May 22, 2012 – And the moral of that is—Five days after my dentist visit one of the three new fillings falls out. Ten days after, things are even worse. The tooth that I’d gone in to have fixed feels sensitive. The actual sensation of the tooth being there, in my mouth, has been growing day by day. It’s like it’s been packed with nerve sensors and suddenly has a strange softness. Very untoothlike. Noticeable and unwanted. The gum is tender, sore, and throbs a low pulse that builds as the day goes by and that I try unsuccessfully to ignore.
My grabbed at hope is that this is all due to the dentist’s rough hand, but this is a hope that disappoints. Something is definitely wrong.I’m angry at myself for not having been smarter about this and upset it’s not fixed. I should have researched better before jumping into any old dentist chair. I should have waited until I returned to the States and had my long-time dentist do the work. I should have… I should have… I know better than to think this way.
“Let this be a lesson to you,” I tell myself.“It’s a lesson I didn’t want to have to learn,” I reply.
“What are you going to do about it?” I ask.“I wonder if I can make it until I get back to Texas,” I wonder.
I’m certain the gum is infected, the filling is bad, and I’m an idiot. So doing what I know to do, I clean the gum with isopropyl alcohol and think Heal, Heal, Heal. I’m worried because I’m leaving in the morning for a weekend trip to the south of Peru. I’ve been looking forward to this trip to Nasca for a long time. I can ride out a lot of pain. I have before. But tooth pain is a different kind of hurt and I’d rather not travel with it.When I call my grandmother that evening I tell her I’ve been stupid and that things in my mouth have gone bad. This is the first time I’ve vocalized it. To anyone but myself.
“My dentist has told me to rinse my mouth with diluted hydrogen peroxide on a few occasions,” my grandmother says. “That might help.”Oh yeah. I know this trick. I’ve used it before. I’d only used alcohol this time because it’s what’s in my bathroom cabinet.
“I’ll go to the store when I get off the phone with you and buy some. That way I can keep it clean and hopefully the infection with go away.”Go away, infection!
“But it’ll be okay,” I say, willing that thought into existence. It will be okay.“Well, I’m going to try not to worry about it for you,” my grandmother says, but I can hear that the worry is close to her mind.
As I walk to the pharmacy I think about what I know of gum, mouth, and tooth care. There are gum treatments like analgesics. Maybe the pharmacy will have that. I can numb the gum and get the tooth taken care of when I get back.At the store, I pick up a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and then go ask the girl at the pharmacy counter if they have anything for gum pain. She searches the computer and quotes me the price for some pills.
“Do you have anything topical?” I ask.She types and says that, in fact, they do.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll take that and this,” I put the peroxide on the counter.With my self-care products bagged and ready, I walk home with a better sense of having done something to fix the problem.
Back at the apartment I gargle the diluted hydrogen peroxide. The bubbling fizz reassures me that everything will be okay. After I’ve rinsed my mouth out, I apply a touch of the analgesic to the gum. It helps a little.I leave off with the tooth and finish packing for my trip. Just then I hear the front door open. When Katrina passes my room she stops to say hi. In the middle of our conversation, still concerned about my mouth, I say, “I should have asked you about your dentist friend. I’m an idiot. This filling is bad and I think the gum is infected.”
“We could try to call Karen right now,” Katrina says. “She might be able to fit you in before you have to leave tomorrow.”“Really?” I look at the clock. It’s nearly nine o’clock at night. Normal business hours don’t apply here.
We try Karen three times and don’t get through. The calls go to voicemail. We don’t bother leaving a message. People in Peru seldom check their messages. It’s just the way it is. I don’t even know how to retrieve the messages left on my phone.“Thanks for trying,” I say. “Maybe I can get in with her after I get back.”
Katrina goes to make her dinner and, with my packing done, I start to get ready for bed. As I’m fiddling around, my phone rings.“Hallo?”
“Hallo?” the voice answers.I wait.
