Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Dental Surgery: A Cautionary Tale

It is 7:20 in the morning. I was up for most of the night reading Catching Fire and did not crawl into bed until four, so I am achingly, eye-searingly tired. I have not eaten anything since five o'clock the previous evening, and I have not had anything to drink since midnight.

At 7:30 I have a dentist's appointment. Today I will have my wisdom teeth removed.

There are forms to fill out and a bit of waiting to do, and as I sit in the front office with its stacks of magazines and piles of toys on offer for bored--or anxious--patients of every age, I can think of only three things.

The first is, I'm fucking thirsty.

The second is, Dammit, I want a stack of pancakes.

The third is initially I wish I had a Kindle, I could be starting Mockingjay right now, but with every passing moment the reality of the situation drives itself further and further into my brain and it is soon replaced by another third thought: What am I doing here? My life is going to be ruined for the next two weeks. It will be ruined because I asked for it to be ruined. I am a willing accomplice in the ruining of my life.

I like to be prepared, you see, and after it became clear that my wisdom teeth were messing everything up and would have to go, I wasn't satisfied with the cliffnotes description that they give you during consultation. I made my appointment, went home, opened up Google, and proceeded to research everything I possibly could about the surgery.

It's a dangerous thing, Google. If you don't use it carefully it will teach you more than you want to know.

I wasn't careful, so it taught me more than I'd wanted to know. From the exact meaning of the phrase "impacted tooth" to the exact procedure necessary to break one out of a hapless patient's jaw, I became over-informed. Did you know that they have to force your mouth open unnaturally wide just to get the scalpel back far enough to cut your gums? And that they can't just pull an impacted tooth, so they crush it piece by piece instead? I did. I do. And, sitting in this front office, I am consumed by the knowledge of what is about to happen to me.

My name is called, and I am brought to an examination room to meet the surgeon who will be crushing two of my teeth. On the way I pass a Keurig machine where people who are not me can brew themselves coffee, and I glare at it enviously. I'd like a cup of coffee.

The surgeon is young, with a friendly professional manner and a charismatic dentist's smile. I am taken aback; I'd expected someone older and more crotchety. Perhaps aware of this, he does his best to reassure me by answering my questions about the procedure in great detail. Since I already know too much about it, however, I don't have many questions other than "Will you stitch up my gaping tooth-holes?" (yes) and "Is my jaw going to feel very different after it heals?" (no) and "Are you sure you're not going to slice my lingual nerve in half?" (reasonably).

Then, with all my stalling out of the way, he takes me into the surgery room. I am put on a reclining chair and hooked up to an EKG. The pads are cold, but they don't bother me; I've felt them before.

What does bother me is the mask that appears out of nowhere. It descends towards my face and latches on like a headcrab.

"Um," I say, because that's really awkward. I'm not sure if I ought to feel like Gordon Frohman or like an actor on House.

At least my surgeon is nicer than House. "Let me know how the mask feels," he says, to which I can only respond,

"It's a bit loose."

The mask is tightened and I feel something rubbery circle my arm and squeeze--a tourniquet. "How are you feeling?" he continues.

"Pretty much the same," I say, "other than the mask on my face. Am I supposed to feel different? Should I be asleep yet? Maybe you should turn the gas up."

One of the two dental assistants takes a step away and fiddles with the mask machine. I continue to not feel different.

"I'm going to give you a shot in a minute," the surgeon says.

"I don't like needles," I say, in all likelihood repeating something that he has heard a million times before. "Can you warn me first?"

"Sure," he says, adjusting the tourniquet. I stare at the mask arching over my nose and continue to not feel different.

Suddenly there is a sharp pain in my arm. My head snaps around at once.

"Did you just surprise me with a needle?" I demand.

The surgeon laughs. "Yep," he says cheerfully.

Now I feel different. The world is falling away like it's just dropped out from under me, or perhaps I'm the one falling away, up into the fathomless velvety blackness of space, no longer tethered to the Earth by things like gravity and reality and consciousness.

