadn't escaped my attention. George gave me several Novocaine shots, and put his Lloyd's of London policy on his drill.

"Ahhhrgh," I said, flinching. George told me to relax, but I could still feel the drill, a sensation that, at first, was unpleasant, but not unbearable. Like maybe picking a fresh scab, or listening to a John Tesh song. As he continued, things became more like taking a pick ax to that scab, or turning up the John Tesh to 11. I was trying to hold still, but found myself squirming and sinking, slinking down out of the chair, my fingernails impaling the pleather of the armrest. "Arrrgh! Arrawaah!" I protested. George tried several more shots of Novocaine, to no noticeable effect. Finally, he put down the drill, filled the tooth, and called it good.

I went to work, to answer phone calls with half my face, and went home to a throbbing sensation in my teeth that night. By bedtime, the throbbing had become a jackhammer in my jaw. Knowing that I faced a sleepless night, twisting and turning myself inside out trying to get comfortable, moaning in agony, I called the dentist's office number. I took down the emergency after-hours pager number the answering machine rattled off. My phone rang in a half hour.

"Take some Advil or Aleve," said Dr. V., unconcerned. I explained that I had already taken enough Advil to kill Keith Richards. He refused to call in a prescription, telling me, in so many words, that shit happens. For whatever reason, I believed him. Two months later, I still couldn't chew with the filled molars, and anything cold was out of the question. This was adulthood, I figured. Fillings hurt, which is why, I guessed, all the old people I knew were so pissed off most of the time.

I thought that for a few months, until the day a I felt a tiny little earthquake, then a tiny little landslide of metal going on in my mouth. I couldn't take it anymore; I made an appointment to see Dr. V. "What day is George's day off?" I asked the receptionist.

I realize now that this is a lot like returning to the hairdresser who just gave you the Borat after you had asked for the Rachel, but these were desperate times. Times during which there was no Yellow Pages in the cafeteria at work.

It turns out that George, untrained in how to deal with a patient who couldn't get numb, said, "Fuck it, Dude, let's go bowling," instead of dispatching the remaining decay before filling the teeth. With such shaky footing, the amalgam could find only limited purchase, and eventually it cracked and shimmied its way out of Dodge. "Douchebag," I mumbled at the news. Dr. V. Himself performed the replacement, with the help of a nice technician with a bad perm and prison work tattoos, andNovocaine, and a generous helping of nitrous oxide gas, which I learned doesn't so much lessen the pain of the drill so much as it lessens how much I care about the pain of the drill. While it was an improvement, I considered the situation a lose-lose one, but the best I could do given the circumstances.

Six years later, I knew I needed another filling, and chose a dentist with the care one would take to choose a babysitter, a roommate, a spouse. I had asked friends and family for referrals; I had learned to ask, "Are you the kind of dentist who performs the procedures, or are you the kind of dentist who does the books and buys the furniture?" I had made an important DUH-scovery that maybe not all dentists were alike. And when my new dentist asked me why I hadn't had a checkup in so long, I didn't lie. I had become self-unemployed, and didn't have benefits. I think I said something like, "The only thing worse than asking someone to hurt you is to pay someone out of pocket to hurt you." I made sure to tell her my story, which for some reason, entertained her as much as it informed her. She gassed me and filled my tooth. It was a little thing, it was no problem, and she was nice and competent enough that I actually don't remember her name.

Since then, I've been more diligent in seeing my dental professional. We have insurance right now, which is a bonus. Alex found the dentist we have now, a congenial fella with what I thought at first sounded like an exotic last name. I balked a little when I found out he was an Air Force dentist, but he quickly bucked the stereotype. (No offense to persons trained and working in the armed forces, but I spent years as a Planned Parenthood patient, and found myself in the stirrups across from a few former Army nurses. When you've had a pelvic exam from Maj. Margaret Houlihan, you can argue with me about the differences between military and civilian care.)

At my last appointment, last week, I learned that my filling of eight years ago, installed by the nice woman who laughed at my jokes and tolerated my nervous nellie patient style, was going bad. I launched my well-rehearsed presentation of George: The Man Who Hurt Me. My exotic-named dentist patted me on the arm, promised to gas me, and assured me that he would do no harm.

