Funny the World...


May 11, 2000

I've broken a tooth. I was munching a pretzel dipped in sesame mustard (which we bought in Napa last weekend) and it seemed more firm than it should have been. I felt around my mouth, and sure enough--there was half my tooth and a big hole in a molar. Damn.

This isn't the tragedy that it once would have been. In fact, I almost gleefully called the dentist. Dental wimp no more, I had no fear whatsoever in calling Cindy's office and getting the first available appointment (next Thursday).

My very first dental appointment was with a friend of the family back sometime in the 1940s. Dr. Macy (I can slander him here; he's long dead) not only had old fashioned equipment, he also got angry with you if you expressed pain or discomfort. He used a slow speed drill, was reluctant to give any sort of pain killer, had no water on the drill, so it would get bloody hot as it was working--and he didn't believe in x-rays. My experiences with him were not good.

At age 13, I moved on to Dr. Schmoll (also dead now). It was the difference of night and day. Almost literally (I remember Dr. Macy's office as being very dark; in contrast, Dr. Schmoll's office was bright). I had my very first dental x-rays and discovered that Dr. Macy had missed thirteen cavities. I was set up for lots of dental work--but Dr. Schmoll used modern equipment and novocaine and it was such a contrast that I found it almost pleasant. I was even his poster child. My "bite" was so perfect he couldn't believe I'd never worn braces and he hauled me around to another dentist in the building to show off my perfect smile.

But then came The Dark Years.

In 1970, I was pregnant with Tom (#4) and I went to see my then-dentist in Berkeley. At that time I wasn't really all that good about dental hygiene and he read me the riot act. The appointment wasn't painful, but having the dentist yell at me was so embarrassing that I vowed I was never going back. Never, never, never. And I didn't. For more than 20 years. It wasn't fear of pain. I have a high pain threshold and to that point had actually had only minor procedures. It was the fear of the dentist's anger.

Oh it was terrible. I can still remember sitting on the bed, realizing that I was going to lose all my teeth if I didn't get some dental care, and deciding that it was more important for me not to be yelled at than it was for me to keep my teeth (everybody eventually gets false teeth, right? Well, that's what I thought). Once I'd made the decision never to return to the dentist, I also stopped caring about the teeth entirely. I remember being at dinner one night and biting into a piece of French bread and having what I thought was a piece of the crust lodge between my teeth. When I finally worked it out, there seemed to be a hole between my two front teeth and I knew that the my mouth had started to deteriorate. I was really going to lose my teeth.

I started being afraid to brush my teeth because I was afraid that I would find more holes in the teeth. Through the years, fillings started to crumble and I had an amazing build up of plaque behind my bottom front teeth. I knew I had the worst breath in the world and learned how to talk without ever facing someone directly, or how to talk behind my hands all the time. As it got worse and worse, I learned how to eat a meal without chewing. I made up incredible ruses for not eating things. I told someone I was "allergic to corn" to explain why I wasn't eating the corn on the cob. I gave up all my favorite foods because I couldn't chew them. It was years before I could eat steak. I got so tired of hamburger...

There was pain, but surprisingly not consistently. There were periods when I would be in such intense pain that I could hardly stand it. But then after a day...or a would pass and things would be back to normal again. I remember waking up one night in extreme pain and vowing that if the pain didn't stop in 2 days I would finally go to the dentist. It stopped.

I was working for a secretarial service at that time and a new employee, Cindy Belgum, was fresh out of dental school and starting her practice. She worked at our office to supplement her income until she had built up a sufficient patient load. I was terrified of being with Cindy--which was awkward because we did a lot of social stuff as a group. I always sat as far from Cindy as I could and made it a point not to let her see my mouth (I found out later she wouldn't even have noticed; she was off duty during our social times).

By about 1992 the plaque buildup on my teeth was so thick I could no longer speak normally (it's amazing to me that nobody noticed!). I had nightmares about losing my teeth. There was not one second of one 24 hour period when I was not at some level thinking of my teeth and losing them.

The incident that changed my life was that the plaque behind my front teeth cracked. This was not the first time, but this time I was convinced that the plaque was all that was holding those teeth in place and that once the plaque broke, the teeth would fall out. Taking a huge breath, I sat down and wrote a letter to Cindy. I confessed everything and I asked for help.

She called me right away, made an appointment for the end of the day (because she was sensitive enough to give me complete privacy for this traumatic appointment). I was too embarassed to tell Walt what was happening. I sent him off to work with a note in his lunch (I can’t believe how childish I was through all this!) telling him that when he came home, I probably would not have my front teeth.

Cindy tells me later she's really sorry she didn't photograph the plaque block because it was the biggest she'd ever seen. But she knew I was in no frame of mind for that. She did a cursory examination of my mouth and then came the moment I feared most--it was time to remove the plaque. To my--and her!--amazement, under the plaque were two perfect teeth. There wasn’t even the hole in my teeth I had felt back in 1971. That "hole" had been a hole in the plaque that had built up to that point.

Cindy cleaned my teeth and made an estimate of the dental work that was needed--a couple of root canals, three or four crowns, some fillings. It wasn’t cheap, but by now I had dental insurance that picked up the bulk of the cost. I spent a lot of time in the dental chair, but discovered that in the intervening years, the term "painless" really was true. And Cindy has an incredible chairside manner. I came to look forward to my appointments. With two chairs, one dentist and one hygienist, classical music playing from the boom box, and chit chat going all around me, it was like having a visit to the beauty parlor.

In the end, I probably put two of Cindy’s daughters through college, but I ended up with a healthy mouth and no false teeth. I have all my teeth (even though I don’t have all of all of them). I now brush and floss faithfully. I see Cindy or her hygienist three times a year. I haven’t had a nighmare about my teeth since that first appointment and life is good.

So yeah, I’ll go get this broken tooth fixed. Because that’s what I do. I take care of my mouth. Life is good.

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created 5/11/00 by Bev Sykes