Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Three Pillars of Wisdom Remain

“Wow! Those are the longest roots I’ve ever seen! Come over here. Look how deep they go!”

Talk about words you don’t want to hear when having a wisdom tooth removed. I had come in to have a filling replaced, but was given the surprise news that the tooth had broken beneath the gum line and should be removed. Yes, I still had all four of my wisdom teeth; I never saw any reason to pull perfectly good chompers. This time, though, the dentist explained my options in terms I could understand.

“Well, you can either spend $3000 to build up the wall of a tooth you don’t need, refill it and cap it. Or, you can spend $100 and have it removed.” There’s nothing like simple economics to help me make a decision.

Most people really dislike visiting the dentist; I am not one of them. Maybe it’s because my childhood dentist rewarded good check-ups with silly novelty toys like rubber monster pencil-toppers and superballs. I was always fascinated with the large aquarium full of colorful fish in the waiting room, too.

Maybe I don’t mind visiting the dentist because my dentists always seem to have a twisted sense of humor. One time, a dentist approached my mouth with a pipe wrench in hand. I found it more amusing than intimidating. That same dentist gave me virtual reality glasses to watch animated, 3-D films set to electronically produced mood music. Imagine a Salvador Dali painting coming to life or an M.C. Escher illustration full of floating geometric shapes. It was pretty neat technology for the early 1990s, and it worked to keep my mind off of the high-pitch whine of the drill and the acrid smell of burning teeth.

I really haven’t had any terrible experiences at the dentist. My first cavity grew to the size of a small crater because I didn’t know what a cavity was. I could fit the tip of my tongue inside of it. When I finally had the hole filled, I didn’t receive enough Novocain to fully numb the affected area, so I felt almost every prick and poke of the stainless steel pick and every rotation of the drill bit. My back would arch as the dentist hit my nerve. Still, I never classified that feeling to be pain. Rather, I filed the sensation under the category of extreme discomfort. To me, real pain was misreading a skateboard trick and bouncing down an iron handrail in my own version of the Nutcracker. Real pain was sitting in an office chair with 18 staples holding my abdominal wall together after a hernia surgery.

I have seen all types of dentist offices over the years. One time I visited a dentist in Queens, where the walls were covered in old faux wood paneling that was peeling up from the floor. The ceiling was stained with rust-colored water marks. Dust and dirt were visible in the corners of the room, and some of the instruments had bite marks from previous patients. Those small details were offset by the sexy Latina dental assistant with the flirty chair-side manner. More recently, I visited a dentist who had a bowl of peppermint candy at the checkout window. I guess they wanted to guarantee a return visit.

So when I arrived at the dentist’s office located next to a ka-bob restaurant in a small strip mall, I wasn’t worried or even apprehensive about the emergency visit. The young receptionists gave me my paperwork and a pen topped with a kitschy flower, and I sank into an oversized leather sofa and casually watched a rerun of some CSI-type show on the big flat-screen TV.

After the first dentist looked inside my mouth, she was dumfounded to find that one of my previous mouth mechanics had filled a wisdom tooth instead of simply removing it. She immediately brought in the oral surgeon, who sent me for an X-ray.

The X-ray was machine was new to me. An assistant walked me over to a machine connected to the wall and told me to stand still. She pointed to what looked like a miniature white condom over a plastic bite stick. I was instructed to bite the notch in the end while she adjusted the machine to my height. I could barely make eye contact with myself in the mirror. Who would want to see themselves in such a compromised position?

The machine slowly rotated around my entire head with a robotic hum. I thought it was going to hit my shoulders, but it didn’t even graze my shirt. The image of my closed jaws was ready instantly, and the women crowded around the backlit photo to admire my aforementioned elongated roots.

When the oral surgeon presented me with the simple economics of the situation: $3000 to fix a useless tooth or $100 to evict it from its home of 30+ years, I signed the release forms about as fast I sign checks made out to me.

It wasn’t long before I felt the pinch of the stainless steel needle delivering the local anesthetic. I could feel my gums tighten and resist before the sharp point pierced through the soft tissue.

With a tingling chin and tongue, the surgeon began to yank at the remaining stump of my tooth. Her stated goal was to try and avoid cutting it out, which meant she was going to pull and twist until the tooth loosened in its socket. If you ever hear a dentist say, “You may feel a little pressure,” prepare to get brutalized.

One lady held my chin and cheek while the other ripped at the tooth with a pair of pliers. The pliers slipped and slammed into my upper teeth on the side of my mouth in which I still had feeling. I groaned when asked if I was alright. The surgeon asked if I was nervous as she wiped beads of sweat from my brow. It wasn’t nerves; it was the blazing heat of the lamp combined with the contracted muscles of my arms and hands, which were gripping the seat involuntarily.

She asked me if I’d like some nitrous oxide, “You know, laughing gas.” I really didn’t want to be unconscious for my first tooth extraction so I told her I’d take the gas only if she had some dance music, which got the two ladies laughing. Maybe if they’d have offered me some 3-D virtual reality goggles I’d have accepted their offer.

Then I heard a sickening crack as the surgeon snapped off a piece of tooth and exclaimed in exasperation, “Looks like we’ll be cutting it out.”

The hissing plastic vacuum jammed between my teeth and cheek choked and gurgled with fresh blood as the surgeon slit my gums with her scalpel. I couldn’t feel a thing.

After some more digging, jabbing, wrenching, twisting and grunting, the dentist gave up and employed some buzzing tool to remove the top of my tooth, which she gave to me for inspection. I took a quick photo with my phone and then pointed the camera at my mouth to document the gory procedure.

With the visible portion of my tooth out of her way, the surgeon went after the subterranean roots. While I was trying to see my mouth in the reflection on her plastic face shield, three dark drops of blood sprayed across its glossy surface. “Oh, my God! Is it in my hair?” she asked the assistant. It wasn’t, but it forced a satisfied smile from my stretched, cracked lips.

The surgeon and the assistant disagreed about whether a small piece of root still remained embedded in my gums or not. They arranged for another X-ray. This one was administered in my chair and didn’t require any humiliating poses in front of an ill-placed vanity mirror.

Suddenly, the assistant began shrieking and stomping her feet. Apparently, my numb jaw had closed on her finger like a vice. I always tell my kid to expect to be bitten if you put your hands in someone’s mouth. I’d think that lesson would be in the first lecure of Dentist 101.

The assistant’s hypothesis was proven true when a chunk of root appeared on the screen. The surgeon attacked it again, and after 10 more minutes of head-shaking hilarity, she had the tiny sliver of tooth in hand.

I reconsidered their offer of nitrous, and asked if they had a canister to go. The assistant gave me a wink and said she wished she had some at home, too.

After a quick cleanup, some directions on how to care for the gaping hole inside my mouth, and a prescription for some paralyzing pharmaceutical pain relief, I was on my way.

“Have a great weekend!” the team called as I left. “Thanks. I’m sure I won’t remember any of it.”

The office didn’t try to buy my love with candy or cheap toys, but the surgeon did tell me she saw plenty of other things to fix. The tools were bite-free and the women were amiable, so I’m sure I’ll be seeing them again real soon.


  1. I love those monster pencil toppers.

  2. Ha, ripping yarn. My tooth jockey gave me 'caine, nitrous, and Pink Floyd. Always a great trip.