I was at my desk this morning when I was suddenly overcome by a pain in my back lower jaw: a toothache in one of my remaining wisdom teeth, hitting me with a vengeance. I felt a little pain there a few days ago, but it had subsided. This time, it didn't, and a trip to the local drugstore for some topical anesthesia didn't help, at least beyond a few minutes. The pain got worse and worse, and nothing I did seemed to relieve it.
At one point, I was over by the office "kitchen" (a very tiny room with a sink and a big hot-water dispenser), holding a wet washcloth to my face, and I let out a loud moan -- more frustration than pain, really -- and when I turned around the security guard from the front door was there, a look of concern on his face. I waved him off, saying daijoubu, daijoubu.
But when I started to return to the office, damp washcloth pressed against my jaw, I ran into one of the upstairs managers just outside the office door. Apparently the guard called him, and he looked worried. I wasn't focusing well, so I didn't catch the significance of of one of his gestures until later: while we were exchanging primitive communications, him trying to figure out what was wrong and me trying to say it was okay, sure, whatever you say, he made a sort of punching gesture with his fist.
It wasn't until I got back to my desk that I figured out that he was asking me if someone had hit me, and that I'd probably agreed with him. Ooops.
I called up T.H., my native-English intermediary who worked upstairs,1 and let him know, so he could quash any rumors about fist fights in the subcontractors's offices. Nothing yet, but I prefer not to be surprised.
In any case, the pain didn't subside and I could NOT concentrate on my work. So there was no getting around it, I had to call the dentist.
That's not as simple as it sounds. I knew my problem was a wisdom tooth and that it would probably be extracted, something that the dental surgeon who extracted one umpty-ump years ago back in high school told me. The thing was, that tooth-extraction procedure was such a horrible experience -- needles being painfully jammed into my gums, hazy visions of enormous pliers being shoved into my mouth, the feeling of my jaw being jerked up as the guy pulled out the tooth, the rubbery and inert jaw the procedure left for an hour or so afterward, and the two or three days of pain that the codeine didn't really help with. Which meant I still had the other three wisdom teeth left, because NO WAY was I going to face those needles again. Well, until now, it looked like.
I called the medical practice I normally go to, which shares space with a dentist's office. They gave me the number, and I made an immediate appointment for the afternoon.
I went home and lay down for an hour, then took the train to downtown Tokyo and the dental office, the pain level rising and falling to a dull roar. The dentist, an American from West Virginia2, examined my mouth and took some x-rays3. The verdict: not one, but the THREE remaining wisdom teeth needed to come out. In fact, he seemed surprised I was feeling pain from a lower tooth, as he thought I ought to be feeling pain from one of the upper ones, it was so bad-looking. Also, good teeth, but bad gum disease -- not bad considering that my time between dental visits isn't measured in months or years, but Presidential administrations.
The damage to my wallet for this will be up to ¥50,000 per tooth for the extraction -- price depending on degree of difficulty extracting or maybe weight of the teeth, I don't know -- and maybe ¥150,000 to treat the gum disease after I do the extraction. I say "will be" because I haven't done the extraction yet: the dental surgeon, not the dentist, yanks the teeth, but he wasn't in til next week and didn't have an opening until Tuesday. So I got a script for painkillers and antiobiotics, an emergency number, and the name of the Keio University dental clinic in case of dental emergency.
The pain is down to an annoying-but-livable ache, but I still have to face the nightmare of a triple extraction on Tuesday. No choice: deterioration is the only thing to look forward to if I do nothing, since teeth don't magically heal. Nonetheless, I can't help envisioning David Cronenberg's movie Dead Ringers, imagining a surgical-scrubs-garbed Jeremy Irons wielding those bizarre surgical instruments he uses in the film. Brrr.
Number of teeth in the human head: 32
1T.H. is Japanese, but lived in the US for 15 years -- mostly New Jersey but including 4 years at Syracuse University -- so he really is absolutely fluent. Of course, it's fluent New Jersey, right down to fluency in obscene Italian gestures. You can tell when he's mentally switching languages because, I swear, even his posture changes.
2I asked his nationality to be sure, because I figured that when got around to asking about the last time I'd been to the dentist, I could supply the correct cultural reference, such as "some time when Margaret Thatcher was at Number 10" or "when Brian Mulroney was still Prime Minister". God knows what I would have said if he'd been Australian, since I have no idea who's Prime Minister now, let alone back then. Possibly someone named "Bruce".
3The x-rays were taken in the small, windowed closet -- space being tight in Tokyo buildings -- holding the x-ray machine and a stool. While I sat on the stool wearing a lead-lined apron, the dentist pointed the barrel of the emitter at the side of my face, stuck the little strips of film onto holders, and had me clamp them in my mouth . He stepped outside, shut the door, fired the machine, opened the door, pulled out the holder, swapped for fresh film, and repeated the procedure.
However, for the last shot, the film holder was so far back in my mouth that I automatically gagged and spit it out. No problem, he replaced the holder with a differently shaped one -- which I also gagged on and spit out. So he resorted to holding the film with a pair of forceps, kneeling in the closet with me, holding the forceps in my mouth with one hand and signaling to the nurse outside to fire the machine with the other. And *I* was the one wearing the lead apron.