Seems most everyone has a horribly true tale about going to the dentist. One is spun by a friend of mine who tells of the time he regained consciousness in the middle of a wisdom tooth removal and how it took two large dental hygienists to pin him to his chair and keep him from destroying all the equipment with his mad thrashing. That one will send chills down your spine. Until recently, however, I had no such tale of my own. For you see, all my life I have had nice teeth. Great teeth, really. Fantastically perfect teeth with nary a cavity to be found, naturally straight and with plenty of room to spare. If I really committed to it, I could probably fit another couple of teeth in on both sides with no trouble. (And if my wisdom teeth keep creeping down, like they are, I’ll probably get the chance to try.) The ironic thing about it, though, is that I have been able to achieve this state of dental perfection without succumbing to the tedious notion that my teeth had to be brushed after every meal, or even every day.
Growing up, most of my friends had crooked teeth and in order to fix them they had to spend years in braces, retainers and, in one particularly sad case, head-gear. These chaps were forever leaving their retainers on their cafeteria trays, in full sight of everyone, just to put as many people off their lunches as possible. Then, they would forget to put them back in their mouths after lunch and would wind up having to dig through bags of cafeteria garbage to find them again. They were also the death of fun at sleep-over parties, because their moms had forbidden them to eat anything that might damage their expensive dental work, such as chips, popcorn, pan pizza, candy and just about anything else we non-crooked-teethed types might want to eat. They would have to sit in the corner and eat mashed potatoes while we lived it up on Doritos and jawbreakers. And oh what cavities they had! Root canals by the time they were 14. And their moms forced them to brush 8 times a day just to head off any incoming Cavity Creeps. Didn’t help them in the least.
The way I saw it, my friends’ downfall probably stemmed from all that brushing in the first place. The enamel is there to help protect your teeth and if you brush it all off then you’ve left yourself open to attack. This was not a problem for me. In my house, with its single-parent dad, brushing was expected but not so strongly enforced. Still my teeth might not have been especially clean, but they were straight, braceless and strong.
Annual visits to the dentist during my teen years were cookie-cutter affairs. Each time, the dentist would examine my teeth, do the X-rays then tell me that despite the fact that I didn’t have any cavities whatsoever I still wasn’t brushing my teeth enough nor correctly. And every year I got a new log of dental advice thrown on the pile. First I wasn’t brushing them enough. Then, after making an effort to brush them more often, I wasn’t brushing behind my front teeth enough. Then, after brushing more often and behind my front teeth, I wasn’t brushing the sides of my back teeth enough. Then, after brushing more often and more thoroughly, the following year I was told I needed to brush them at least twice a day, preferably thrice. With that, I was fed up. I’d done everything the dentist had told me to do, more or less, for years and it was never good enough for him. Rather than take it for another year, I told him as much, ending my diatribe with, “Brush twice a day? Doc, you’re lucky if I brush once a day. Don’t push it.”
“Now, now,” my dentist persisted. “True dental health requires that we take the necessary precau…”
“How many cavities do I have?”
“…precautions in order to maintain a state of true…”
“How, Many, Cavities, Do, I, Have?”
“Well… none,” he was forced to admit.
“Exactly my point.”
That was probably my final visit to that particular dentist. After I started college, these annual visits didn’t occur nearly that regularly. I found that once you ignored one or two of their little “friendly reminder of your upcoming appointment” post cards they stopped sending them. After college, when I had moved to another town and took a job without dental insurance or high wages, it seemed a bit on the expensive side to go bounding off to the dentist just to have him tell me that I didn’t have any cavities and needed to brush more. So I didn’t.
Years pass, I get married, and my wife turns out to be a tooth brushing freak of nature. She’s in the bathroom brushing her teeth at least half an hour out of any given day and walks around dry brushing the rest of the time. Does she have perfect teeth because of her fanatical brushing habits? No. Throughout her life she’s had dental problems that would make my friend with the headgear weep bitter tears of sympathy. If you don’t believe me, just let her tell you about the time they had to cut a hole in the side of her cheek to get a better angle for retrieving a drill-bit that had broken off and lodged deep within an abscess. Her harrowing dental history makes her ever the more protective of my choppers. Every night, before bed, the mantra rings out: “Did you brush your toofies?” Naturally, I haven’t, but am forced to get out of bed and go do so under the threat of no smooches. One day, she decided to extend her original threat to related romantic subjects if I didn’t schedule an appointment for a tooth tuneup, as she had been asking me to for months. This is how I found myself in the clutches of The Evil Dr. P.
