Dental Barbarism

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“The dentist—he is a barbarian!” my father says in his thick Russian accent as I whine and recount the story of getting two cavities filled at Dr. Fine’s fancy dental office on Fifth Avenue. Let the fancy address fool you not—he too is a card-carrying member of The DBS (Dental Barbaric Society), where they make you take a lifelong oath to perpetuate oral misery to the masses with eroding ivories in our mouths.

The last time I had a cavity filled was in Forest Hills, Queens by my Trusty Childhood Dentist. Two decades later, in this midtown Manhattan office with a fancy polished bronze logo on their thirty-first floor mahogany door, I declare a recall on dentistry. I want to go back to the days where they gave me gas and sent me adrift to la la land.

Trusty Childhood Dentist used to give me the “Snoopy nose.” “Breathe deeply,” he would say and the sweet smell would come through the rubbery nasal contraption strapped onto my nose with four large plastic tubes. Secured into this dentist’s chair, I was happier than ever. Yes, the drilling noise was still the same, but when I closed my eyes, a kaleidoscope of images distracted me in a happy way to a happy place.

Today’s visit is to fill two small flossing cavities. “This would be a great case for the medical boards,” Dr. Fine had told me last year when he diagnosed these microscopic painless cavities in my molar teeth. It took me over a year of postponing appointments to make it to this one this morning.

First the dental hygienist cleans my teeth by scraping them with a stainless steel pick. She scrapes and then wipes the scraped remnants onto my dental bib. I wish for the chalk-on-blackboard sound or the fork-on-a-plate sound; both would be an improvement over this scraping noise. I can only presume this was to ready me for the drilling on the horizon.

The cleaning is done. I spit chunky bloody saliva and rinse with Listerine. The best is yet to come.

First Assistant comes in and shoves a wooden stick with green gel onto the left side of my mouth and walks out of the room. This is to numb my gums before the injections. I sit here, very slowly getting topically numb, but not really numb … and I’m drooling like a teething baby. I spit into the little dental basin and wipe my mouth. The wooden stick is still sticking out of my mouth. I sit, I drool, I spit, and I wipe my mouth with a tissue.




Fifteen minutes of this repetition and Dr. Fine comes in, clearly in a fowl mood. He skips the usual small talk and instructs me to keep absolutely still. I recognize this tone—tattoo artists and make-up artists also use this tone to stress the importance of stillness. So fine, be prideful, but do you have to shove your fingers that deeply into my mouth, ripping my cheek off?

So he comes in and injects the anesthetic. I think this is the same dental barbarians have been using since the beginning of time. It is somehow reminiscent of the first scuba helmet—archaic but solid. I see the vial of Novocain with a fading yellow label in a brown glass jar on the sterile tray on the stainless steel counter. I don’t think I ever realized that they go back into the same vial of Novocain. He pulls my cheek open and pushes my tongue aside and then ouch, ouch, ouch. The first assistant is still here and she says breathe, breathe, breathe. So I breathe. But it still hurt—a lot. He finishes the torture and walks out.

First Assistant sits in the chair next to me for the next fifteen minutes, flipping through a magazine as I drool even more all over myself. Drool, spit, wipe. Again. Dr. Fine comes in and asks me if I’m numb. I feel some numbing in my lip, I’m drooling like crazy, but I still don’t feel the numb I remember—where your whole lip feels like it’s a balloon and your mouth insides are chewy rubber.

Dr. Fine tests for himself; he takes a sharp devise and starts poking around my mouth. I feel every poke. “Oh you’re not numb at all,” he says, frustrated, and goes back for round two with the injection device. Deep sigh, wish for Xanax and here we go again. He says it won’t hurt but he’s lying. He pulls my cheek and pinches it and injects and repeats over and over until he’s satisfied that I’ll be numb all right! He rips off his gloves storms out of the office. More drooling and more waiting. What fun.

Now First Assistant leaves for lunch and Meaner Assistant accompanies Dr. Fine as he begins. The drilling is awful; directly into the brain. He is drilling and poking and pushing and pulling. Meaner Assistant is stretching my cheek farther than it uncomfortably goes; Dr. Fine keeps telling me to open wider and keep stiller.

I moan a little bit and as Dr. Fine reloads the next evil tool, I tell Meaner Assistant that my mouth really hurts. She seems annoyed and says, ‘“You want Vaseline?’ I tell her never mind, but think it would have been a good idea to use the lube before they raped my mouth.

They finally finish after what seems like a whole day in this chair. The corners of my mouth feel ripped and my jaw feels locked. It takes five hours for the feeling to come back to my face.

Only now as I research “after cavity filling pain normalcy” online do I learn that some dentists put you to sleep for a cavity. Why did I not know of this voluntary sedation? Why didn’t I research my cavity filling options? I thoroughly researched my thyroid surgery, but took these little flossing cavities for granted.

Lesson learned—explore all anesthesia option for every medical procedure—no matter how minor they’re deemed by society.

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