You Should See the Other Guy

I look like I’ve been in a bar fight.

My face is all swollen up: imagine a Cabbage Patch doll, but with bruising.

I have no energy and I feel like crap.   I joke, “You should see the other guy,” but really, he looks perfectly fine. He’s a dentist.

I went in this week for a gum graft. No big deal, I thought. I actually had one a decade ago, and it was really not that bad. “The top of your mouth will feel like a pizza burn,” they told me, from eating pizza that’s too hot, and that’s true. The oral surgeon just took a little bit of superficial tissue from the roof of my mouth and stuck it to my gums. It took about an hour. Of course, clearly it wasn’t effective, because here I am again.

I scheduled the appointment for 10:40 on a Wednesday morning, thinking I would be done in plenty of time to go get Josh at school at 1 (Wednesday is a short school day here in Prescott). Actually, I was a bit irritated that I would get done, go home, and then have to turn around and drive to the school. Boy, was I wrong!

See, there was supposed to be a “pre-surgery meeting,” and I think my dentist – a great guy, a skilled surgeon, I actually really like him and think he is very good – thought I had gotten the benefit of this session. But no, I just scheduled the gum graft and here I was.

“So we’ll be doing three sites,” he said, “on the top right, on the lower right, and on the upper left.”

“Wow, I said. “I thought we were doing just one.”  Then I figured, well, as long as I’m here, might as well just go for it.

I had the option of having donor tissue or having them cut the tissue out of the roof of my mouth to use on my gums. No problem with this decision – because again, I’d had this before and it wasn’t too bad.

Also, the donor tissue? Either from a dead person or a pig! I about gagged right there thinking about the tissue of some dead guy in my mouth. Or pig tissue! Who wants that?

ME! Why didn’t I do that? BECAUSE I DIDN’T KNOW ANY BETTER. In retrospect, BRING ON THE PIG!

It turns out that nowadays, they don’t just get the superficial tissue from the roof of the mouth. They go deeper, into the connective tissue. And they do some “prep work” that I don’t remember from my previous procedure. I don’t remember it because I had conscious sedation then. I refused that this time for two reasons: One, I had to drive afterward to get Josh at school. Two, every time I have conscious sedation, I kid you not, to my great horror and shame I repeatedly ask, “Am I being an A-hole?” Except I don’t say A-hole. Therefore, I will never have conscious sedation again.

So I was completely conscious as they did the “prep work.” First, they numbed me up. This is awful, because there’s epinephrine in there to make it work faster, and it makes you shaky and gives this terrible feeling of unease. Because I was basically having the work done everywhere except the lower left corner of my mouth, they numbed me up pretty good.  My eyelids didn’t close properly when I blinked – I found this out soon enough as I was lying there helpless and tears kept rolling down my face into my hairline.

They took a cast mold of my palate for something else I hadn’t expected – this very hard plastic retainer-type thing that goes over the “wound sites” – ALL THREE OF THEM – and is supposed to protect the tissue as it heals. This plastic thing, called a palatal stent, would become my nemesis and would repeatedly get stuck. I took that little bastard out for the last time today.  A small chunk of tissue from my palate went with it.

Then they left me alone for a few minutes while the numbing agent got to work.

I was not doing well, and I did what I always do when I need help bad: I started praying hard-core, and I got myself up, staggered to my purse, got my phone, and reached out to my family.

Here is the actual text I sent my husband, Mark, and my kids, Blair, Andy and Josh. “This is awful. I want to cry. It is three sites in my mouth, upper right and left and bottom left. I am jittery from the epinephrine in the numbing agent and my mouth is totally numb. It’s hard to swallow and breathe and I am trying not to panic and cry. It is a much bigger deal than I thought.”

Instantly, the texts started coming in. Blair was on it, right away, and she stayed with me until I had to put my phone away again. Mark, Andy and Josh also connected, even though they were at work and school, respectively. They were there for me. God, I love my family.

Then it was show-time, and by show-time, I mean the part where they drill away old fillings at the gumline that would prevent the new gum from taking hold, and where they “release” the gum tissue – as far as I can tell, I think they loosen it somehow – so the new graft can fit in there. I actually learned a lot about the procedure, because, as I was lying there, a new face popped up into my very limited field of vision. It was another dentist, a young guy, who apparently was getting a tutorial.

Yes. The dentist NARRATED IT.

I want to take a moment here to give a shout-out to the lady who was the surgical nurse/technician, because she was awesome. She was just on that suction, and she had experienced something similar before, because she knew about feeling like you can’t swallow and breathe.

So, with two bright lights, one from the overhead lamp and one from the dentist’s headlamp, in my face, I lay there and listened to the operation, step by step.

Even then, I thought it was funny in that nightmare quality, “this is hell,” kind of way, and I tried so hard to commit phrases to memory. For example:

“Now here, your hand is going to want to slip, so I block my blade.”

