The Novocaine was wearing off, but I still had one last tooth to be removed. I was six or seven years old, sitting in my dentist’s office, getting five teeth pulled so I could then get the braces I would need. It was early, yes, but my adult teeth were mostly coming in quickly. And while I would have braces for the entirety of elementary school, the hope is they would be removed before the dreaded awkwardness of junior high.
(And they were! But sadly, the haircut I chose in 6th grade wiped out any possible gains on that front.)
My mother would later tell me that she could hear me whimpering as that last tooth was pulled. It turns out that dentist was pretty bad, but I did eventually get the braces from an orthodontist. They were indeed removed in 5th grade. And my smile, from a cosmetic stance, is pretty great.
But structurally? My mouth is a mess.
* * *
I have bad teeth. Nearly every dentist has said it’s likely genetics — one even put me on prescription toothpaste for awhile, attempting to fix the acidity in my saliva. One dentist was definitely sure it’s all my fault, as I like sweets. And it’s true – anyone who knows me knows that I love candy and baked goods. But as a kid, it’s not like I drank soda anytime other than vacations. I had candy at the movies and on Halloween (though as a young child, my options were limited to things that weren’t likely to fuck up my braces), and ice cream for desserts. But I also brushed my teeth regularly, and ate lots of healthy foods. I’m not entirely sure if I had a lot of cavities as a teen – I don’t think I did.
But as an adult, my mouth is a nightmare. I’m typing this while taking a mixture of ibuprofen and the UK equivalent of Tylenol with codeine (okay’d by the dentist). Last night I got into an emergency appointment but the x-ray didn’t show an infection, so I cried in the chair because that meant there wasn’t the quick fix that antibiotics could provide. And my regular dentist couldn’t see me for nearly two weeks. The thought of the pain continuing (or worsening) for 13 days was a little too much in that moment.
I’ve had dental insurance most of my adult life (though not now, in the UK – we’ll get to that in a moment). My molars seem to rotate through a standard series of events. I go in for a check-up (usually not in any pain). I’ve gone every six months for my entire life, which I know is an absurd privilege. I get the cleaning, and then the dentist takes some x-rays and looks in my mouth. Some dentists have been a bit overzealous, filling cavities that probably didn’t need any work. Those fillings inevitably fail, so I need a new, deeper filling. Which fails a few years later. So I need a crown. Then something either gets up under the crown, or the tooth just gives up, and so a root canal follows.
My first root canal was when I was about 24 or 25, living in NYC, with pretty decent dental insurance. I was TERRIFIED, because everything I’d heard until then suggested a root canal was horribly painful. But it really wasn’t bad (and these days its even better). They put a crown on, and I went on my way. The next time I needed one, I was living in London, no dental insurance, but access to an NHS dentist as a student. I don’t recall his name, but he did a great job.
I can’t recall needed a root canal while living in Seattle. I’d have some pain and need fillings updated to crowns, but no root canals. It was frustrating, painful, and disheartening. I floss literally every single day (no joke). I use the toothpaste they suggest. I brush morning and night. I do drink sparkling water, and I like citrus foods. But I’m not going to sleep with a grapefruit between my teeth, and I’m not having a coke with lunch every day.
Since returning to the UK, I’ve needed three more root canals. One they caught before the infection appeared, so it was more luck than anything (I was in pain, but it was manageable). The second is how I found my current dentist. I was scheduled, but not for a few days, and the pain was brutal. I called anyone who would answer on a Saturday morning, went in, they saw the infection, gave me antibiotics, and I was fine within a day, then got the treatment. That was just a week or two before lock down started in March 2020..
The last one was earlier this year. It didn’t start with serious pain, just an ache and the recognition that my crown was failing. The plan was to replace the crown and move on, but once he got in there, it was clear I needed a root canal. Four appointments – and about £1100 later – it was all sorted.
I estimate since moving here we’ve spent about £4000 on my teeth. Each experience has been just fine, as the technology is great, and it’s really not any worse than getting a filling. I get numb, they do loud things, my jaw is sore for a few hours, and then I move on. If I didn’t have the funds for private, I would get treatment on the NHS, for reduced cost, though likely with a longer wait.
This time is frustrating. My mouth started aching a week ago. It wasn’t bad, then it was a little worse. But Advil taken a couple of times a day sorted it out. I emailed for a dental appointment, and was given one about three weeks out. No problem. But by the next morning, it was worse, and getting harder to ignore, so they got me the emergency appointment I had on Friday. The night before, it took me three hours to fall asleep because the pain medication wasn’t working anymore. I got about five hours of sleep. It sucked.
But I was so excited because I’d been down this road before – I’d had five root canals! I knew the signs, I knew the pain, and I knew the steps that followed: antibiotics to handle the infection, then treatment a few days later. Pain gone, life moves on. But this time, no infection was to be found. So there was no promise of relief. Just some more pain medication, and the hope that they can move up my appointment that is now still almost two weeks away.
* * *
When I was still working in Seattle, my colleague Dave helped bring an amazing mobile medical clinic to one of the local arenas. Over four days, physicians, dentists, and eye doctors would treat hundreds of patients for free. People would drive from all over, sleeping in the parking lot, getting in line to get a number in the hopes they would be seen. I volunteered a couple of times, and was once assigned to be a floater in the dental area, helping keep people in order and getting them seen as quickly as possible. Nearly everyone wanted to see a dentist. They had dozens and dozens of treatment chairs set up for people after their initial exam. People got x-rays, got teeth pulled, got flippers.
Dental pain is brutal – you can’t massage it like a muscle strain, or put much of a good topical treatment on (clove oil sort of works, but it’s pretty meh). One needs one’s mouth to do all sorts of things, like talk, or eat, or drink, so it’s very hard to just push through or put aside the pain. And it gets worse at the worst time – when one is trying to sleep.
I cannot imagine not getting relief from this pain because one doesn’t have access to or cannot afford a dentist. I don’t know how people can function. My family has a weirdly high pain tolerance, but dental pain is on a totally different level. It’s exhausting. And it’s horrible to think of all the people just trying to deal with it without any relief on the horizon, either because they can’t afford it, or because there aren’t any dentists available taking on patients without insurance (or, in the UK, ones on the NHS).
* * *
For now, the current pain medications are mostly working. I’m hoping I’ll get an appointment sooner so they can sort out what’s going on in my mouth. And once they do, it’ll be fine for awhile. But sometime – maybe in a year, maybe two – it’ll happen again. And again. Until I run out of molars.
Enjoy your Halloween candy.