The time bomb in my mouth finally exploded.
For more than 20 years I’d been warned this could happen and urged to take action. But for more than 20 years no-action has done the job.
The school dentist set the bomb when I was 10. A year or two later, after the school dentist program was scrapped, a grumpy tobacco-fingered private dentist pronounced the filling a disaster waiting to happen.
But nothing happened. Apart from gasps of horror every time I had a dental x-ray. Gasps that were closely followed by dire warnings of impending doom. But still, nothing happened.
The dental checkup before my trip to Nepal – a trip I only mentioned when I spotted a magnificent print of the Himalaya on the dentist’s wall — ended with a warning that the faulty filling could explode at altitude, so a root canal was urgent. I took my chances and the only damage from my Nepal trip was a bruised jaw from where I kept poking myself to see if my tooth hurt.
When it was time for my post-Nepal dental checkup, I discovered the dentist had done a runner with the payroll. I decided his advice was as shonky as my old school dentist’s filling skills.
Over the years, dentists seemed to become more mellow about my outsized filling. The last advice I remember — and I may have chosen to forget unsuitable advice — was to wait for my tooth to hurt and then get the much-discussed root canal.
And so, a tooth twinge, during a weekend away caused me to pause, mid-chew. “My tooth hurts,” I mumbled around a mouthful.
But by the time I finished my announcement, the twinge was over. A few experimental pokes of the area with my tongue didn’t cause any pain, and I thought I was free and clear. For another 20 years or so.
The free pass only lasted half a day. The pain crept up during the three-hour bus trip back to Chiang Mai. By the next morning, there was a dull aching throb in my jaw and a stamp of pain when I chewed.
I bit the bullet and made an appointment with a dentist.
I arrived a little late for my 1.30pm appointment. But the consultation was incredibly brief. A tap on the tooth and an x-ray confirmed my diagnosis. The filling was fucked. So to speak. “The black lines are the infection,” the dentist said, pointing to an x-ray that contained an awful lot of black.
I was all psyched up to deal with the filling immediately, but the dentist told me I had to come back at 4.30pm to see his colleague. Just enough time to get home, put my feet up for 30 minutes, then get back. Instead of that insanity, I decided to cool my heels at a cafe in town while worms writhed anxiously in my chest and a team of nanobots sank their tiny knife-like claws into my nerve endings and pulled half my face into a wince.
My eye socket started to ache and so I took my grossly distorted face back to the dentist early, hoping the invisible elephantitis of pain — and the visible x-rayed lines of infection — would be dealt with immediately.
“Please wai a momen,” the lovely receptionist said when I sailed in slightly after 4pm. And I buried my head in a book and tried to ignore the squeal of the drill filling the waiting area.
I finished my book. I stared at the wall and ignored the drill some more.
Slightly after 5pm the lovely receptionist approached. “If you are boring, we have internet,” she said. I told her I felt very boring and she led me to a tiny alcove off the waiting area.
Slightly after 6.30pm she returned, and led me to the dentist’s room.
I am eager to get the surgery underway. Adrenaline has been coursing through my body for hours and I am exhausted, cold and shaky. I just want it to be over.
But the kind-eyed lady dentist says there’s a problem. “The body has tried to heal itself,” she says, pointing to the x-ray of my tooth, which looks like a bandy-legged farmer carrying a wine barrel. There is just enough of the neighbouring tooth on display for her to point out the problem. The legs carrying the problem filling are opaque. The legs of the farmer-next-door tooth are not. The farmer-next-door has channels in his bandy legs, where the nerves run down into the gum. The problem farmer-tooth has no channels.
“I am not sure I can do the root canal here,” the dentist says. We discuss options, and costs, and I decide I want her to try to save the tooth.
“OK, I TRY not to give you pain,” the dentist says, then collapses on my shoulder laughing. My legs start shaking again.
I try to take deep breaths to calm down as the dentist starts giving me injections. After five I lose interest in counting. And then the drilling starts.
The dentist says something I don’t understand. After she repeats it a few times I understand she’s going to put “a rubber sheath” over my mouth. I taste balloon and feel like I’m going to suffocate. I feel braver than James Bond for not jumping up and running away.
More drilling, picking. I can taste Bacardi in my mouth and smell toast cooking. The dentist says something, which I’m sure means “bugger”. She says some other things to the nurse and I start dubbing the conversation in my head. “Holy crap,” the dentist says. “Better get me the turbo-charged drill.”
The nurse hands over equipment and pops lids off things and giggles. The dentist hums as if she’s dabbing water colours onto a canvas, not separating my pulp from my dentine with power tools.
And then, just when I think this dental experience will last forever, I notice that the dentist seems to be packing things into my tooth, rather than picking and digging things out. I semi-relax.
Then the balloon is taken off my mouth and I’m free. Flabby cheeked and thick-lipped, but free. The dentist massages the hinge of my jaw, which has been stuck open for more than an hour. I am so limp with relief I can hardly get out of the chair.
And then it’s instructions about antibiotics and painkillers and gargling with warm salty water. As I settle the bill and think about dinner, the dentist emerges from her little room.
“Friday?” she says.
“What? I thought you were finished.”
“No, I only drill two millimetres today. Friday, maybe two millimetres more. And again. Until we finish.”
And just like that, I’m not so relieved anymore.
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4 years ago