My friend Marc Broude is in the middle of impacted wisdom tooth drama, sitting in bed on painkillers while everyone replies to his post on facebook with their own tales of dental horror. My story is too big for a little box, so I thought I’d type it out here.
When I got to Seattle in the summer of 1995, my teeth were decimated. It was the holy triumvirate of no fluoride in the water as a kid, drinking way too much Coca-Cola, and being on lithium for a half-dozen years. My teeth started to go in college, and I couldn’t do anything about it until I got a real job and insurance. It wasn’t something I was too enthusiastic about, given my shame-based depression, which was at an all-time worst level back then, but I couldn’t do much beyond brushing and flossing, until I got some insurance. (I think reading about the various dental trauma in Infinite Jest was also a tipping point.)
In 1996, I had a good job with good insurance, and that fall, I found a dentist from one of those ValuPak coupon books they stuff in your mailbox. He looked like Craig Kilbourn and was fresh out of dental school, working in a tiny office near Seattle University. When I showed up and opened my mouth, I think he saw the first ten payments on a boat staring back at him, and he excitedly started planning a regimen to get everything fixed and max out my insurance, starting quadrant-by-quadrant, and waiting until the new year and new set of benefits to take a crack at the back four teeth.
Until then, I was in complete agony. I think the work he did on restoring the other teeth shifted things around and pressed more into the back ones. The wisdom teeth were rotting, and food would stick in them constantly, causing sharp, intense bursts of pain every time I ate. But I’d also sit in bed at night with an unbearable dull ache in my entire jaw. I am allergic to aspirin, Advil, and other similar NSAIDs, and did not know at the time that I could take Tylenol. Sometimes I would rub anbesol into the back teeth, which would give me five or ten minutes of relief. I mostly counted down the days until January, and considered staging a car accident where I hit a dashboard mouth-first and got an insured motorist to fit the bill for a total dental remake.
One thing they did, which almost helped, was put me on a seven-day regimen of antibiotics. I try to avoid them, because I’m allergic to penicillin, and the last time I took it, I was in the hospital for a week. I’m also allergic to a few of its relatives, and I try not to take any of the others, so I have a working drug in reserve for a time when I really need it. Taking that stuff made me puke daily, but took the edge off of the pain. I also got this syrup stuff that looked and tasted like RoboCop’s jizz. Cancer patients rinse their mouthes out with it so they don’t lose all of their teeth in chemo. It would coat everything inside my mouth with a protective layer of scum, and turn my not-that-white teeth a horrible color of syrup brown. But it worked overnight, or at least long enough for me to sleep a couple of hours.
January rolled around, and I got an early morning appointment to extract all four teeth at once. My girlfriend K lived in Longview, about a hundred miles away, and would come up for the weekend to deal with me, but the morning of the procedure, my friend Bill drove me there, and brought his laptop so he could keep programming at work stuff while I got my teeth yanked.
Problem one: I was not knocked out. I did not get a general, did not get laughing gas or twilight drugs or any of that. He took out the horse-sized injector of novocain and jabbed away at the gum line, while the nurse set up the tray with these medieval torture devices. Once I got numb, the fun started, and he pried and twisted at the teeth. You DO NOT want to be awake for this, because all you hear is this horrible twisting and breaking and cracking sound. You don’t just hear it; you actually feel the vibrations of this through your whole jaw. My neck muscles tensed and throbbed with fire as my whole body pushed against him. He actually had to push down on my chest so much for leverage, I left the office with bruises all along my sternum. He eventually cracked out each tooth, showing me the total devastation of each molar, the black decay and rot all along what used to be enamel.
He did this for three of the teeth, and then struggled on one, unable to get a hold on it. And then, the word you never want to hear a dentist say, “SHIT!” He managed to yank loose the top of the tooth, but the roots remained. The tooth broke in half. He spent some time poking around the gum line, trying to find a way to pry out the impacted roots, but this was more painful than the worst Guantanamo torture tactic you could possibly imagine. The pain shots numb the nerve on the surface, but prying away at an open wound in the socket with forceps and blacksmith’s tools is a pain you feel through your entire body.
The hour-long procedure ran into the third hour, and he gave up. He got his assistant to call a dental ER surgeon for an emergency appointment. They packed my mouth full of gauze after stitching the other three sockets, and told me this other guy could get me in at 4:00. It was now about 11:00. I was starving, seeping blood, and the drugs were wearing off. They gave me directions, and wished me luck.
I could not talk, so I took Bill’s laptop, opened an emacs buffer, and typed out what was happening. He was supposed to be back at work hours ago, but agreed to stay with me for the day. But, I had to get him fed. And I had to figure out a temporary solution for the fact that I was drowning in blood.
We went to Madison Street in Pill Hill, to hit an ATM and the McDonald’s there, and to kill time before that appointment. While we were standing in the snow at the ATM, I was trying to talk to Bill with all of this blood and cotton in my mouth, sounding sort of like Bill Murray in Caddyshack. I said something like “dude, it would be cool if I could spit blood like Gene Simmons from KISS.” Bill replied, “dude, you are.” I looked down and had this long strand of blood and spit hanging from my half-numb mouth, dribbling onto the white snow.
At the McDonald’s, Bill ordered whatever, and I paid for a large drink, but asked for just an empty cup. This resulted in the huge “I can’t give you a cup, the cups are inventory and you have to buy a drink” speech, at which point I said, bleeding all over the counter, to just sell me a goddamn drink and I’d pour it on the floor or something. They eventually gave me a cup, and we sat in the dining room, Bill eating his Big Mac or whatever, and me spitting in a cup like a hillbilly with a wad of Skoal in his lip instead of bloody cotton.
The doctor’s office was the complete opposite of the dentist, a super-modern place that looked like a Beverly Hills plastic surgery clinic. They changed out my bloody mouth-tampons and put me in one of those panoramic x-ray machines to render my entire jaw in a long landscape strip of black and white, which amazed me. After a bit of waiting, a surgeon came in, looked at the x-rays, and within about four minutes, dug out the shattered pieces of tooth root and sewed me up.
I got home and had a couple of hours to kill, until K showed up. I forget what pain pills they gave me, but I loaded up my CD changer with the first six Black Sabbath albums and took half of the tablets at once. Every time I hear “Planet Caravan” now, I think about how my girlfriend came in that night and found me laying on the floor, mumbling “WE TRAVEL THE UNIVERSE” with my mouth full of gauze.
Recovery was unremarkable. I sat on my futon all weekend, drinking Ensure and eventually eating gouda cheese, which is now ruined for me, because it always reminds me of the procedure. Honestly, the worst parts of my recovery were all of the purple bruises on my chest, the strained neck muscles, and the fact that I watched some stupid Meg Ryan movie on painkillers. Also, the little threads of stitching bothered the hell out of me, my tongue rubbed raw from trying to feel them. I think I took Monday off, although I didn’t need it, to finish the painkillers and work on writing Rumored to Exist.
That’s my story. Hard to believe it was almost twenty years ago. I wonder if that fucking dentist is in prison by now.