At approximately 1 a.m. on the fourth day after wisdom tooth removal surgery I am feeling no pain. The window is small; maybe an hour when the lower right side of my jaw isn’t throbbing and isn’t my total focus. I awake and the frozen gel pad I’ve had next to my jaw is thawed and warm.
Over four days it’s taken 24 Percocet with Tylenol, Motrin 800 and a series of tiny steroid pills to get me there. The Percocet pills are gone and few Motrin are left. It’s the wee hours of Monday morning and I’ve made it through the weekend, doped and struggling and not sure if I bought an $800 sterling silver and turquoise cuff bracelet off eBay.
Pain started almost two weeks ago after a routine dental check-up and cleaning. It started in that back gap where a molar had been removed when I was 10 and a nasty wisdom tooth lay sideways under the gum, deep in my jaw. The lingual nerve on the right side of my jaw and the huge, triangle shaped wisdom tooth have shared a space since it first showed up on dental x-rays when I was around 12. The pair are too cozy to separate; too difficult an extraction for a routine dentist to tackle.
The pain is too real and my regular dentist deems it’s a back tooth in need of a crown. An appointment is set and I’m given my routine prescription of Valium just to get me in the door. I sit in the chair and something isn’t right. The Royal tooth isn’t hurting, isn’t broken, the pain is something else.
The dentist, whom I’ve trusted since he bought the practice from a friend of mine almost 30 years ago thinks it’s muscle strain from having my mouth open for the cleaning two days prior. I know platitude when I hear it.
Then he tests the Royal tooth for cracks and fractures and while the tooth is ugly and disfigured, it’s fit as a fiddle but don’t go to town on it by chewing ice. My confidence in his skill is waning.
No, the pain is in between my last tooth and my jaw, in that dark space where the Behemoth lies waiting.
Routine x-rays in my dentist’s office only offer a partial view. It’s like my wisdom tooth does a photo-bomb each time it’s x-rayed and nobody takes it seriously.
Poking along the edge of the Royal tooth with a long, sharp probe doesn’t bring the dentist’s hoped result: a stinking reservoir of decay and infection brimming to the surface. After he squeezes the area with his gloved hand, the area is not only painful now it’s bloody as well.
A referral to an oral surgeon is the only option. The tooth has to come out and it’s nothing my dentist wants to tackle. He’s happy to clean, fill and pull but this kind of extraction, with an anxious patient who needs Valium just to get in the door is best sent to someone else.
I’m a compliant patient and head straight to the oral surgeon’s office to make an appointment. The lady behind the desk is my age and smiles when I ask her if she gets many 60-year-olds in here to have wisdom teeth removed. She smiles at me and tells me I’m just in my third, 20-year-old go round. I like her.
My appointment is on Monday and I fill out all the usual paperwork to get a head start on the process, as if doing the paperwork ahead of time is a sign of my compliance. I fill out my name, address, birthdate, insurance and dental history. In the background Michael Jackson comes through a Bose speaker in the office and reassures me that Billy Jean is not his lover.
I go home with an appointment on my phone’s calendar and a sense of dread in my soul.
Like most people I have a stash of good drugs hidden away from previous surgeries or whatever painful event that’s been negotiated. I dip into my waning supply (now gone) because eating anything causes pain. Not Advil pain but Schedule IV pain.
The weekend is long and while I’m always happy to lose weight, this wasn’t how I had planned on doing it. Monday seems so far away.
I’m nervous and hungry and for some reason choose Ruffles potato chips and creamy onion dip as my salvation. Dip the chip, it gets soft and can be eaten without trauma. I have no explanation for this crazy combination in my low-sodium world but I feel better.
Monday comes and I’m in the oral surgeon’s office and they need a panorama x-ray. It’s a picture of my entire mouth and the offender is clearly visible in three-dimensional glory, no longer hiding in the corner of a less sophisticated image.
There’s big risk associated with this surgery. The tooth is indeed so close to the nerve that is could affect other teeth on the lower right side. That effect could cause me to loose more teeth due to nerve pain. In the past I was told facial droop was a major concern.
On the screen, the dentist can make the tooth reveal itself in slices and angles and it’s infected and decayed. He points out the nerve but all I see is a line of white. The entire area around the Royal tooth to the back of my jaw is a dark mass of infection fed by meals long past, packed down and simmering. It took a long time to get like that and honestly that pisses me off.
My dentist manages to get me in the chair every four months meaning I have to pay for dental cleaning twice a year out of my own pocket. The cost is modest and I place my trust in the value of those extra cleanings and hold my head up high when I leave. I’m taking good care of my teeth.
While my teeth are cleaned I listen to the one-sided discussions of a young woman who tries hard to connect with me though her hands are in my mouth and I am not young and the problems of raising a family are no longer a challenge for me. I endure, promise to do a better job of flossing, pick out the color toothbrush I want even though I use an expensive electric model at home and choose a flavor of Sensodyne. I take my bag of goodies and go on my way, teeth all slimy and clean. My breath vaguely whispers of pina colada tooth polish. There’s still grit in between my cheek and gum where her rinse tool failed to reach.
Now, I have an image I snapped on my phone of the Behemoth and after I leave, I post it on Facebook and pop the first of a week’s worth of antibiotics.
My friend, Monika is the kind of friend every one wants. She is kind, funny, she listens and she connects. Not many people do can that. Most people are just one screen away from being unfriended in my world. Monika’s advice seems the wisest, right in line with her take on life, everything from brioche knitting to wisdom teeth:
‘Get it out of there!’
My cousin starts the dental horror show:
‘Sorry about that. I hope you a good recovery. I won’t tell you any horror stories. Promise.’