Oh, good move! Block that blade!

“You don’t want to cut the tongue.”

Please, God, don’t let him cut the tongue.

“Now, I don’t mind cutting into the bone.”

At this point, I tried to say, “I DO!” but it was completely incoherent and they thought I needed suction because I was drowning in my own spit, so that was an ineffective communication effort.

In addition to my fervent prayers for comfort, endurance, and strength, I threw in some other prayers:

“Please, God, don’t let Dr. X have a heart attack right now while there are all these holes in my mouth.”

“Please, God, don’t let the Apocalypse happen right now while I have loose tissue flapping around my gums.”

“Please don’t let the power go out.”

The surgery took three hours.

I want to say one more thing about it, and that is, “Hey, there’s a sentient being here, one who actually knows what phrases like ‘connective tissue’ mean.” I point this out, because in between the surgical narration, there was conversation. They talked a lot about lunch, which they were all going to have to delay because not enough time had been blocked in for this. They talked about music. The other nurse/technician, the one who was supposed to go get things, had the habit of singing along with the songs on the radio.

“Is that Florence and the Machine?”
I could have fielded that one. Yes. Yes, it was.

“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk is the worst song ever.”

I like Trace Adkins, but there was certainly a hellish aspect to lying there with my jaw hurting from being held open too wide and being forced to listen to “Got it goin’ on, like Donkey Kong,” and “Shut your mouth, Slap your grandma.”

Then there was a discussion about the actress in “Dirty Dancing.” Jennifer… Garner? No, darn, what was her name?

“GRAY!” I was shouting in my head. But I didn’t even bother to try to say it, because they just would have thought I needed more suction.

At one point, when there was a brief respite and I realized it was 12:30, I told the nurse that I needed to use my phone. Somehow, she understood what I was trying to say. My dentist offered to have somebody who knows Josh – he’s our whole family’s dentist – go pick him up, which I appreciated.

Andy took Josh home from school.

We were done at 2:00. I was a mess. As I made my way out to the waiting area to get to my car, I saw an extremely beautiful and moving sight: Andy had come to get me. He drove me home. I almost started crying when I saw him, I was just so grateful.

If I had known what an ordeal it would be, I would still have done it – I truly believe it will save my teeth, years down the road. (In case you’re wondering why I even need this, back in the day when I had my braces, apparently they moved teeth a lot faster than they do today. This hurt the gums.) But I would have scheduled it in the summer.

As it is, I have been trying to heal and still get Josh to school and do the large amount of work I currently have deadlines for. Little things have irritated me.  Even walking my beloved dogs has been annoying. Molly, the Lab, smells everything, and usually I have no problem with this because I know her amazing dog nose is on overdrive.   This week, I find myself saying, “For the love of God, Molly, give it a rest!” And Stanley, my little Cocker Spaniel, is a multi-pooper on walks. Again, usually I have no problem with this; in fact, I’m proud. No, I’m envious! Who wouldn’t, if we had the opportunity? He’s gotta be feeling great at the end of our walks. Every outing is a colonic cleanse! But this week, I have found myself thinking, “Again? Seriously? Good God, man!”

I am on Day 5. Over the last two days, I have developed the bruising on my chin. I look like Hatshepsut, the Egyptian Pharoah who was actually a woman – and she wore this fake black beard so she would look like a guy.   No, no – I know who I look like, for all you fellow Star Wars geeks out there: Jedi Master Luminara Unduli, who had a black tattoo between her mouth and chin. Yes. The resemblance is striking, although mine is more purple.

Mark and Blair each went shopping and got me all kinds of wonderful soups, smoothies, and ice cream, which I really appreciate. I would probably have lost more weight than I have, except I discovered that – while I can’t eat a grilled cheese sandwich, because I can’t handle the bread yet – if you have tomato soup and macaroni and cheese, which I can gum, it’s a pretty good substitute.

Still, eating actual food you can chew is a privilege. Mark fixed dinner last night for himself and the boys: burgers on the grill. Apparently, they were delicious. Andy said, “Dad, this is the best burger I’ve ever had.”

Meanwhile, I’m sitting right next to him with my chowder, feeling like Ned Beatty toward the end of “Deliverance,” thinking, “This soup is special, isn’t it?”

But every day brings me closer to normal. Normal is being able to move your lips and actually hold a straw with them because they’re not numb anymore. Normal is getting feeling back in your face. Normal is seeing the swelling, at its agonizingly glacier-like pace, start to go down slightly. Normal is watching the grotesque black bruising start to turn a lovely greenish yellow.

And I have to tell you one more thing. During the actual three-hour ordeal itself, after the jitters wore off, I was calm, and I know that God was right there with me. I absolutely know that.

So I have so much to be grateful for.

Is it wrong to not want to look like a Cabbage Patch doll, too?

©Janet Farrar Worthington




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