A few months ago, I had a routine check up and cleaning. My dentist is a woman of Indian descent, about my age, with kids around the age of my kids and a good friend in common. We usually enjoyed chatting about our boys and our travels, but on this visit, she frowned at one of my teeth, saying that it was time to fix that crown. I’d had the crown for ten years or so and it had never bothered me at all, but I knew that for several check-ups in a row it had been grating on her nerves and now she was certain it had to go. We set an appointment time and I tried to prepare myself for the worst.
Who remembers July, 2006, when my jaw dislocated in the dentist’s chair? I wrote about it here, if you want to review the suckage of it. I guess I should be happy that in the seven years since then I haven’t had any dental work needed to speak of, just a cleaning here and there, and so this hasn’t been an issue.
Anyway, I was nervous about it. My first appointment was the day Lena died, and so I cancelled it. I just couldn’t cope with both at the same time, which in retrospect was a very good decision. When I rescheduled, I raised the specter of dislocation. “My jaw has a history of dislocating,” I told the secretary. “I’m concerned. Maybe she can give me a sedative? …. Or maybe we shouldn’t even do it…?” I added hopefully.
She, for her part, did not seem at all concerned. “I’ll leave Dr. C. a note,” she said brusquely. “If she wants to do something differently, we’ll call you.” No one called, and finally, one grey day in November, I presented myself glumly for the procedure. “I’m worried about my jaw dislocating,” I told the dental assistant. “It has happened before.”
“We’ve got a dental bridge you can rest your jaw on,” she said cheerfully. We tried that, but after one minute I had to ask to stop and take it out. I couldn’t breathe with this huge box in my mouth, and it seemed to make the jaw thing worse, because it was making me open my mouth like a python about to swallow a goat. (How apt the resemblance when I think of it now!)
So we got underway with the horrible scraping, pounding, grinding procedure. Then at one point, Dr. C. said for me to close my mouth. That’s when the trouble really started: I couldn’t.
“Ay AH oz aye ow,” I explained, with emphasis on the CAN’T.
“You can’t close it?” asked Dr. C, her bright brown eyes looking worried above her blue mask.
“O!” I replied firmly. I sensed her speed up her procedure. When she had all the foreign items out of my mouth she asked me to try to close it. It would not close at all. My jaw on the right side was way out of place, like a drawer off its track. I tried to close it several times. Then she muttered, “I’ve done this before. I can do this.” She took a deep breath and placed both her blue gloved thumbs on my back teeth and began to push… and wrestle… and struggle…. with increasing determination.
“If I could– UGH! — just rotate it — OOF!– distally….” she muttered as she labored to bodily force the ball of my jaw back into its socket. She struggled for quite some time while I tried yogic breathing and did my best to simply leave my poor body behind and drift away to a beach somewhere. I could sense urgency in her voice as she said, “I’ll see if we can get some help.”
There were sounds of scuffling in the corridor. The secretary was scampering about making arrangements while the sorry, worried dental assistant was putting things away. I turned to her and said, “ISS iz ut ay uz ERRIED a-how.”
“I know you were,” she said kindly. “I know– you said it. You were right.”
Cold comfort though, as my jaw was hopelessly stuck open. The dentist came back and said they were calling oral surgeons in the area to see who could get me in immediately, and in the meantime they had called the chiropractor in the office downstairs to see if she could help. I waited, sounding like Darth Vader as I breathed with my mouth dry and open.
Shortly a nice young woman came in. “Hello,” she said, smiling down at me. “I’m Dr. So-and-So, the chiropractor from downstairs. Has this happened before?”
“Okay, well I’ll try to see what I can do. Just tell me if I’m hurting you okay?”
She gloved up and put her hands in my mouth and yanked. She rubbed my cheeks, now both hard as rocks as the muscles had gone into heavy spasm. She jerked my neck this way and that for a while. And pushed, and pulled, as hard as she could. She pulled with all her might such that my legs jerked from side to side. I was beginning to grow weary of all of this.
“Ay-ee I ou ushhht O oo ee e-er-en-ee oom?” I asked at last.
“Maybe so… at the emergency room they could give you a sedative and put it back into place.”
