Last week, upon a suspicion that things weren’t right on the left side of my mouth and a fear that I would be in agony over an infected tooth on my upcoming trip to China, I made an appointment to see my dentist.
The dentist breezed into the room and said hello, asked what brought me in that day, and I reported exactly the above. Without even looking at my mouth, he said “you need a root canal.” My dentist is a bit of a jokester.
But in fact, it turned out I did need an RCT (Root Canal Treatment), something I’d managed to avoid despite extensive childhood fillings that have cracked and required crowning with logical predictability. We verified the diagnosis five different ways and made an appointment for me to come back pronto.
I am a good dental patient. I’m not freaked out by procedures and I remain calm and disinterested while people are poking and prodding and drilling and suctioning. When I was a child my doctors told my mother I was “stoic,” which is pretty strong language to describe a five-year-old. But RCTs have a certain reputation, so I took some precautions. For instance: bladder comfort. I knew this was a two- or two-and-a-half hour procedure so when I arrived I checked in and took the restroom key up the flight of stairs to the restroom, even though the dentist was already waiting for me. “Never mind,” he said. “I want you to be comfortable.”
We got started on the treatment, which allowed for some conversation while he and his assistant puttered around and took X-rays. We talked about how many dentists will refer their patients to an endodontist for RCTs, but my guy did two years of RCTs in the military and actually enjoys them. Because you can’t see exactly what you’re doing, there’s some mystery involved and intuition comes into play. I got the impression it gives him some creative joy to do these procedures and thought it was probably auspicious for my dentist to be in a good mood when I was about to be completely at his mercy.
And then my mouth was wired up with a contraption that looked like a football goalpost onto which was wrapped a purple dental dam to create an isolated theater in which to perform the surgery, and I couldn’t talk any more. For two hours, they were drilling and filing and poking things up into my roots and spraying and suctioning.
I tried to be a good dental patient, but about half an hour into the thing, despite my precautions, my bladder decided to start talking to me. At first it was just a low buzzing. “Oh, hey, that coffee you drank this morning? Yeah. Still processing, by the way.” And then the minutes passed by and I was talking back to my bladder, saying “oh yeah, that’s fine, we’ll be out of here at some point, just relax.” But my bladder just kept getting more and more full and not relaxing at all. I shifted my body into various positions. The sensations would subside for awhile, and then reappear. An hour passed, and then 90 minutes. I could no longer focus on what was happening in my mouth, nor could I distract myself with thoughts about anything else. All I could think about was how I needed to pee. I found myself tapping my toes inside my shoes and wiggling my feet back and forth and wondering if I was going to make it upstairs when I was finally released. I began fantasizing about escape and rescue: about whether the dentist had an employee bathroom in the back I didn’t know about; whether I could sign with my hands that I needed to go pee and then just slip away for a minute with the purple dam and everything else still jammed in my mouth.
I thought about the time in first grade when the teacher wouldn’t call on me when I raised my hand to go to the bathroom because she was in a reading group at the front of the room and I didn’t know the rule that said we weren’t supposed to wait for permission in an emergency. I ended up piddling all over the floor. That episode was one of the big traumas of my childhood, and it felt like I was reliving it.
At the two-hour mark my dentist came to the end of the drilling and cleaning phase, and informed me that we were moving on to the backfilling phase. “It’s about a half hour more, and then you’ll be done. You don’t need a break, do you?”
I didn’t need a break, did I?
I knew he’d rearranged his schedule to squeeze me in that day and that letting me up from the chair was going to further impact the flow of his patients in and out of the clinic. But I was desperate. With the goalpost and purple dam still flapping over my gaping mouth, I waved my hands wildly into the universal sign of “Time Out!!”
My dentist sighed. It was a big sigh, but he exaggerates for effect.
As he packed up various instruments, he told me a story of working with a colleague who wasn’t very good with children. One child was squirming all over the place and my dentist, working beside them, suspected that she just had to pee, but didn’t say anything. The colleague picked her up under the arms and dangled her, telling her if she only sat still it would be over very quickly. As she dangled, she peed all over the guy’s shoe. My dentist said he’d wanted to laugh but didn’t want to get the guy mad.
As I listened to this story, I wondered whether he was torturing me on purpose. I was still sitting there in my incapacitated state, and the visual my brain created of the child peeing and the imagined sensation of sweet release made my predicament even more agonizing. When my dentist finally ripped all the crap out of my mouth and told me to go, I practically ran from my seat all the way up the stairs to the restroom.
After that it was all much better.
I apologized when I returned, mumbling something about the coffee.
“I’ve been working in dental offices for thirty years,” he responded. “Me and the other guys can work all day long without having to use the restroom. The women, on the other hand, seem like they need to go every twenty minutes. I used to try to figure it out. But eventually I just decided: women are mysterious. I leave it at that.”
And that’s today’s story.