According to its wrapper, the granola bar in my hand promised to help me “Start the Day in a Whole New Way”. I took one bite and immediately felt a sharp pain in one of the molars in my lower jaw.
The wrapper was right. I had certainly started the day in a whole new way.
My tongue told me the shape of my tooth was different now. A small part had broken away but it hurt for only a second. Without the motivation of pain, I decided to simply tell the dentist about it during my next visit. Frankly, once I became used to the different shape of my tooth, I forgot all about it.
Until three weeks later.
That night something felt a bit different around the tooth. There was the hint of an ache, some puffiness in my jaw, and my cheek felt slightly warm. I went to bed having decided I might need to call the dentist if I felt a little pain.
Around 2:00 in the morning I felt a little pain.
And by “a little pain” I mean I awoke to the sensation of a red-hot poker being plunged mercilessly into my jawbone, hammered in further by hydraulic machinery, and all the while being doused with gasoline and set on fire. Beneath my jaw, just below the obviously infected tooth, was a swollen area warm to the touch and very painful. One minute I was in agony, the next minute the pain disappeared, but it came and went often during the night. While having pain-free minutes I drifted to sleep only to be awakened by the evil flaming jack hammer attacking my inner tooth.
Thankfully, the dentist could see me first thing in the morning. The dental hygienist took an x-ray the minute I sat in the chair. As the dentist entered the room he glanced at the x-ray on the wall.
“You’re probably in pain.” he said as nonchalantly as if commenting on a lovely sparrow singing in the windowsill.
“You’re probably right.” I responded. “Can you just patch the tooth or whatever it is you do?”
For some reason he laughed.
I had never felt such pain. When there was no pain, there was the fear of pain. I couldn’t think of anything that could strike as much fear in me as awaiting the next onslaught of pain.
“You need a root canal.” he said.
Until I heard that.
My mind flooded with memories of horror stories related to me by friends about their own root canal experiences. At that moment, the demon pain in my tooth awakened and in seconds it felt as though I were being kicked in the jaw by an angry, and possibly rabid, mule.
“Just do it then. Do it now.” I said. “And hurry.” I was starting this day in a whole new way. I began to sweat.
He laughed again.
The dental hygienist set to work to prepare me for the procedure. She fastened a tiny useless paper bib around my neck, patted my shoulder, and wished me luck.
The dentist hovered over my open mouth and began to apply a numbing gel to the spots where he would then inject my gum with even more numbing drug to deaden the tooth.
“It tastes like bubble gum, doesn’t it?” he asked in a tone that indicated he was already sure of the answer.
“It tastes like potpourri and dirt.” I corrected.
He laughed, hopefully at my comment and not at his actions, because he then jabbed my gum with the first of several needles. After a few injections around the hateful tooth, he waited for the numbing drug to take effect. When the side of my face felt like a slab of liver hanging from my head, I knew I was ready. This would soon be over, I thought.
I thought incorrectly.
After two hours of his drilling, scraping, poking, and suctioning, and my gagging, drooling, coughing, and moaning, he suddenly sat very quietly with his hands still wedged in my mouth. I would have asked what he was waiting for but my jaws were held open by what felt like the tire chock of a Boeing 747. I stopped counting the hairs in his nose and gave a questioning grunt.
“I’m just draining the infection.” he explained. “Once I drill down far enough into the tooth it’s like popping the cork on a champagne bottle and it all flows right out!”
Nice, I thought. Cheers.
He finished his handiwork, the dental hygienist dove into my mouth up to her elbows to finish something, and they sat me up.
“There you go.” the dentist said.
“Hey,” I managed to say with a numb tongue, “that wasn’t so bad, but glad you’re finished.”
“Finished?” he began, “That was only the first part. You need to come back at the end of the week for me to do the second part.”
There was a part two. I would have to start the day in a whole new way yet again. I began to sweat.
“Before you come back for the second part, why don’t you come in for a routine cleaning.” the dentist asked as he signed something handed to him by a passing coworker.
I pointed to my mouth. “But you’re in mid-construction in there. Isn’t that like washing the car while you’re still finishing up the body work?”
He laughed loudly.
“Just come back at the end of the week then,” he said, “but don’t worry, the worst part is behind you.”
“No, the worst part is before me.” I said. “I still have to pay for this.”
He laughed loudly again.
I returned later in the week for part two. The dentist began the injections to make my tooth properly numb. After several shots, he said we would now wait until they took effect. Remembering the last time when I had to wait in the chair for almost twenty minutes in order to reach that point, I tapped the dentist on the arm as he walked away. He stopped and looked at me.
“Do you get paid by the hour or something?. Is that why there’s been no effort to make a numbing drug that works any faster?” I asked.
In time, my gum reached peak numbness. Once again I spent two hours on my head in the chair, a street lamp hung inches from my face, and the dentist and dental hygienist performed their square dance in my mouth. When all was said and done, they wiped two hours worth of drool from my numb chin and sat me up.
“Well,” the dentist began as he sorted his tiny medieval tools, “you should be good now. Anything else we can do for you while you’re here?”
“Yes.” I said. “Could you go back in and drill deep enough to remove a kidney? I’ll need to sell it on eBAY to pay what my insurance won’t cover on this tooth.”
He laughed as he walked away and I heard him tell the girl at the front desk that he would “do this one differently”, but I paid little attention. I used the restroom and upon returning to the front desk I asked for the bill. I began to sweat.
The receptionist handed me the invoice and below the itemized column full of numbers and codes was a grand total. To the left of that printed amount was another total, hand written in ink. A significantly lower grand total.
“What does this mean?” I asked.
The receptionist explained that the dentist had given me the staff discount.
“Why?” I asked, still puzzled.
“He said he enjoyed your humor each time you came in.” she answered. “And that you had a point about how long it takes for the numbing injections to work?” She was clearly not sure what that meant, but she assumed I did.
I looked around for the dentist in order to thank him, but he had already crawled inside the next patient’s mouth.
“Tell him I really appreciate that.” I said.
“Sure will.” she responded. “He said to have a patient who actually joked through an entire root canal certainly did start his day in a whole new way.
I began to sweat.
Stuart M. Perkins