With the drugs in my bloodstream, whatever they are, I black out.

* * *

I wake up.

It doesn't feel like waking up, honestly. One moment I am accusing the surgeon of ambushing me with a needle, and the next he is patting me on the shoulder and saying, "You did good." I have no perception that any time has passed, but it must have if we're done.

I did good? What did I do, I wonder? I think of the stories I've read about people under anasthesia, of how some of them apparently try to get up and run away or try to speak with a mouthful of scalpels and tooth-crushing implements, and decide that to have done well I must not have done anything at all. That's a relief; I had been worried, in a vague sort of way, that I would bolt out the door with a face mask and a bunch of ripped wires trailing after me.

The surgeon departs, and so do his two assistants. I am alone in the operating chair, now maskless and EKGless and quite ready to be done with everything. I want to leave.

So I do.

Straightening myself is difficult--my limbs are heavy and tangled, my balance shaky--but, all things considered, I feel remarkably clear-headed as I slide off the chair. This is going to work. Despite my addled, uncooperative, and generally inadequate body, this is going to work. I will make it work.

Though I am forced to use the chair as a support getting up, I steadfastly refuse to grab anything else on my way out; leaning on things to stay upright is for people who need to lean on things to stay upright, and I am not one of those people. Instead I lurch towards the door on my own two feet and into the examination room. It's slow going, but that doesn't matter. I get the knob turned somehow, topple through, and am halfway to the opposite door, the one connected to the lobby, when it swings open.

A dental assistant stares at me.

"What are you doing out here?" she says. "You're not supposed to be walking around."

I try to reassure her that it's fine, that I'm fine and perfectly capable of walking around the office, or possibly even capable of making the trek home on foot were I so inclined. Unfortunately, the half of my face that is numb and swollen and broken includes my tongue and lips--every part of it, in other words, that is necessary to produce speech. My eloquent rebuttal of her authority comes out sounding like the protest of a drunken five-year-old.

She is not impressed by it. (Truthfully, I'm not either. The words were much more coherent in my head.) Deciding that it is much more important for me to be contained than for me to be returned to my original seat, she coaxes me into this room's chair, tells me to rest, and goes back out the way she'd come. In her wake she leaves a rebel with no voice but a damn good cause. I can walk! I can walk, and I want to leave, and that should be the end of it! With the flames of resentment burning in my heart, I scowl at the wall for perhaps two minutes.

Then I get up again. I want to leave, and I will leave, and I am leaving.

Except I'm not.

Because the dental assistant had gone into the lobby, and there is a receptionist in the lobby, and the surgeon is probably out there talking with my mother, and there are probably a few patients waiting for their names to be called. They would all see me if I tried to walk out. They would all try to stop me, or at least most of them would. I'm not going anywhere.

It's a depressing realization, and not one to which I am entirely prepared to submit. There must be something I can do to combat this injustice against me. I'm in a dentist's office, after all, not a prison. These trained dental professionals can't hold me against my will!

I attempt to formulate a plan of action, but with all exits either closed off or useless there isn't much I can do. Ultimately I compromise: I abandon the idea of leaving and stay put, but remain on my feet as a pointed demonstration of how very well I've recovered.

The dental assistant returns, pushing a wheelchair, and says nothing when she finds me standing in the middle of the room, arms crossed, looking like a sullen and altogether powerless revolutionary. She just eyes me wearily for a minute and then indicates the wheelchair. "You'll be leaving in this," she says.

"A wheelchair?" I say. "That's a bit excessive, don't you think?"

She gives me the brief, puzzled smile of a woman who is being addressed in a language that she doesn't understand. The Novocain must have interfered with my Englishing.

"Sit down," she says. I obey grudgingly.

"Really, I don't need this," I say as she wheels me down a hallway. "I walked out of surgery. I'm sure I can walk out to the car. It's, I don't know, twenty feet from the building? It's not a problem."