The Evil Dr. P is not actually evil. He’s a guy in his mid 30s who’s only been in practice for six years and who is just starting to develop gray hair at his temples. He’s a nice guy. His office is nice. His receptionist is nice. His dental hygienist is nice. His dental assistant is nice, and has the added bonus of looking exactly like actress Denise Crosby, TV’s Tasha Yar from the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Come to think of it, she might be Denise Crosby. Ol’ Denise hasn’t been getting a lot of acting gigs lately.
“How long has it been since your last checkup?” Dr. P asked upon getting me in his chair. I didn’t want to give the man more gray hair by telling him that the last time I remembered being in a dentist’s chair was while playing Seymour in a high-school production of Little Shop of Horrors. So I lied.
“Oh, uh, it’s been a while. Probably around seven… or eight years.”
I should have lied better, because Dr. P frowned and gave Tasha Yar a look that read like a coded message. She immediately began stuffing my cheeks with large pieces of cardboard origami in preparation for the 18 X-rays that were to follow. Then Dr. P came back into the room and started prodding my teeth with hooks while Tasha took notes. I observed with no small satisfaction that none of the tooth prodding hurt at all. Surely, if I did have any cavities they would hurt when poked, right? Then one of Dr. P’s hooks came down in a back molar and he seemed to have difficulty disengaging it from the tooth.
“Going to need a red resin 30 on b-18,” Dr. P told Tasha. This alarmed me. One doesn’t speak of needing resin for healthy, cavity-free teeth. And as the examination continued, Dr. P mentioned needing resins of varying color classification four more times. When he was finished, they shuffled me off to the nice dental hygienist to have my teeth sandblasted and the remains sucked out through a hose. After that, Dr. P came back with the bad news: I had five cavities that were going to require filling, in addition to anything else he spied once the X-rays were developed.
My wife could not have been more gleeful. This was vindication for all her months of griping at me to brush my teeth. She practically danced when I told her the news. Afterward, she took great pleasure in describing the tooth-filling procedure I was to undergo in explicit detail, lingering on the part about the long Novocain needle stabbing deep into the hinge of my jaw and the part concerning the disgusting smell of teeth being ground up by The Drill.
I managed to put all such thoughts of pain and discomfort out of my head, until 2 a.m. the night before the procedure, when the word NEEDLE appeared in big bold letters on the backside of my eyelids. Not much sleep after that.
It was a Wednesday, at 8 a.m., when I groggily returned to Dr. P’s for the first dental repair of my life. The nice receptionist gave me coffee and Tasha Yar came out to usher me to my dental chair. Presently, we were joined by The Evil Dr. P himself, who described what he was going to do to me, pointing out the locations of my five decaying teeth on a computer screen diagram. He then reclined me in the chair, told me to open wide and quickly stuck something silver into my mouth. I assumed this was the needle and braced myself for the stab of pain in my jaw, but none came. There was a pressure in the hinge of my jaw followed by an odd taste in the back of my throat. Not too unpleasant, though.
“Was that the needle?” I asked, hoping it had been and not just some sort of jaw tenderizer. Dr. P assured me it had been the needle and I was quite relieved. The needle had been the only real dread I’d had in the first place. After all, I’ve had ingrown toenail surgery before and that was pretty painless once my toe was numb, but the anesthetic needles hurt like a mother. Now, with the needle-part over, they could drill all they wanted as long as my jaw was numbed up.
Dr. P finished my injections, raised my chair upright and he and Tasha Yar left the room to allow the Novocain to take effect. The left half of my jaw, the side with the most injections, slowly went numb. I could feel that the left side of my bottom incisors was definitely numb while the first tooth on the right was not quite so numb. Kinda neat. My tongue, too, was starting to feel all tingly at its tip. I sat there and played with my face for about ten minutes, testing and poking to get the experience down, until Dr. P and Tasha returned. They reclined my chair, wheeled their tool trays within reach and busted out the drill.
