In most situations, I tend to imagine the worst case scenario. This delightful character trait is a bit of behavior I learned from my father, a catastrophist whose glass is perpetually half-empty. My talent for negative thinking has been honed to a fine art when it comes to medical or dental procedures. In these situations, I am not a brave man. I equate this to a couple of painful hip surgeries and the long uncomfortable recoveries that followed when I was eight years old.
Sometime in my twenties, two of my wisdom teeth cracked. I spent the following years running my tongue over the sharp crags while fretting about the inevitable physical and financial extractions in my future. Thanks to the good fortune of bad or absent dental coverage I was able to rationalize my avoidance of the dentist for too long, and in that time my worries festered. I had heard somewhere that some dentists only used local anesthetic for a wisdom tooth extraction and imagined myself being driven insane by the sound of cracking bone, and the sensations of yanking and twisting. That wouldn’t do. I’d need to find a dentist that would knock me out. This idea was a relief until a friend informed that her dentist required her to sign a waiver acknowledging the rare, but possible, risk of death associated with intravenous anesthetic.
A few years ago, I finally started taking better care of myself. I quit smoking, and lost 50 pounds. The only outstanding issue was my teeth. Now, with decent dental insurance, I no longer have any excuses to hide behind. There are braver people out there dealing with far worse situations than getting their wisdom teeth removed, and here I am, a grown man, afraid of the dentist. Granted, going to the dentist isn’t the most fun you can have in a day, but people do it all the time. Those who don’t are likely to end up with teeth like jagged tombstones in the haunted cemetery that is their mouth. Resenting my cowardice, I scheduled a dental consultation. I was informed that I had a number of cavities that needed tending to, and that the wisdom teeth needed to go. A few months later I was in the oral surgeon’s chair being rigged up for intravenous anesthetic. I began to drift off into what I can only describe as the best damn nap I’ve ever taken. Sure, I was aware of the cracking bone, and the yanking and twisting, but it was like it was all playing quietly on a television in the distance.
This past week, I found myself back in the dentist’s chair to deal with the cavities that remain. As I waited for the dentist to arrive, I fixated on the selection of drills, needles, clamps, mirrors and other pointy items. Despite my seemingly pleasant wisdom tooth experience, I found myself once again nervous about the procedure ahead of me, conjuring up the torture scene from Marathon Man, in which Lawrence Olivier drills into Dustin Hoffman’s teeth as a means of extracting information continually asking, “Is it safe?” A great movie but not one that should be reflected upon when sitting in the dentist chair (what Jaws did for trips to the beach, Marathon Man did for trips to the dentist). The technician outfitted me with a pair of dark safety glasses, making me feel like an elderly person with glaucoma. This, I realized, was to protect my eyes from the bone shrapnel caused by the fragging that was about to occur in my mouth. By the time the dentist arrived, I was sufficiently wound up. The dentist kicked the chair into a nearly upside down recline forcing me to look at the magic eye poster affixed to the ceiling. This exasperated me as I’m never able to see the image hidden on those posters. After few painful jabs with the needle he began to drill. “Is it safe?” With the drill vibrating my skull, and the dentist and technician exchanging mundane conversation, I felt my palms begin to sweat. Every so often, one of them would ask if I was alright. “If by alright you mean: gagging on a Novocaine, saliva, and powdered teeth slurry that tastes like smoked pennies, then yes. I’m aces.” As I tried to relax, I began to daydream about Dr. Drill ‘n Fill, an old toy from my childhood.
Dr. Drill ‘n Fill was a Play-Doh playset originally made in 1979. Packaged with cans of Play-Doh, a disembodied toothless head, molds to create anthropomorphic teeth and a set of dentist’s tools, it allowed kids to play dentist. The head, a dapper old fella that resembled a more benign Colonel Sanders, could be tilted open revealing the toothless maw. The idea was to squeeze Play-Doh into the molds creating a set of friendly but cavity-ridden teeth that were to be inserted into sockets in the plastic gums. Kids could then use the tools to drill, and pull teeth to their heart’s content. I recall playing with Dr. Drill ‘n Fill during my recovery from my first hip surgery. Its intended use was long abandoned, my cans of Play-Doh having been left open resulting in dried up color loafs. Instead, I used the head as a mannequin for applications of papier-mâché and tempera paint concoctions, creating monsters that looked Frankenstein/Muppet hybrids.
With the dentist still elbow deep in my mouth, I was feeling much calmer thinking of the Dr. Drill ‘n Fill. I amused myself with ideas of the playset fostering childhood aspirations of pulling molars like Hermey the elf in Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (I never trusted that guy). As fragments of my own teeth flecked my face, I breathed deep and considered more sadistic children reveling in the pain they were causing the Dr. Drill ‘n Fill patient. I wondered if my dentist had been that type of child. In my head Steve Martin sang a verse of “Dentist” from Little Shop of Horrors. As I smelled the smoke from the drying filling composite, my mind drifted to Bill Cosby’s dentist routine from Himself, one of my favorite comedy albums growing up. I distracted myself from with the sounds of grinding and ratcheting as I remembered Bill Cosby trying to alert his dentist of a fire in his mouth with the affected speech of a mush-mouth numbed by Novocain. Had my mouth not been held open with a car jack, I might have smiled at the thought.