Today was the big day I had to go to the dental surgeon to yank out my three bad wisdom teeth (see this post for why). Yes, it absolutely needed to be done – the alternative of a permanent diet of codeine and liquid food sipped through a straw didn’t seem practical – but I absolutely loathed the idea of doing this, of dealing with needles stuck into my gums and big metal pliers being jammed into my mouth. I woke up this morning feeling all squirrelly and anxious, dreading this appointment.
Bad dental history
My long-time discomfort with dentists and dental surgery comes from my experiences back in high school in suburban California, when I went to my dentist's one day for a routine exam and cleaning. The guy, after looking at my teeth, announced that I had a wisdom tooth that needed to be yanked immediately, and he knew a dental surgeon across town who had an opening today and could do it right away.
Doing it immediately meant that I couldn't have general anesthesia -- i.e.; gas -- since it requires a 12-hour period of fasting beforehand: it was the needle or nothing. But he was the professional, and if he said the tooth had to go immediately, it had to go immediately, so I went along, and drove over to the dental surgeon for the extraction.
That experience? Horrible, even nightmarish.
"Don't worry about our sticking a huge needle into your gums," the dental surgeon back in California had assured me. "We'll use a local anesthetic first so you won't feel it." Except, of course, that local anesthetic was applied using a needle, albeit a smaller one -- poke poke poke -- and I STILL felt the big needle full of Novocain -- jab jab jab -- when he jammed THAT in, too.
And, of course, there was the unforgettable experience of lying back in the dentist’s chair, half-woozy from the anesthetic, looking up at the ceiling as the dental surgeon kept jamming a variety of cold metal implements into my mouth, culminating in my distorted view of a pair of pliers coming in at me, clamping on the offending tooth, and feeling my jaw being pulled up as he tugged away, finally loosening the tooth and yanking it free.
The right side of my face was utterly numb to sensation for an hour or so after -- poking it gave me the curious sensation of being able to feel it with my finger but not getting the corresponding feedback from my face, so it was akin to fondling a rubber mask – and the codeine pills the dental surgeon gave me only just took the sharp edges off the pain with I suffered over the next few days.
I was supposed to eventually remove the remaining three wisdom teeth, but there was NO WAY I was going to repeat that experience, absolutely not unless the dental surgeon knocked me out cold with general anesthesia. But finding a dental surgeon who used gas, when I went looking, proved to be more difficult than I thought, so I eventually gave up and returned to my program of benign neglect.
The present-day consequences
Which brings us to the present day.
Fearing the worst, I took the entire day off, figuring that I would be in no shape to return to work afterward. It was with extreme trepidation that I showed up at the dental surgeon’s office this morning – the pain had mostly subsided, depending on how I chewed – and I was rationalizing up to the last minute about how I could get by without the multiple extractions. “Stiff” would probably be an accurate description both of my demeanor and posture in the chair, like I was awaiting execution.
Bottom line result: not even close to being an ordeal. Quite the opposite, in fact.
My first hint came as I was lying back in the dentist’s chair, staring up at the lamp lighting up my face, its brand name -- “DELIGHT” -- looking back. (“DELIGHT”? Har har, just the message I want to read just before someone RIPS MY TEETH OUT.)
“Open wide, please,” said the dental surgeon, and I complied, shutting my eyes and bracing myself. I felt as he swabbed my gums with a Q-tip, and I waited, eyes shut, for whatever came next. What I felt, after a short wait, was an instrument inserted into my mouth, resting slightly against the side of my open mouth. I could feel very slight movement, like metal or plastic being rubbed, through the instrument. The instrument was moved to another part of my mouth, and I felt the very slight movement again.
Because I had my eyes shut and wasn’t expecting it, it took me until after it was done to figure out what had happened: the “instrument” was a hypodermic syringe, and what I felt was the movement of the plunger inside its cylinder, delivering anesthetic through a needle inserted into my gums. I opened my eyes and said, “Did you just inject anesthetic into my gums?” The dental surgeon admitted he had. Huh, and I hadn’t even noticed.
The rest of the experience was, essentially, just as pleasant. The only thing that really qualified as unpleasant was the moment when he was reapplying some anesthetic and some of it dripped down my throat, gagging me. God, the stuff tasted awful.
But after some relatively mild poking, prodding, digging, and pulling, he took out the three remaining wisdom teeth, displaying their fragments to me: they varied from peppercorn-sized to pea-sized. Unlike the dental surgeon I went to years ago (where the memories of his handiwork with his instruments runs through my mind like a cinematic cross between Barry Sonnenfeld and David Cronenberg), this was a VERY skillful and gentle job of work.
He gave me a few pain pills to take when the anesthesia wore off – I took one, later, because that was all that was really needed for some slight discomfort – and I made an appointment for next month for a long-overdue teeth cleaning – given that the interval between my dentist’s visits are measured not in months or even years, but in Presidential administrations, it’s going to take two visits with anesthesia, using some technique called “dental planing”, to remove the plaque. I’m surprised he’s not going to be using C4 to blow it off.
I was presented with a booklet on aftercare (which advised me to avoid chewing on the side where the tooth had been extracted, difficult to do when they’ve been pulled from both sides) and the bill, which was ¥63,000 total, with each tooth charged at a different rate – how they figured it out, I don’t know, maybe by the gram? – which will be reimbursed by my New Zealand-based insurance company after I send them the receipt.
The whole thing, from the time I arrived until the time I was out on the street, took about 40 minutes.
And other than a slight soreness and that rubber-faced numbness around my jaw, I felt fine, so with plenty of free time on my hands (since I'd taken the day off), I called up my friend Sonja, who worked in the area and left a message on her voicemail. This message astonished my friend Sonja, which she later told me she found slightly boggling because my calm tone seemed to clash with my meaning (“Hi, Sonja, this is Cal. I just had three of my wisdom teeth pulled at the dentist’s, so I’m in the area now. Want to have lunch?”).
Maybe going to the dentist won’t be so bad after all.