Going to the Dentist, Getting my first Cavity

It is said that when under pressure (e.g. deadlines), the average geek will let other seemingly less important things (such as personal hygiene) fall by the wayside. Although I can safely say that I still keep myself squeaky clean (either that, or I’ve got mice under my bed), there was one thing that I didn’t really keep on top of.

Going to the dentist.

For two years, I let that slide. Unintentionally, I have to add. In fact, I’m kicking myself for letting it go that long. But with the new year came a number of changes (a new diet, a search for a home, a couple of attempts at regular exercise), one of which was a visit to the dentist. That was a week ago today.

The dentist (Dr. Chin) is quite good. Very sociable, very nice, and extremely professional. His assistants, on the other hand, I think he found at Dominatrices ‘R Us.

Because I had no dental records, they had to get those going. Which mean a full set of x-rays of my mouth. Far more detailed than I’ve ever had before, I should add. I’ve had the ones you bite down on, but never the ones that come with a fancy bracket and dig into either the roof of your mouth or try to burst out through your lower jaw.

Did I mention I have a really bad gag reflex?

My first dentist (Dr. Wallace) called me “Captain Choke”. He hated doing anything but checking and polishing my teeth. X-rays were almost an Olympic event: In goes the x-ray, I start to convulse, he dives behind a lead-shielded wall and punches a button, gets back to me just in time for me to spit it out. (I’d love to have something like that on film. It would be entertaining to say the least.) It was so bad he wouldn’t even bother with the fluoride trays.

So while the x-rays were developing, the dental assistant (there must be a universal constant somewhere that all dental assistants must be female and extremely attractive — mine looks a lot like Claire Forlani) probed my teeth. Much fun. Gingivitis in the top left. (Bad flossing habits, or rather, complete lack thereof.) But otherwise fine.

Well, except for grinding teeth.

None of my other dentists made note of this, so it might be a more recent thing. But it’s hard to tell. Either way, Dr. Chin highly recommended getting a night guard so I don’t grind away everything. At the very least, I’ll find out if I grind my teeth at night.

The x-rays came back, and Dr. Chin started scanning them. He “hmm"ed for a few moments, then said something like “2-7 DO”. I tried to figure out what he meant. Sounded like “do over” to me. Just what I needed, another round of that wretched bracket wedged in my mouth. But I thought I should check.

“What does ‘DO’ mean?”

“Oh, you’ve got a cavity.”

Twenty nine years, six months, and 14 days. That’s how long I’d gone without getting a cavity. But because I’d neglected my dentist for two years (and drank the my body’s volume in Coca-Cola in a very stressful December), I’d managed to finally bore a hole into my previously perfect teeth.

(Okay Cathy, you can stop cheering now.)

I was in shock. Literally. I couldn’t believe it had happened. I had a cavity. That could mean only one thing. The drill.

But it wouldn’t be that day. I still had to go through an hour of extensive scraping, gouging, poking, prodding, polishing, and a mess of Kleenex to wipe all the tears of pain away. (What can I say? I’m a wimp.)

My gums hated me for two days.

Today was my follow-up. I ducked out at 11:00 so I could get to the office (about two blocks from our apartment) by 11:30. I was a little early, which was fine — they were waiting. With big smiles.

The first thing they did, once getting me down, was stuff a cotton swab in my mouth. I had no idea what this was for. After a moment, I thought it might be a new form of anaesthetic, where I could avoid the needle. Quite content with this, I lay back happily. Then Dr. Chin returned with a needle. A big one.

I hate needles.

The cotton swab was a topical — so I wouldn’t feel too much pain as Dr. Chin rammed this device of medieval torture into my upper nerve bundle. Needles are bad enough on their own, but are usually quick. This thing was in there for about a year (actual elapsed time, a couple of minutes), flooding my upper right side with a HUGE dose of painkiller.

Painkillers are funny things. (Especially nitrous oxide. [Insert drum roll here.]) At first you think nothing’s working. You’re convinced that you can still feel everything, and this is gonna hurt like crazy. Then you realize that your face has actually slid off your skull and is lying on the floor.

At this point, Dr. Chin thinks it’s a good idea to get me to sit up so they can do impressions of my teeth for the dental guard. Still being tense from the needle (which actually wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be), all the blood rushed out of my head to hide somewhere. It took all of 30 seconds for me to feel extremely ill. They had to put me back down again.

