Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Drill

I sit here now with the vague taste of blood in my mouth, and a hole that my tongue curiously darts through every few minutes. Went to the dentist yesterday. Wisdom tooth extraction. Actually, going a few times in the coming weeks as I haven’t gone to a dentist since roughly 2000.

Why so long? Well, not having medical insurance for years was a large part of that. I’ve been working freelance/temp gigs, two stretching on for years, like now. From what co-workers tell me, especially those with kids, the insurance where I’m working now, even on group plans, is astronomical. Sure, we’d all be better off with medical insurance, but when I know people in my freelance boat telling me they’re dropping $300/month on this …

Man, forget it. Last time I was to a doctor was in the 1970s when a dog bit me on the ass while I was riding my bike. I had a few sports physicals after that, consisting of a doctor checking my blood pressure, heart rate and the traditional jamming of his rubber-gloved fingers into my balls/coughing hernia check.

I’m not thumbing my nose at the medical profession … I just don’t want these people in my life because I don’t trust them and have rarely needed their services over the past few decades. When Dad passed on, my faith in them plummeted. (Ironically, the only person in the medical profession who had acknowledged Dad’s passing was the family dentist, who sent Mom a nice card.) I have a fairly healthy life style, have never been prone to illness (haven’t taken a sick day in decades), am not accident prone, purposely avoid high-risk nonsense like motorcycle-riding. I don’t live in fear. If a job comes along with insurance, I’ll take it, but not for that reason, and can’t really say I’d end up using many of the covered services.

But I’ve realized it makes sense to keep up with the dentist, because there’s just so much you can do with toothpaste, mouthwash and floss. This guy I’m going to now gave me a deep cleaning on my first visit that was revelatory, like I had a new set of teeth afterwards, the spitting of blood into the rinse basin was worth it. He had some sort of high-pressure water/scraping device that obliterated any substance on or around my teeth, and while I felt like I had been punched in the face afterwards, I couldn’t deny it really was an improvement.

Flashback 30 years, and it’s another story, and probably the real reason I’ve been more than OK with letting the dentist go by the wayside the past decade. Being a kid in rural Pennsylvania in the 70s, I was used to the concept of a no-frills way of life. Everything Mom and Dad bought in the store was cheap and made to be re-used. Pants were hemmed so one kid could pass them on to another. Gallons of soda were bought instead of more expensive fruit juices. The idea was “bang for the buck” more than subscribing to some type of “American Way” of raising kids where everything they had done for them was healthy and undeniably right.

I won’t bust my parents for much, but one thing I surely will was that crazy sugar-pounding diet we had, and their lack of enforcement on sound dental habits. And I mean to the point of watching us brush, gargle and floss ever morning and night. I would have chafed like hell at this, but would have been thankful for that sort of discipline today. You know kids … they hate to do stuff like take baths and brush teeth. But I wish they would have enforced the teeth thing … it would have saved all of us money in the long run, and saved us many mouthfuls of pain, then and now.

Going to the dentist back there at that time, man, I KNOW Novocain existed and was in popular use back in the 70’s … but we never got it! We went to Dr. Morrison, an aged dentist a few towns over. Can’t recall his first name, so we always thought it was Jim. A ride over there would have my brothers chanting, “Mr. Mojo Rising … Mojo Rising … Rising, Rising … Got to keep on rising!” Or crooning, “This is the end … beautiful friend, the end.” Because it was a Doors-like experience of darkness and doubt to make that long station-wagon ride to the dentist’s office, like we were riding to hell to meet Satan.

Just the door on that office, with the pebbled glass and wire-crossed window, scared the shit out of me. It was like an office out of a 1940’s private detective movie: dark, foreboding, always twilight, shadows everywhere. I expected to open the door and see Humphrey Bogart sitting there with his fedora and cigarette. Instead, I found copies of Highlights magazine for kids, the sight of which still scares the shit out of me. And the tense sound of drills whining in the background.

I can’t even recall if Dr. Morrison was a nice guy or not. I suspect he was a crotchety old man, as I seem to recall him being in his 60s or 70s at the time. I can’t even remember what he looked like, save for the white smock and ever-present surgeon’s light he wore in a headband.

What I do remember, to this day, is getting drilled repeatedly without the benefit of Novocain or any other anesthetic. It’s laughable today to envision that scene, a kid undergoing a medical procedure like this without having his mouth numbed, but I guess Dr. Morrison was of the era where Novocain was for pussies. World War II, longshoremen swinging hooks, why, all I ate was a baked-bean sandwich all day Depression era shit. I had a bellyful of it from Dad, but Dr. Morrison lived it.

It was agonizing. There were two types of drills: the high-pitched, keening drill that was used for the fine-styling along the edge of a tooth. Which sounded horrific, but really wasn’t that bad. And the low-rumbling, deep drill that took out the bulk of the cavity.

