I’ve been avoiding the dentist.
When I was 16, I went to a dentist in Bankers Hall. It was very nice. My mom worked downtown at the time and she was going to meet me after my teeth were cleaned. Let me be clear when I say that having clean teeth was never a prerequisite to spend time with my mother, this was simply one of those things that a kid should have cleaned from time to time.
This fancy dental office, with marble on the walls, satellite television and quietly whirring spaceship equipment was impressive enough on its own. But they also offered me bottled water when I walked in, and because I was a teenager unaccustomed to swag, I felt like I was getting away with some kind of swindle.
As you may be able to tell, this was my first time at this particular dentist. We had to go through some basic questioning and they determined that since I hadn’t had my mouth X-rayed in a while, they would do it for me.
After clamping my molars onto a piece of film for a couple photos, then nibbling on a piece of plastic for a panoramic, the dentist had his X-rays.
“Have you ever considered braces?” he asked. “We could fix these teeth here with some braces.” I was taken aback. Braces were for teeth gone wild, not my pearly off-whites with their playful rotations. That conversation should have tipped me off to the fact that this dental dude was trying to take me for all I had. But it didn’t. I shrugged off his offer of braces and we got to the cleaning.
When everything was said (through an open mouthful of Fluoride) and done, I was feeling squeaking clean and ready to grin at the world.
Then I got my bill.
For my new to the workforce Zoey-brain, this thing was exorbitant. My hand shook as I pulled my debit card from my wallet and slid it into the machine. $647. Had they implanted a GPS receiver while I wasn’t paying attention? Did they give me braces after all? Is this all because I didn’t floss?
That bill has stuck with me for a decade. The dentist at university added to my anxiety about teeth cleaning by never giving me an estimate of cost before my appointment started. So as I mentioned, I’ve been avoiding the dentist.
But last week, after coming home from a family vacation with an aching tooth, I finally caved. (Either I could cave or my mouth would. That’s what I told myself for motivation). I braced myself for what it would cost to get this wisdom tooth taken care of. I was ballparking it at $1,000, but preparing the tears for when it turned out to be more.
I went to a much nicer dentist, who gave me an estimate over the phone without my asking. The total was under-$200 (this is what happens when self-employed people don’t get their act together for supplemental health insurance). It was dental heaven! But then again, I didn’t have much to compare it with. A quick X-ray and a poke around my mouth and the dentist concluded that I had—well, I won’t get into the gory details, but he suggested I take some antibiotics for a week, and then he would remove the troublesome tooth.
That was one week ago. Today, I get one wisdom tooth removed. I’ve never had so much as a cavity (well, to my knowledge. I’ve been avoiding the dentist.). I have no idea what to expect but I imagine my worries will be much worse if I Google for stories.
Tooth removal was simple when I was a kid. I had a wiggly tooth one summer while we were on an eastbound roadtrip. At a McDonalds pit stop, I was playing with said tooth by rotating it 180 degrees over and over. It was a great way to pass the time while I waited for my chicken McNuggets to cook. Suddenly, with a soft thshuck! my tiny-child tooth was released from my gums. I put it into my pocket and chomped away on my dinner.
Will today be just such a fairy tale? Here’s hoping. I could use a reason to stop avoiding the dentist.
UPDATE: What it was like getting one wisdom tooth removed
The worst part was the lead-up. I nervously laughed and accepted when the dental assistant asked if I’d like to keep my tooth.
After they used a gel to numb the gums surrounding the tooth in question (a top-level wisdom tooth), I could barely feel the tiny needle pokes for the full freeze. I laid back, a brief tingling sensation taking over the left half of my mouth. I told the dental assistant I’d never had so much as had a cavity filled. She had me sign a consent form. Good timing.
When my dentist returned from letting my mouth freeze, he told me I could expect to feel pressure, but no pain, and to tell him if it hurt. He poked around a little to test the waters of my mouth. Ouch. I felt it. He gave me more freezing in a couple spots, then it was time.
I closed my eyes. Imagining a giant set of tooth pliers in his hand was enough for me, I didn’t want to know for sure what he was holding. He got a grip on the tooth and I tried to steady my breathing. “Are you alright?” he asked. “Oh yeah,” I wheezed, mouth half open. He and his assistant paused a few more times to make sure I wasn’t going to faint as he wiggled (I think, I couldn’t feel it) the tooth.
I kept imagining that as soon as the tooth came out, I would feel a bolt of pain shooting up through my skull. I focused on my breathing and pretended I was getting a facial at the spa and they were just removing blackheads. They don’t even give you anesthetic for blackhead extractions.
The seconds ticked by. I remembered that I’d been booked in for an hour and tried not to imagine laying here “at the spa” for another 52 minutes.
Suddenly: “your tooth is really loose, I’m just going to remove it now.” OK, I thought. Maybe not 52 more minutes. I felt nothing as he pulled it out and told me he was going to clean things up a little before they stuffed gauze in the socket.
After getting instructions on how to bite down on the gauze to create a blood clot and confirming that the freezing would last another 2 hours (especially because they gave me “lots”), I was delighted to see my boyfriend still waiting in the lobby.
“I didn’t even have time to check my email,” he protested.
I giggled, paid my $269, heeded the receptionists warning not to use a straw for several days, and walked out with my chauffeur.
“I thought you’d be groggier,” my boyfriend said, turning on the car. “This isn’t as hilarious as I expected.”
I just giggled and opened the tiny plastic treasure box that now held my tooth.
(It looks gross.)