The next time they brought me up, I was much better. Except that I no longer had control of the right side of my face, from my upper lip to my lower eyelid. Poking it was a peculiar experience because I knew I was hitting something, just couldn’t figure out what it was. It was like being drunk without all the fun.

Dental impressions are done using some really fun stuff: dental alginate. It’s basically a funky kind of latex rubber that sets very quickly, and will set in just about anything, including a wet mouth. (Special effects houses use this stuff a lot when making prosthesis for creature effects in movies.) For me, this involved a very large metallic form which gets rammed in your mouth, full of this bitter-tasting pink stuff.

I’m amazed that I managed to keep the upper mould in for the 45 seconds it took for it to set. I gagged up a storm (and found out why the dental bibs have a plastic backing), but it came out in perfect shape. I prepared for the second one by starting breathing exercises, and staring at a single point on the ceiling. Barely even noticed it was there. The breathing was important, because the worst was yet to come.

At this point, I’d recommend that anyone who doesn’t want to read about my tribulations in the chair might want to stop reading. For the rest of you, just don’t mock me, okay? This is the first time I’ve had to go through this.

The freezing well in place, the assistant (I think she said her name was Madame Helga, but I’m not sure) started to insert a “clamp” onto a tooth adjacent to the defective one. This clamp looked like something out of the Spanish Inquisition — big, nasty, pointy, jutty things that gouge into parts of your mouth so that something else can stay in place. (It’s a little hard to tell, since my eyes can’t look into my mouth.)

Next came the “Suffocator”, a large piece of pink latex rubber (I’d love to know what’s with all the pink) which they stuff into your mouth [insert gag reflex here] and connect to the clamp. Then they pack on a 10×10 metal frame that sticks out of your mouth to stretch out the rubber so they can actually see what they’re doing. I was fine with all of this right until the latex started to stretch.

Eventually, Dr. Chin had to reset the whole thing so I wasn’t squirming in agony. I think they loosened a tooth in the process…

With me subdued by the dental dam, they proceeded to relieve me of my precious enamel. At this point, I should mention that the closest I’ve ever come to a drill was my last dentist, who ran it across some of the deeper crevasses in my rear molars (so I wouldn’t get anything caught in there). Now I was having a drill actually bore out my teeth.

The problem is that I’m not a huge fan of pain. Never have been. (I’d make a lousy spy.) Having my teeth drilled was pretty bad — I couldn’t tell if it was vibration or them drilling through the largest nerve in my body. (It’s either a lot of pain, or none at all.) Dr. Chin was a little frustrated at me, I think, as I ended up pausing the operation a couple of times because it began to hurt a bit. Turns out it was vibration.

Oh, and talking with that damn dam in your mouth is an exercise in clarity, let me tell you!

Drilling complete, I managed to relax my grip on the chair arms (I think my fingerprints are permanently embedded in the naugahyde) and breathe a little easier. Next came another fun little exercise: Wedging things between Geoff’s teeth. I have no idea what the heck some of these things where, but none of them seemed to be real dentistry tools. I’m convinced Dr. Chin was trying to see how many things he could pack into my mouth without me knowing.

The fact that he had to pound a couple of them in there makes me certain of that.

I now had about 15 different tools wedged, clamped, stretched, bored, packed, and stamped into my mouth. (If nothing else, my big mouth actually came in handy for a change.) There was some more poking and prodding, and then finally came out the drill again. But this time, it was to grind off the excess packing they’d wedged into that teeny little hole. A few moments of that, and then they proceeded to sand.

Yes, sand. With sandpaper. Small strips it, mind you, but it’s still sandpaper. Back and forth they went, smoothing out where the filling is. (I can’t even feel it anymore … but I know exactly where the sanding was. I can feel it on my teeth.)

With that all done, they finally removed all the various implements of pain from my mouth, and released me to the bathroom to tidy up. (I had bits of dental alginate, spit, tooth dust, and who knows what else plastered all around my mouth.

Let loose to the world, I returned to the office and attempted to return to work. It’s a little hard when you can’t talk out of one side of your mouth (and every second person cracks a joke about drooling). But luckily, it’s since worn off, and the only thing that hurts is my tooth.

The one they drilled. Go figure.

This was a small cavity, fortunately for me, but still took about 30 minutes to bore, pack, and file. Why? (Everyone, all together!) ‘Cuz I’m a wimp. If nothing else, it’s taught me a very valuable lesson: I’m never going through that again, so I’m going to have the most rigid dental hygiene from here on.

Speaking of which, I gotta go and brush my teeth.

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