I went to the dentist today. It's been far too many years since my last visit, even for a cleaning (yeah, I've been naughty), so when I made an appointment for December at my new dentist in upstate New York, I arrived with a nervous stomach, expecting the worst. The news was pretty good all things considered. No cavities, but funky gums. They recommended quad cleanings, which is where the hygienist digs deep below the gumline as a preventive procedure against periodontal disease. A decision was made that these super cleanings could be accomplished in two visits instead of four. Today was the first of my super cleanings.
I've always considered myself to a bad dental patient, but in fact it turns out I'm quite a good one and that I'm "bad" only in my head, where I grapple with my great fear of needles, drilling, picks, and that high-pressure water gadget. In the past, one or all of these dental necessities has caused me high anxiety and, at times, considerable pain. The fact is, though, when dentists get down to business I fold my hands in a tight knot and take it, opening, closing and spitting when instructed and generally behaving myself. Bad patients, I'm told, carry on. They stop the hygienist or dentist throughout the exam. They grab arms, grab instruments, cry, moan, complain, and, sometimes, freak out.
There was another factor that made me arise this morning with disquiet bordering on alarm. In the last 25 years I haven't had a single advanced dental procedure without first being administered nitrous oxide, aka laughing gas. The truth is laughing gas ain't that funny. The stuff induces a state of extreme paranoia, at least for me, and many a time under the influence I've convinced myself that the dental staff was whispering about me, mocking me, making sexual suggestions, or doing things in my mouth like pulling teeth when they were supposed to be filling them. Of course I always emerged from the gas state dopey but reassured that the medical folks hovering around in masks and goggles had done their jobs. For years, I felt, the gas with all of its wacky effects was necessary for me to withstand the one prerequisite of anything other than a standard cleaning: the novocaine shot.
This time, having decided to buck up and forgo the gas, I arrived at the dentist's office flat out terrified. Looming before me were four shots of novocaine, all on one side of my mouth. I kept replaying a dental visit from my twenties when the dentist gave me a shot above my front tooth and tears projectile-squirted out of my eye socket and I ended up with an abscess on my gum that plagued me for months after and that ultimately resulted in a damaged nerve, root canal, and a cap. I sat down in the chair today and, wringing my hands, told the hygienist this tale. She reassured me the shots would be administered gently, and that this dental concern (as opposed to others) subscribed to the belief that novocaine delivered slowly added to patient comfort. A needle lingering in my gums didn't sound very comfortable to me, but I kept this observation to myself as I twisted my fingers and curled my toes, bracing myself as she came at me with gloved hands and the twinkling instrument. To my utter shock, when the needle slipped home, I felt almost nothing. Three more shots followed, one in the very front, and at this point I was stunned. I couldn't believe it. I felt no pain. None. Once the shots were finished I did in fact grab the hygienist's arm: I thanked her, and told her she was the most wonderful hygienist in the entire dental world. Okay, maybe I got a little carried away. But in those few minutes of having needles stuck in the soft tissue of my mouth, whatever fears I've had about going to the dentist were flushed away. Today's hygienist could have drilled every tooth down to a nub and I don't think I would have protested.
As I've mentioned recently on this blog, I've been reading diaries of the ladies who lived in my house a century ago. In one entry in 1901, diary-writer Ida wrote this:
"The dentist came to the house today and pulled ten of my teeth. First he gave me a shot of cocaine in my gums, then he pulled seven teeth. He stopped for a few minutes, then pulled three more. I trembled considerable."
She "trembled considerable." I guess so.
I lay there in the dental recliner today with my face growing blissfully numb thinking about Ida hanging on for dear life to a kitchen chair and having ten teeth pulled at once a hundred-plus years ago. While this lovely and talented hygienist pecked away with pointy tools to extend the life of my ever-aging teeth, I thanked god and the heavens and medical researchers and progress and anyone and anything else I could think of to thank that I live in the year 2012. There are many things wrong with our world these days. Dentistry, I'm happy to say, isn't one of them.