I went to my filling replacement remembering the nice dentist who thought my dental story was such a hoot. I lay in the chair in a full sweat, waiting for the ensuing jolts of pain that were coming, coming, coming. Then after the drilling was over, I lay trembling from the chills I got from sweating the previous hour. "Poor dear," the hygienist said, draping a blanket over me, and wiping down my forehead with a mop. Later, I vomited, which I considered a fair price for the modicum of relief the gas gave me.

The dentist's assistant, Xena, was waiting for me when I walked in, showed me to my chair; she asked me if I wanted to wear my own sunglasses, or wear the office goggles. "It's just for your protection," Xena said, and I wondered what kind of filling replacement could put out a person's eye. "Do you want some headphones?" she asked. "They might help if the sound of the drill bothers you." Considering that the drilling was going to go on inside my head, using earphones to dampen the sound didn't make sense to me, but I accepted them anyway, and put them on.

The dentist took a seat next to me, and we prepared each other on what was about to happen. "I can't get numb; there's nothing we can do about it," I said, and he looked at me sideways and said he didn't know about that. Nevertheless, I told him I wanted him to gas me, ASAP, but not too much. "Somewhere between Dead show and Pink Floyd." He gave me my shots and I lay there with my sunglasses and headphones on. I sent up a prayer of thanks that John Tesh was totally absent from the FM dial.

And then he said, "I couldn't tell from your X-rays for sure, but I see now that you definitely have a little cavity in the tooth next to this one. Do you want to just take care of it now?" This was an unwelcome surprise to me, but only mildly so. It's a little like having your mechanic tell you that, during your break job, he discovered you have a tail light out. No biggie, but another 10 minutes in the chair is another 10 in the chair. I told him to go ahead and fill it, to be conservative, and so I lay there, waiting, waiting, waiting. As the drill spun around in my head, I have to say I never felt a thing.

While I don't know if it was a change in me, or a change in the dentist, it turned out to be my most positive dental experience to date. And you can ask me for the man's name and number, but I'm busy organizing a ticker tape parade in his honor, and sending bouquets and gold bouillon to his office. I'm lobbying our local and state governments to name a day after him after offering him a key to the city. Sure, I may sound overzealous, but this kind of breakthrough means that maybe I'm living in a world in which anything could happen after all. Like, for example, how Dr. V.'s stellar filling continues to hold up to this day.

And how, if teeth can change their minds at the hands of one Air Force dentist with an exotic last name and a staff member named Xena, then who knows what other pains I'm tolerating that could turn themselves off one morning? Shoot, I'll bet that in a world like this one, I might even be able to forgo cavities altogether. Just as an experiment, I'm having Lindt chocolates for lunch. And just as insurance, I'm going to brush and floss afterward.

*Dunlop--shorthand parlance to describe one's abdominal physique, as in, "His belly done lop over his belt."


amy said...

oh my god, jody. i had a really hard time getting through the part where george, the scary surfer-dental assistant dude, axed your cavity filled tooth. i HATE going to the dentist.

i've never experienced the horror movie nightmare you did, but i hate that drilling sensation and the smell of burning tooth enamel. the best dental experience i've had was when my wisdom teeth were removed--they just pretty much knocked me out and i don't remember a thing. why all dentistry doesn't just knock people out so you can't remember a thing is beyond me.

probably hmo's are to blame, somehow. i'm very suspicious of them.

also, i'm really excited about the word dunlop. i'm going to see how many conversations i can throw that into this weekend. we have a lot of those in the south--it shouldn't be too hard.


DonnaOnTheBeach said...

This reminded me of the time I had my wisdom teeth out - the first one went in agony and fear to a scouse dentist who stole my tooth (although that action did make the pain go away to be fair). I told the second dentist the ordeal I'd had, and he said 'ok, I'll make sure you're numbed for the extraction, don't worry'. He came in and out of the room 6 times, and I was just starting to get irritated with him, when on the 7th he showed me a tooth - my tooth! He'd taken it on the 3rd visit and just wanted to see how long it would take me to notice (and then obviously realised I was nice but dim and told me!). I told the ENTIRE TOWN about how lovely, amazing, nice, humourous, funny, kind, gentle and fabulous he was. Sadly I moved from that town years ago, but I still fondly remember yon dentist...just not his name! Donna.xx
PS how did so many months pass?? I can't believe I'm JUST catching up on May's blogs. I swear time is sprinting by here. xx