I was thinking that ultimately in my 2006 experience, it was the emergency room– well, sort of– that finally helped.
When Dr. C. came back in, I explained my idea to her. “I ould ust oo ee ee-er-en-see –oo?”
“No, no emergency room! You just need an oral surgeon. I have it set up for us to go. We’re going there now, I just have to find my tools to bring with us. I’m not sending you alone. I’m going too, and I’ll finish this temporary crown there so you don’t have to come back.”
I wallowed up out of the chair and got my coat on, mouth gaping wide open all the while. “I UZ orrie a-out is. I OL eh!” I couldn’t help pointing this out again, not adding “I told them but they pooh-poohed me!”
“Well, I’ve never actually seen this in 15 years of practice. I’m sure the girls just didn’t know.”
She quickly explained that she would lead in her car and I would drive in my car. And so this is how I ended up with my mouth stuck open in a convoy with my dentist to get emergency reinforcements. We drove through some winding streets and neighborhoods as we took the fastest possible shortcut. I kept my eyes on the BMW SUV the whole way, not wanting, god forbid, to lose her. I didn’t know where we were going. As bad as the whole thing was, I count the drive as the absolute nadir.
At the oral surgeon’s office, everyone looked at me with an unpleasant mixture of sympathy and horror– that special sort of embarrassed horror upon seeing another human being in an appalling, humiliating situation. At this point I actually had to fight back tears.
In a few moments I was in the oral surgeon’s chair. He came in, a distinguished eminence grise in a trim white coat. He appraised the problem and then began advancing towards me as he ominously wrapped a towel around his gloved hands.
“Are you in discomfort now? Because THIS will cause you some discomfort.”
I don’t know what I was supposed to do with that information, but braced for impact.
He placed his thumbs on the back of my jaw and with one deft, violent movement jolted my bone back into its socket. It didn’t actually hurt any more than the previous two hours of struggle had. My mouth closed and I was able to speak again.
“Oh! That’s better!” I said. “Thank you so much!”
Ah– the bliss of the instant pain-reduction, and the return of coherent speech!! The ordeal was over and now I could go!
But.. no. My dentist still had to finish my crown. She hadn’t been able to correct the bite until I could shut my mouth. She had a little packet of tools in her purse. She and the oral surgeon talked rapidly in a technical manner about what she needed, what supplies he had, and where I should be for this part. I was relocated to another chair and a couple other women came into the office to assist. Soon I was bibbed and secured again and my dentist began asking me to tap my teeth together and she alternately drilled and checked.
In the midst of this, my jaw went out again. I raised the alarm. The oral surgeon returned to fix it again.
“Show me how to do it,” said my dentist. “Why couldn’t I do it?”
“I think it’s just, you were doing the right thing but needed more strength,” he explained.
Four hands went into my mouth. He put his thumbs over hers and let her feel the sharp, blunt force, the sheer sudden brutality of it, as he forced it back into place.
“Oh,” she said. “THAT hard? Wow.”
I rubbed my jaw, thinking, Okay… NOW can I go??
He got these little locking forceps and made me bite on them while she worked. Finally she got the crown good enough for two weeks, anyway. My tooth hurt, my mouth hurt, my face hurt, my jaw throbbed, my head hurt, my neck hurt, and I was exhausted. It was now 1:00. My appointment had started at 9:00.
My dentist and I stepped out into the sunlight, strangely bonded by the ordeal. We stood awkwardly on the pavement for a moment. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “You never want something like that to happen in your chair.”
“It’s not your fault,” I said. “You were great to come with me over here and help.” We didn’t know what else to do, so we hugged. I felt at grave risk of crying. I walked away quickly to hide my emotion from her. I could see she felt bad enough as it was. But as soon as she drove away I sat in my car and sniffled a bit. It was all just so wearing.
As a special coda, when I dried my tears and drove home, I found that I was locked out. I had left some duct people working on the house when I set out for the dentist, and they had locked everything up tight for me. That was well-meant, I’m sure, but I didn’t have a key. After walking around in the snow and trying all the doors, I finally gave up and forced open a window.
And thus, after struggling in through a bathroom window, I went inside the house to find something soft for lunch.