The assistant is still unmoved by my gibberish. She brings me to my waiting mother, who carts me out into the parking lot. "How did it go?" she says.

"Swimmingly. Can I get up now?"

I suspect that all she hears is "Bleargh blaar bleeaargh?", but she deciphers my wordless babble anyway, somehow. "I guess," she says doubtfully.

I don't need a second invitation. Within seconds I am up, getting into the car, buckling my seatbelt, and then being forced to wait as she returns the wheelchair. I drum my fingers impatiently against the armrest.

On our way down the street we pass innumerable restaurants and fast food joints, and, looking at them, I begin to have some sense--some comprehension--of the fact that they are full of food and that anything resembling food will be off-limits to me for the next fortnight or so. Del Taco, Carl's Jr., Jack-In-The-Box, even the Sizzler where I had a really crappy lunch that one time--all of them mock me and fill my empty stomach with longing. It's not until we're on Katella, however, going through Disney's diner district, that I am struck with a brilliant idea.

I am watching IHOP and Tiffy's and Denny's roll by, thinking vaguely of over-priced milkshakes and burgers; then we stop at a red light and my attention is drawn across the road, to the lurking half-circle of California Adventure's Ferris wheel. It towers up above the walls and palm trees, bright, flashing, a behemoth with a pair of Mickey Mouse ears in the center that I can just barely see if I lean over and put my head back. It beckons to me like a siren or perhaps an open flame. Right now, with my gums bleeding and torn, my mouth stuffed with gauze, my face a dead, unfeeling mess and my capacity to enjoy anything in shambles, that Ferris wheel is a symbol of everything that is right and fun and not ruined.

"Hey," I say.

My mother, rightly interpreting this "bleeaaugh" as a cry for attention, says, "Hm?"

I spring into action.

"We should go to Disneyland."

"Mm," says my mother, and then, parsing my slushy words, adds: "Did you just say that you want to go to Disneyland?"

"Yes!" I hurry to defend the idea. "I feel fine. My face is a little numb, but I don't have to talk to go to Disney, do I?"

"No," my mother says, "I guess you don't."

"So can we go?" I say, eager to show the bloody sockets in my jaw that they can't rule my life.

"Sure," she agrees.

We pass Disneyland and keep going.

I mull this over for a while and decide that she is probably embarrassed to be seen in public with me right now, as my face looks like an abused balloon. I'll have to think of something else we can do to pass the rest of this beautiful and most definitely unspoiled morning, something that won't involve many people looking at us.

"Or, you know, we could go for a drive on PCH," I suggest.

"Okay," she replies.

We do not go anywhere near Pacific Coast Highway. My mother takes me home, loads me up on hydrocodone, and puts me to bed. I spend the next two weeks or so with cotton pads in the back of my mouth, drinking Jamba Juice smoothies as meal replacements and eating mashed potatoes and various kinds of soup between ten- or twelve-hour naps. The hydrocodone makes me tired, my inability to eat makes me unhappy, and commercials for restaurants make me absolutely furious.

Thirteen or fourteen days into my recovery, I have had enough. My jaw still won't open farther than an inch or so, I still can't speak terribly well, and my gums are still bleeding intermittently, but I order a heaping plate of crispy, crunchy french fries at ChaCha's Tacos and Tequila and chow down anyway.

That marks the beginning of a five-day stretch where I eat almost nothing but fries. When I return to the dentist's office for a followup appointment, so they can look at the incisions and make sure that everything is healing okay, I have subsisted for nearly a week on everything that I'm not supposed to have.

"Your mouth looks wonderful," the dentist tells me. "I can't tell that you've had surgery at all. You must be eating healthy, huh?"

"Absolutely," I say, feeling a bit guilty.

"And brushing a lot."

I haven't been brushing half as much as I should, since my jaw has continued to not want to open and forcing the brush in hurts it and my incisions.

"Yep," I say, feeling a bit more guilty. The dentist smiles and shows me out, my deception unnoticed.

I go home and eat a pile of fries.

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