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About as Funny as a Root Canal
January 27, 2014 - Diane Laney Fitzpatrick
Throughout my adult life I've lived a charmed existence when it comes to dental work. When I was in my 20s I had a few fillings. In my 30s I had a crown, a root canal and a wisdom teeth extraction. In my 40s I had a second crown and adult braces. None of these were particularly painful, except for the braces, which I can't talk about yet or I'll cry. Give me another 2-3 years and maybe I can describe how upset I am that in the 21st century we are still straightening teeth by slowly turning screws on a series of tiny vises The point is, I didn't have any real horror stories stemming from dentistry. I got my teeth cleaned, checked and x-rayed like clockwork every 6 months. Like I said: Charmed.
My childhood wasn't as rosy. I grew up with a dentist with a bad attitude and worse personal hygiene. (To this day the smell of Brylcreem and halitosis makes me clench my teeth shut and run.) My baby teeth wouldn't fall out so most of them had to be pulled to make room for permanent teeth that would soon be filled with molten lead, which would then turn from silver to black, making me look gross in all pictures where I'm laughing. If I asked, "Do I have something in my teeth?" the answer was, yes, 12 ounces of black steel.
My childhood experience helped set in stone my determination to get regular checkups. If I had a dentist look in my mouth every 6 months, I reasoned, there wouldn't be time for something horrible to happen. We would nip it in the bud.
Then last week I had to get a root canal. I wouldn't go so far as to call it an emergency root canal, but I had an hour's notice.
In that hour, I had to choose between getting a shower or finishing up a freelance article that was due in a couple hours. I chose the shower. In retrospect, I should have finished the article. Only hours after walking into the endodontist's office, I was covered in my own spit, sweat and tears. My deodorant hadn't as much worn off as died by assassination in a blitzkrieg of perspiration, and my makeup had retreated into my inner beauty. I felt like a fool for having spritzed on some cologne before leaving the house.
I understand root canals about as much as I understand orthodontics, which is somewhere between nothing and wrong. I listened patiently as Dr. Yee explained how he was going to do the root canal. I resisted the temptation to ask even a single question, because it might show the vast void of my knowledge about teeth and their roots and nerves, gums, my jaw - pretty much everything south of my nose and north of my turkey gobbler.
Based on Dr. Yee's explanation - which included an ice cream cone analogy that started out cute, but ended up leaving me confused, hungry and worried about the cracked cone that was leaking melted ice cream all over the floor - I think I've figured out how root canals work.
They work this way: First he puts you in a rubber mask direct from Quentin Tarantino's personal Pulp Fiction collection, and then drawing on all those years of medical school, he very carefully and skillfully tries to shove cotton balls and silverware down your throat. You would do as directed and raise your hand "if you feel any discomfort" but then he'd see the middle finger that you're flashing under your giant bib.
He puts goggles on you just for his own amusement. Every time there was chance of splashing water - or spit - or a stray shrapnel from the blowtorch, he would say, "Close your eyes!" in a cheerful voice. As if when I opened them there would be a Tiffany box with a bow sitting on my stomach.
Afterward, they let me go to the restroom, but my hands were shaking so much I could hardly work the key. I got a glimpse of myself in the mirror. After four hours of having my mouth stretched open, I looked like the Joker and not the colorful, campy Cesar Romero but creepy Heath Ledger. That was only one-half of my mouth. The other half was in a teeth-clenching frown.
"What's the deal?" I asked Dr. Yee's assistant when I got back in the chair. "Why is this still done like this? Isn't there a laser or something they can use to zap tooth nerves while we take a pill and go off into the Matrix for a while?"
And speaking of a pill, what happened to nitrous oxide? Valium? I got nothing. Not even Jerry Springer on a muted TV on the ceiling.
"There is some work being done on lasers, but it's still a few years down the road," the assistant said. "And as for nitrous, it sometimes can make the patient less cooperative."
I've decided to return to my charmed life and avoid all root canals until they improve the technology. I want music, I want lasers, I want visuals of puppies romping in a meadow playing in my brain, and when I open my eyes, I want a little blue box.
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