And that thing was a pain machine. Tear-inducing pain. White-knuckled, seat-rail clutching pain. Fucking agonizing. Smoke coming out of my mouth. Afraid to move despite numerous alarms going off in my synapses. Shaking in the chair like a dog dreaming. All I could do was stare at the light and try to put my mind somewhere else. The dental assistant at this recent trip commented that I was the most relaxed patient she’d ever seen. Another dentist years ago called me “stoic.” No. I just go back to those horrible visits to Dr. Morrison’s office when I realized the only way out was to disassociate my mind from the situation. Feel the pain, but put my mind somewhere else. It’s clear to me I still do it now, despite having serious dental work done under well-administered sedation.

You would think, having that done to me once, I would have said, forget Mom and Dad, I’m going to brush and floss twice a day, maybe more, now that I know what will happen when I don’t. But kids are stupid: I use myself as a prime example. I have a mouthful of fillings now as a result: not a bad set of teeth. But worked on … seriously worked on!

The stint with Dr. Morrison must have ended by the early 80s, because I remember a series of dentists in my teens and early 20s. Dr. Hale in Frackville? He seemed like a good guy – can’t recall why we stopped using him, unless he retired. A few quacks along the way apparently, as one of them did a number on my sister in terms of lousy decision-making that she still pays for today. Those few I saw in my teens and early twenties are a blur. I didn’t go that much.

In New York in my late 20s, a coworker turned me onto her dentist just around the corner from us at work in Manhattan. And he did all right by me, until he started in with mentions of the possibility of multiple root canals. This after having a clean bill of health the previous two visits? Come on, now. By this point, I had recently left that job and was uninsured. I didn’t get a second opinion because I thought he was pulling my leg … the kind of guy who took x-rays every visit. He did good work, but gave the impression he was running up the bill, too, with unnecessary work. That was my demarcation point from dentistry: had enough. Here was a guy who knew I was uninsured, had seen nothing wrong with my teeth just the week before, and now I need root canals?

“You’ll be in terrible pain if you don’t get these some time in the next two years,” he warned.

Yeah, well, those two years ended eight years ago, and my mouth hasn’t really bothered me too much in the last decade. Some pangs during very cold days in winter, a filling eventually falling out (which I just got replaced), but with daily care and a nightly mouthguard, my teeth have held up reasonably well. Granted, I could have used the cleanings and an occasional re-filling. The wisdom tooth he warned me about is going to get extracted two Saturdays from now. The tooth has been positioned above a gap over my last molar, which was taken out in my 20s. Thus, this tooth didn’t serve much purpose: teeth are meant to grind together to chew food. I know we don’t stop to think about that much, with all the crazy shit we’re being fed about million-dollar smiles and whitening (which always look like dentures to me, you can tell when someone over 30 has gone that route), but that’s what they’re in our mouth for. If a tooth can’t do that, especially a wisdom tooth in the back where not much chewing is going on, it becomes expendable. You surely want to hold onto your front teeth and that row of chewing teeth just behind the incisors: lose them, and life gets rough on you.

I didn’t appreciate the dentist back then not presenting me with that option: an extraction for a few hundred dollars as compared to a root canal for well over a thousand … on a tooth that was no longer serving its function due to the opposing tooth no longer being there. I realize these guys are in business to make money, but it seems to me they do pretty well just providing basic dental services to patients without looking to create situations for higher end/much more expensive work.

This recent dentist, in the neighborhood, seems to have that understanding, probably because he’s served a traditionally working-class neighborhood (that’s been gentrifying in alarming ways the past decade). The two times I’ve been in his no-frills office, when I’ve gone back out to the waiting room, it’s elderly Greek and Italian women in Terminator shades and leopard-skin prints. I’m hoping this doesn’t represent his entire customer base! It would be a shame if this guy’s business declined because of a changing neighborhood and lack of that “word of mouth” promotion most dentists thrive on.

This guy has a good, no-bullshit demeanor about him that I appreciate. He appears to be in his early 60s, was playing classic rock on the PA when I came in, so I immediately felt at ease. Before that massive cleaning, he took x-rays, the only ones he assured me, and gave me an exact rundown of what would need to be done over the next 3-4 visits, at which point, my teeth would be perfectly fine and working as well as they’d ever been.

What originally broke me down and made me go was two chips in my front teeth, on top and bottom, the top giving me a hillbilly-esque little gap, the bottom not even visible, but the back part of the tooth chipped, which was causing me to whistle my S’s and drive my tongue nuts when it touched the tooth and felt that craggy gap. This shit has been driving me nuts since just after Christmas. He took care of that back one first and will save the moonshine jug gap for last.

I feel all right. Will surely be going the “six month cleaning/check-up” route from now on which, I can guarantee, will be mostly cleanings and the occasional re-filling. But I still got that strange feeling in his office, as I’m sure I will in all dentist offices, of Dr. Morrison’s dark mahogany waiting room, the stifling fear, which is more anticipation than actuality, even knowing this guy was modernized and would be shooting me up for any sort of deep work. Some fears you never shake.

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