“Someone from this number called me three times?” the girl goes on.“Oh! Karen?”
“Yes, this is Karen.”“Thanks for calling back,” I say. “I’m a friend of Katrina’s and was wondering if by chance I could get an appointment with you. Maybe tomorrow morning?” I tell her the tooth’s recent history and my worry about infection.
“I have an opening at ten o’clock in the morning,” she says.“Would I be able to get to the bus station by one o’clock?” I ask. “I’m going out of town for the weekend.”
“Oh sure,” she says. “It shouldn’t take much longer than half an hour. An hour at the most.”I get the address from her. Then I go ask Katrina which buses I have to take to get to the office. She gives me a couple route options and tells me how much time to allow to get there.
Nervous about time crunches, bad teeth, and weekend trips I sleep fitfully. I wake up tired. I make a shake for a later breakfast (in the event that I can’t chew), shoulder my small bag, and walk to the bus stop. Just as I get there the blue and silver #02 bus coughs by, I flag it down, run over, hop on and settle in for the forty minute ride.Off the bus, I walk seven blocks and up some stairs and into a very professional looking waiting room. I can hear the dentist in the back room talking reassuringly to a patient. I’m early. But then the time goes by. Twenty minutes. Half an hour. It’s now 10:30 and I’m starting to wonder if I will make the bus.
“Don’t be silly,” I say. “You’ll have plenty time. You don’t have to be there until 1:00.”“Oh yeah,” I say. But I’m worried about more than the time. I’m dreading that this filling will have to be drilled out and repacked. And the poor infected gum. I just want it to be over with.
Eventually. Much later. Karen bids her patient goodbye and comes to collect me.We exchange a cheek kiss and I tell her that Katrina had sent her saludos. Then I take the chair and she has me explain everything again. Mirror in hand, she examines the tooth.
“Ah, yes,” she says. “I see the problem.”She uses a digital camera to take a few shots of the back area then shows it to me. She tells me why it might have happened and what it all means. Then she says, “I can fix that tooth and replace the fallen filling for thirty-five soles each.”
“Okay,” I say. “Sounds good.”Her equipment is set and ready to go. The moveable arm light is plugged in and works. The water-sucking device is hissing. Everything sounds just the way the dentist office should sound.
I should have come here to start with, I think. Then I wouldn’t be dealing with this mess now.There you go with your shoulds again.
Yeah. I know.“I’m going to give you anesthetic so you won’t feel anything,” Karen says as she places instruments on the metal side table.
At this point she could put me under, and, so long as I made the bus, I’d be fine with it. I really don’t want to feel what’s about to happen. But I’m a little older, a little wiser. I want to know what she’s going to do.“So,” I say, “You’re going to take out the bad filling and repack it and also fix the other tooth?”
“Exactly,” she says.“The filling in the back tooth isn’t packed in tight enough, so there’s space and that’s causing some of the problem with the tooth. Also some teeth get more pressure when you bite and this one seems to. The added pressure pushed the filling into your gum causing the area to get irritated and infected. I’ll pack the fillings in really well so there won’t be any gaps or holes. Then you’ll be all set.”
I glance over at her dentist certificate on the wall and believe everything she says.When she says, “Open,” I do. Soon enough, half my mouth and tongue are deadened. They feel huge and clumsy. When she starts the drill, I don’t feel a thing. I close my eyes and start the litany of quotes I used to use to distract my mind when I was training hard to stay in peak shape for Judo competitions.
“Give me a sign with your hand if it hurts, okay?”“Okay,” I mumble around her fingers. I put my hands together in my lap. I try to relax and breathe normally.
Karen gets me positioned and then goes to work.She hums this “hm hmmmm” as she works. It’s reassuring, like a lullaby. It’s a two, sometimes three note song that she sings the whole time she works. When I don’t hear the notes, I worry. But then she starts up again and I know she’s focused on the task and that she knows exactly what to do.