The first tooth, one of my upper right molars, filled just fine. The drill went in, ground out a hole in it and I didn’t feel a thing. Regardless, I was calm and collected during the drilling process, with my hands draped casually across my stomach. I would not be one of those patients who held a death grip on the armrests. I wanted Tasha Yar to comment on my pleasant demeanor when it was all finished.
Dr. P left the resin in the first tooth to cure while he moved on to an upper left molar for more drilling. I knew something was very wrong as soon as the drilling began. This time the drill definitely felt cold and if I could feel cold then it stood to reason I wasn’t completely numb. Having never had this done before, though, I couldn’t really say if what I was feeling was unusual. That is, until the drill poked through the tooth’s surface and into the nerve.
“Aarrrhhhhhh!” I growled as pain resonated through my entire skull and down my spine. I could tell that it was not nearly as painful as it would have been without any Novocain, but it was not something I ever wanted to feel again.
Dr. P stopped drilling immediately and he and Tasha appeared very surprised.
“I felt that,” I said.
“Looks like that tooth’s not quite numb,” he said, reaching for another needle and stabbing me in the hinge of my jaw. “We’ll just move on down the line and give that one time to numb up.” However, his idea of moving down the line didn’t mean moving to a different and number section of my mouth. He meant moving on to the very next tooth. As he started drilling, the feeling of cold was still fully present. I silently prayed that this was a normal feeling, but knew that it felt exactly like it had just before he hit the…
“AARRRHHHHH!!!!” I screamed as the drill again struck nerve.
“Whoah! Hang on there guy! What’s the problem?” Dr. P asked.
“Na rollm ithaan Ah ahb a druh bouihh inna mah nub!”
“What?” he asked, now removing the drill from my mouth.
“The problem is that I have a drill boring into my nerve!”
Dr. P was very apologetic as he broke out more Novocain needles and started stabbing again. “You growled like you were going to bite me or something,” he said. “Big guy like you must have absorbed some of the Novocain.” Great, I thought, not only is the guy doing his best impersonation of Lawrence Olivier’s Nazi torture expert in Marathon Man, but now he’s calling me fat.
“That really hurt,” I told Tasha Yar after Dr. P left the room to give me time to numb.
“It wasn’t supposed to,” she said. “We were really surprised it did. Don’t worry, you’ll be numbed up good and it won’t hurt anymore.”
I won’t go through the rest of the procedure in detail, but apparently a “big guy” like me can absorb Novocain at an astounding rate because we hit nerve two more times, once so bad that I jerked around in my chair nearly causing Dr. P to drill a nice trench through the rest of my teeth. I question whether he really believed he was hurting me at all, because he kept saying, “Now if it feels cold, just raise your hand and I can stop. Don’t jerk around like that!” I wanted to respond, “It doesn’t feel cold! It feels like a small piece of spinning metal is boring a hole in my nerve!” but to have done so would have required the ability to speak clearly, which seemed to be the only thing the Novocain had numbed. As if this weren’t bad enough, Dr. P discovered a 6th cavity that he’d missed during my first examination and had to drill and fill that too. By the time he was finished, I’d been injected with so much Novocain that I had no feeling at all in my lower jaw, I couldn’t close my mouth without unknowingly gnawing gashes in my cheeks and I had clawed deep indentions into the armrests with my grip of death.
On the way home, I noticed my reflection in the rearview mirror. My lips were hanging in a limp frown that made me look both angry and lobotomized no matter how I tried shaping it with my fingers. Even my nostrils were numb.
My wife was surprisingly sympathetic to my story of pain and torture at the hands of The Evil Dr. P and Tasha Yar. However, she made sure to twist the drill in my back by reminding me that I’ll think twice before giving her any lip about brushing my teeth in the future. I don’t see that happening any time soon. From now on, just sign me up as the Mentadent poster-boy and pass the floss cause I never want to see a drill again.