by Sara Rubin
Norm is waiting in an endodontist’s office. George, an acquaintance, comes in. Norm greets him and asks what brings him there. George tells him he is scheduled for a root canal procedure, his first ever. He admits he is very uneasy, nearly terrified. He came too early for his appointment though, nerves, he thinks. Norm is dismissive of his fear; he knows he has something that will make George feel much better.
NORM – Man who has had a terrible dental experience in the past; it still lives vividly in his mind
GEORGE – An acquaintance of Norm
DENTAL ASSISTANT – Worker in the endodontist’s office
NORM: Hi George! Fancy meeting you here. What’s going on?
GEORGE: Oh boy. I’m scheduled for a root canal, first ever. I’m pretty anxious about it. — What time is it, anyway? (Looking at his watch) Oh, my gosh, I’m a half hour early. I guess I just wanted to get it over with. Why are you here?
NORM: I’m only here for a consultation. And I’m early too, coffee shop was closed. But, hey, don’t worry about root canals, they’re a piece of cake. No kidding. It’s the plain ordinary fillings that you have to watch out for.
GEORGE: What are you talking about??
NORM: (Getting enthused) Well, since we both have a little time, let me tell you what happened to me just getting a routine filling. —
— Ok, so I’m sitting in the dentist’s chair. He had just drilled decay out from under an old filling and is replacing it. It was a big hole to fill, and he had to put in posts to strengthen the amalgam… He kept complaining that holding these posts in place was very hard, they were causing him discomfort, and even pain. His fingers tips, you know, couldn’t keep those little metal posts in position without a lot of pressure, and they really hurt. I think his eyes were beginning to tear, with pity or pain, I didn’t know. But having already sat there for a long time, with my jaw aching and trembling, I didn’t feel that sorry for him. I was the patient after all, and I didn’t force him to become a dentist!
Finally, he got all the posts buried, and only needed to polish the rough edges of the new filling to make a neat job. The little grinding stone whirred as it spun off flecks of filling, but at some point he thought he needed another instrument. So, with the running drill still in my open mouth, he reached over with his other hand to get the new tool off the tray. Just at that time his arm must have made some tiny movement. The drill changed position slightly, and made contact with the bottom of my mouth, right under my tongue. The grinding stone quickly wrapped the delicate tissue around itself and burrowed deep into the floor of my mouth.
He felt the tug, heard the motor begin to whine, and realized what had happened! He tried to turn the drill off, but the shaft had gotten bent so that the switch on the handle was jammed and didn’t work! He thrust the handle at me to hold, the drill still whirring in my mouth, and dove to unplug it from the wall.
The electricity stopped, the grinding stone stopped, but now he had a real mess. He had to manually unwind the grinding stone and then try to stop the bleeding. There are lots of blood vessels under the tongue, and many of mine had been macerated. The flood of blood was immediate and immense; he packed in gauze, then towels. He clamped my hand there and told me to keep pressure on the wound — he had to drive to get help!
He told his receptionist to close the office, hurried me into the back seat of his car, and sped off to an oral surgeon’s office. Now, as you might imagine, the tissue in the bottom of my mouth, anyone’s mouth, is rather structureless, like liver, or even Jello, and this surgeon-dentist had a difficult time getting any of it stitched together. The thread just kept pulling through.
Me? I was repeatedly given little sniffs of smelling salts to keep my head up-right, though I think being unconscious might have been more appealing.
However, he did eventually have some luck getting it all down to a slow seepage, though he couldn’t actually repair the wound. So, another sniff, and back into the dentist’s car we go. We ride into town and the emergency department at the university hospital.
I was admitted, intubated to supply oxygen in case I began to choke, given intravenous antibiotics, and a room. Everyone thought maybe the stitches would hold and the whole thing would begin to heal. But no. During the night some stitches broke, blood started to gag me, and I was rushed on a gurney to the operating room for an emergency tracheostomy!
The next morning, the day after I had gone to the dentist to get a filling fixed, I woke up in a hospital bed, hooked up to IVs, barely able to breathe through a tracheostomy valve in my neck, unable to talk or eat or drink… And was there for three entire days and nights!…
In the end, though, it all turned out pretty much alright; I didn’t contract blood poisoning or any other infection, didn’t choke to death, and only have a small amount of tongue numbness along with an almost imperceptible bit of speech impairment.
But, to tell you the truth, I’ve actually had some very fine outcomes with root canals! So don’t worry. You’ll be in good hands!
DENTAL ASSISTANT: (Opening the door into the treatment room) OK, George. The doctor is ready for you now.
Sara Rubin is a local artist and environmental conservationist who has had a family pottery business for years in Brighton, NY. Though her husband and she continue making and selling their pottery, she has also begun to write about the people and animals and places that make up her world.