Saturday, November 25, 2006

The tooth hurts

This is a cautionary tale about how jetlag can cause twenty years of painful dental surgery.

When I was twelve, my family landed in Delhi after a sleepless international flight. That morning, in the course of excited horsing around with my cousin, I fell forward off her shoulders.

I wasn’t necessarily a great athlete in those days, but I had reasonably good reflexes, which just then failed spectacularly. Sluggish, confused, perhaps merely in denial, I clutched her t-shirt instead of putting out my hands to break the fall, and I hit the cement floor on my face. I don’t remember whether it hurt. I do remember stumbling to the sink and spitting a frightening amount of blood, and then a lot of screaming and panicked faces.

In about four seconds we were in a car, with my mother holding me in her arms and my aunt holding my left front tooth in her hand, root and all, which I thought was partly really cool and partly really not. The dentist poked me full of painkillers and re-implanted the tooth. In childhood, your body is more gracious about taking back any bits you’ve foolishly tossed out; the nerves grew back and the incisor continued to do honourable service.

But, eight years later, as I brushed my teeth in a college dorm, I noticed a weird rosy colour on the tooth. The next time I was home in Delhi, I visited another dentist (the first one had died). She gasped, took many pictures, and asked if I’d mind if she showed them at an upcoming dental conference, for this was her first case of pink tooth in twenty years of practice. Pink tooth is when the gum starts to reabsorb the tooth, which sounded pretty macabre to me, but she was very excited. She capped it and I went back to college with a less scary smile.

Inside of a year, it had come dangerously loose. The next summer in Delhi, I found myself in yet another dentist’s chair. This gent spent an hour shoving a metal screw into my upper jawbone while he hummed along softly to background music, like some highly-cultured psychopath. I don’t think he gave me enough painkillers. To this day I can’t listen to Enigma without whimpering.

The next year, the pin was loose again. By now my parents were in Malaysia, so in the summer a dentist there performed some horrible operation in which the benighted incisor was finally put to rest (bless its little enamelled soul) and a bridge put in. Further trouble was confined to a recurrent infection in the area of the missing root, which I kept swatting away with antibiotics.

By now I was in my thirties, living in Delhi, working for a magazine, and in the care of a very capable dentist who worries about my teeth almost as much as my mother. One bleary midnight in my dank basement office, I noticed a painful throb just below my nose. The x-rays showed an enormous cyst.

That resulted in a gum surgery so hideous that I can’t bring myself to talk about it except to say that the doctor removed the cap, opened up my gums like the flap of an envelope, dug out the cyst, cleaned up and sealed everything while I mooed with pain. Then he gave me another, nicer cap.

Eighteen months later, the cyst grew back. He called in a second opinion, who concurred that the right incisor, too, must be extracted, and a whole new bridge put in. For a full year I’ve pretended to be too busy to schedule the procedure. But it’s twingeing again, and now I know that my number is up.

Moral of the story: sleep on the plane, idiot.


Mike Todd said...

Maybe they could give you external mandibles, like a spider. That might not fix the problem, but it would look awesome.

Anonymous said...

Sacred cattle! And I thought you didn't like horrors. Nice little aperitif. Was this really published in a widely circulated magazine? I shall watch to see if the editor allows you continued access to his readership. :)

Cat said...

i have almost the same story with my teeth! my brother knocked my left top lateral incisor out with a baseball bat when i was 12, and broke off the front 2 incisors as well... by accident, while we were kidding around. lesson: never kid around with baseball bats.

18 years later, i'm having it removed once and for all tomorrow because it finally reabsorbed into the gum or whatever, and has been dangerously loose for weeks. i'm definitely not excited about the whole thing.. the oral surgeon says there will be "plenty of grinding" to remove bits of leftover tooth and something called "cementum" which she says resembles Swiss cheese made out of bone cells. yucky. but they are putting me to sleep for the procedure, thankfully no Enigma for me.

anyway - thanks for the story. don't know how exactly i came upon it.. the paranoid mind full of medical worries ceaselessly googling keywords.. but i'm glad i did.

Thanks so much, it gave me much peace of mind knowing someone out there has gone through almost the exact same thing as me.. hope you're healing well. (i'm going to have a fake removable tooth, too, for the next 4 months, while they do some kind of bone graft in order to put a titanium post in my jaw and a new cap on. some sort of crazy swedish dental procedure they started doing here in the US)

here's to the end of dental work.. one of these days..

hang in there

Matt said...

Can you recommend a good dentist, from your experience? :-) I am new in Delhi and do not know where to turn. A lot of them look like they just want a lot of money out of me (which is ok) very quickly! (which is not!)