A friend who’s a dentist offered words I wasn’t expecting but they show just how caring a person he is:
‘Wow, nothing like a good deep horizontal impaction. Let the healing begin!’
It’s hard to look at this event as healing even though removing the Behemoth will make things better. I just have to get through the pesky part about the extraction.
Here’s the weird thing about this tooth-thing going on right now. Two other friends, both Aquarians like me have required tooth extractions in the last week. Terra had a back molar removed and ended up with a dry socket and so did my friend Drew.
I appreciate Drew’s stalwart approach to extraction. Just numb up and get it out of there. No wailing and gnashing of teeth or hand wringing or making deals with God. I envy Drew. I cry when PHP coding doesn’t work but not Drew. He’s unruffled and calm even when talking about the 90 seconds of panic when his tooth broke off and didn’t cooperate. No, my approach is much more dramatic.
I am in bad shape the moment I arrived at the surgeon’s office the following Friday. The younger lady at the front desk assured me that all will be well – they’ve done this surgery many times and in fact had a meeting about my extraction to plan a strategy over everything from my anxiety to wisdom tooth extraction. She told me I would be fine as the side door opened and a woman was wheeled out, gauze hanging from her mouth and a sleepy look on her face.
I asked the receptionist where the bathroom was and she responded, ‘Down the hall next to the elevator but leave me your purse.’
At this point I’d be wondering why someone was so scared of dental work. After all, there are few teeth in my head that haven’t needed attention so it’s not like I don’t know the drill.
When I was young I spent a lot of time in the dentist chair. For some reason, my parents thought it was a good idea that every Friday night they’d let me have six full-size candy bars after dinner. I never knew why they did this but it led to a lot of tooth decay and they never put the two together.
The oral surgeon told me he’d thought about my case all week. Imagine that. The only conclusion he could live with was extraction but he warned me this would be ugly. But when I woke up we’d be on our way to healing. Where had I heard that before?
Back when I was a kid, dentists were more militaristic than concerned with addressing patient’s fears and reluctance. My dentist at that time had a way of calming me down – he’d hold his hand over my throat until I passed out and then get on with the job at hand. Ask me how I feel about people with their hands on my throat these days. I nearly broke my ex-husband’s fingers on both hands when he playfully came behind me and tried to choke me.
The oral surgeon has a much better approach to calming me down, with a quick IV in the hand and some happy medicine.
The last thing I remember was the assistant asking me about the rain in Conifer.
I woke slowly and felt no pain. I asked a technician if I could see the Behemoth and all that was left was a long shard, now bloody and the only remnant of a fierce fight in which the Behemoth lost.
I can feel a series of long silky lines in my mouth – the stitches that completely enclose the incision. No blood clot to worry about, the surgeon felt it was important to keep the incision closed and the steroid-laced packing in place.
Numbed, doped and exhausted it seemed like a cakewalk. I didn’t know what all the fuss was about but I can’t stand up.
As they wheeled me out, I saw the doctor talking to my daughter, Jill and he handed her a resume of medications. I was packed up and sent home.
I asked Jill yesterday how I got home from the appointment. I really couldn’t remember. She responded with a text of a unicorn farting rainbows. I let the matter drop.
Here it is four days later and I look like I went four rounds with another man’s wife. My face is bruised and I can’t open my mouth.
I have an assortment of ice packs in the house. Heart-shaped gel packs from a promotion where I work and a flat gel pack with colorful beads that don’t stay frozen. My pack of choice is two Ziploc bags, one inside the other and filled with water then frozen flat. The covering is old, soft and formerly held 5-pounds of Blue Bird flour. It works.
The schedule I have for all the medications I’m taking is like word problems in math. Take this drug every four hours. Take that drug every six hours. Take the other drug before breakfast on this day but after breakfast on that day. Instructions swirl around me: Swish and spit, take with food, take on an empty stomach and don’t lay down after taking the antibiotic.
I’ve settled into a nice routine of Premier Protein Shakes (chocolate), Progresso Tomato Basil soup and Outshine Lime frozen fruit bars. I’ve got some mashed potatoes that taste like heaven and in the coming days I’ll try out mashed avocado. Bananas are a luxury because I can’t open my mouth that wide.
I had to page the surgeon on Sunday because I needed more pain medication and we came up with a workable plan because doctors can no longer call in opioid prescriptions. They have to be hand-written and picked up, then taken to the pharmacy. Right now, I can’t drive. I’m not even sure where my car is.
He reminded me that this pain and discomfort wasn’t permanent, this will heal and fade into memory.
I was reminded that I needed to be seen in the office in a few days to check on my progress. I apologized for calling on a Sunday. He replied, “I have to expect that if I cause someone this much pain that I have to be available when they need something.”
As always I am floored when I’m treated with kindness.
So, the Behemoth is gone and along with it is 50 years of worry about wisdom tooth removal.
God bless those who choose dentistry as a profession, especially those who don’t use suffocation as a means of dealing with an anxious patient.
God bless Progresso soups and Premier shakes. I bless all those who’ve gone before leaving a bloody wake of pain and endurance. I bless my friends who have kept their wisdom tooth horror stories to themselves. Mine is horrible enough.
So I live my life around the clock, watching it as if I was at work, waiting to go home only this home is pain-free and a feeling of pleasant goofiness where I think the next pain pill will be my last and I’ll start feeling better.
It’s now 4:35 a.m. Monday morning and the bracelet is still on my eBay watchlist.
My next dose of Motrin 800 is in 25 minutes and eBay has sent me an email offering, ‘other products you might like.’
What I’d like is for the pain to stop.