It takes a lifetime. She uses this plastic thing to hold my mouth open to the shape she needs to access the back of my mouth. My jaw begins to tighten. My lips hurt from being pressed outwards. The back of my head is sore. I’d like to pop my neck.I go through my litany again. And again.
But the sounds are all right. She drills. Sucks out the detritus. Rinses and sucks out the excess water. Cleans the gum. Packs the teeth. Smooths them down. Packs them in tighter. Smooths them out again and again. Adds gauze. Takes out gauze. Taps. Pokes. Presses. The time goes long. But this is no slap-dash filling like the one I’d had ten days ago. Through it all, Karen hums the notes--one, two or three at a time--and I listen for them so that I can sing along in my head.And then, finally, it’s over.
“Okay. You can close your mouth now.” She takes her gloves off and pulls the face mask down to hang around her neck. “I’ve put a protective glaze [that’s how I understand it in Spanish] over the tooth and gum. That should help clear up the infection. For the next few days don’t use any kind of mouth wash or brush too hard which would irritate the area again. But you’ll be fine. The numbness should wear off by the time you reach Paracas and you should feel normal.” She pulls out her phone and checks the time. “It’s twelve-fifteen,” she says, “you have plenty of time to make your bus.”It’s been an hour and a half of work. No wonder my jaw feels locked in place.
I pay her. Thank her. “You’ve saved my life.” I tell her. Then I ask her how long it should take to get to the bus station and how much a taxi should cost from here to there.“Five soles,” she says. “It’s really close. No more than that.”
I cheek kiss her goodbye and go flag down a taxi.“How much to Cruz Del Sur on Javier Prado?” I ask, leaning my head in the passenger side window of the taxi.
“Nine soles,” he says.“Nine! No way. It’s really close. Five soles,” I counter.
“Eight,” he says.I shake my head and back up.
“Seven,” he goes down.“Six-fifty,” I tell him. I don’t want to miss my bus. “I’m not paying more than that.”
He shrugs, turns up a palm as if to say, “What can I do?”I get in.
He looks at me through the rearview mirror. “You drive a hard bargain,” he says.I smile. At least that’s what I try to do around the still strong anesthetic. Even with half my mouth numb I tell the driver I’m heading to Nasca and Ica for the weekend when he asks me where I’m going. Then he tells me about fifteen other places in Peru I have to visit.
“There’s just not enough time!” I say. “Peru has too much to see.”“That’s true,” he agrees.
I arrive to Cruz Del Sur with time to spare. I go sit in the upstairs lobby while I wait for Rodney to show up. We’re going on this adventure together and I know he’ll be here before the one o’clock deadline. He’s always early. With my teeth woes behind me. With the weight of that worry lifting off my gums, I close my eyes and experiment with moving my jaw. It’s tight and stiff. But I can tell a difference already. A good difference.Rodney arrives. We go stand in line to board. Eventually, the ticket man checks our passports and tickets. The security guy wands our bags and us. Proven to be safe people, we’re let on. Rodney is on the lower level because it has more leg room. I’m on the upper level because it’s cheaper. I have the front seat. And I’m thrilled! I’ll have the best view of anyone, better even than the driver because I don’t have to drive.
I put on my seatbelt and grin. This is going to be an awesome trip. I can’t wait to see what lies along the Pan-American Highway. I can’t wait to reach the desert. I’m ready to see Nasca and its mysterious lines. I’m ready to see the impressive dunes of Huacachina. I’m ready for anything.The bus fills up. The engine starts and we’re on our way. The miles pass away and my anesthetic wears off. My mouth hurts. It’s a new, different, healing kind of hurt. Despite the pain, I have assurance that my mouth will be fine. For the first time in maybe four years, I pop two Aleves and wait for the anti-inflammatory med to do its work and take the edge off. I send my I Should Haves packing and wonder if there’s a moral to all this.
"Tut, tut, child!" said the Duchess (from Alice in Wonderland). "Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it."Well, in that case, the moral of this story is: always choose your dentist with care.