“Why Can You Still Feel This?”

Below the jump is an essay about my recent dental surgery. I’ve had three procedures in the last month or so; each one has felt like being stabbed in the face by one of the Nazgûl.

My next appointment is in February 2012, when I hope the prognosis will be positive. Who knows, maybe I’ll write about that too…

Thanks for reading!

Some tortures are physical
And some are mental,
But the one that is both
Is dental.
~Ogden Nash

My appointment was late on a Tuesday afternoon in December. I sat in the waiting room, watching a computer screen on the front desk explain what a diastema is and how this fancy clinic could help you to sort it out. It was only one of the many treatments on offer – I’d never known there were so many options when it came to your mouth. I watched the programme run on a loop, wishing I’d found the time to eat some lunch. Half an hour after the time ascribed, I was ushered into the exam room.

R, the woman I’d been speaking to over the last couple of weeks (and owner of the clinic) came forth to shake my hand. “Adewunmi!” she said loudly (I would soon discover that this was the only volume she operated at). “So nice to meet you. My my, your gums are red. Come in!”

Now, I have a curiously high pain threshold, but what followed was some of the worst pain I’ve endured in my life. Let’s take a quick trip down Pain Memory Lane: when I was 13 years old and at boarding school, I lost my footing on the gutter in front of my dormitory. I landed, not too cleverly, on my face. I tore my lip wide open, my face swelled to about double its regular size, and it’s only a miracle that I didn’t somehow nail my tongue to the bottom of my mouth with my top teeth. I was pulled out of school to recuperate – at home I had to be fed like a baby – with a spoon and bib to catch any drippings from a mouth that was too swollen to close. I still have a tiny scar and bump on my top lip.

A couple of years later, I woke up to find my entire body swollen, like the Michelin man. I went blind for a couple of hours, and was in so much pain I was humming, like a wounded animal. The school nurses thought it was blackwater malaria. It turned out not to be, but it was malaria so bad I had to be put on a drip in hospital for a week. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen my father cry.

I’ve had a car run over my left foot and a horse stand on my right one. I’ve smashed my hand in the door of a Peugeot 504, and I’ve had cramps so bad I vomitted. All these experiences were left in the dust by the pain my dental woes have cost me. It’s got me rethinking childbirth as a future endeavour.

I was in the clinic because my dentist had referred me for periodontal work. In basic English, my gums were fucked – and they were threatening my teeth with eviction. In an oddly cheerful tone, Dr L told me: “You could go on a waiting list on the NHS… but that might take anything up to 18 months. By then, you’d have lost all your teeth!”. So I sucked it up and decided to go private. At the initial consultation in November, a ridiculously good-looking periodontist broke down how terrible my situation was. Coming on the heels of my childhood dentist telling me I was a ‘tongue-thruster’ (sadface), this was devastating news. By the time I walked in to R’s exam room, my gums were on the verge of collapse. Later she would tell me she’d rarely seen worse: her comment on the redness of my gums had not been a compliment – overly-rosy gums are a sign of super-inflammation.

Before she could attack the pockets which had formed around my gums (and which were eroding my bones), I had to be numbed with local anaesthetic. Not a problem, I thought. And so we began. A curiously handsome dental nurse, G (think Justin Chamber’s younger, hotter brother), came into the room to assist. I registered a sense of relief that I was wearing a nice jumper and makeup (“my gums may be a mess, but look into my eyes, G. See how my eyeshadow sparkles – for you!”) This was more evidence that my vanity trumps all – a few months back while I was sure I was dying of pleurisy and the nurse attached ECG leads to my chest, I still allowed myself a jolt of pleasure that I was wearing a pretty bra.

We started off with a bubblegum-flavoured numbing gel smeared onto cotton wool pellets. They were shoved behind my lips until I felt ‘a tingling’. For 30 minutes, I lay on the couch with a paper bib on, contemplating when I would be able to eat toast again. R came in after about 10 minutes. Would I care to watch a film while we were waiting for the gel to work? Sure, I said. She brought out a little gizmo – glasses with tiny telly screens and headphones attached. I chose Casino Royale – there was the option of Friends, but did I really want to be laughing at Ross & Rachel’s Vegas antics while someone went to town with electrical tools inside my mouth? I’ll take Le Chiffre hitting Daniel Craig repeatedly in the knackers, please and thank you.


Finally, we were ready. Time to administer the local anaesthetic. The injections hurt like hell. By the third, I began making yelping noises. By the fifth, I was crying silently. In my prone position, the tears leaked out and flowed straight down the sides of my face and directly into my ears – a state of affairs so pathetic, it made me cry even harder and uglier (if you know me in real life, you’ll know I’m an ugly crier). By the tenth injection, I was snotting uncontrollably. Thank goodness for the dark goggles I was wearing, and a quick shoutout to my new sponsor, Kleenex. I eventually stopped counting the injections when we hit 30 – that’s when I began to hope to fall into a deep unconsciousness. Other note-worthy things:

  • My nose went numb
  • So did my upper jaw and ears
  • I can communicate in ‘sign language’ – thumbs up/down, frantic thigh-slapping, undulating hand movements, the diver’s ‘A-OK’ sign, squeezing my left hand…
  • It’s a curious sensation, having two strangers’ hands in your mouth
  • Most impressively, we discovered that my gums were not taking to the anaesthetic – was it because its effects were being countered by the extreme inflammation? No-one had seen such extreme sensitivity. I snuck a look at R’s tray afterwards – there were at least six empty vials of anaesthetic on there. On my third visit, she expressed her surprise at my militant gums yet again: “Why can you still feel this? How can you still have so much feeling? I doubt you’ve ever been totally numb in your life.” Somewhere deep inside, a tiny place where the pain was yet to reach, I hollowly whispered: “ONLY EMOTIONALLY, DOCTOR.”

R worked like a maniac. At one point, she stopped using the electric version of whatever tool she was working with and went Rambo on my gums with a manual implement. There was so much blood. How much blood? You don’t know, man; you weren’t there! I could see the suction tube go red every few seconds as G vacuumed out my lifeforce. Every so often, they’d let me up to spit into the sink – the blood was always a deep, rich red; thick and alarming. I began to wonder if I would have to take iron pills to recover from the loss. 90 minutes in, G left to attend to another patient, and was replaced by A, a warm older woman who occasionally patted my forehead to soothe me as I cried. Throughout the procedure (it lasted more than two hours), R kept saying “Well done” and “You’re so brave” – encouragements I lapped up like a needy girlfriend. “Thank you,” I replied, around a mouthful of blood.

Finally it was over. The tears had dried to that awful crepe paper feeling you get when you don’t moisturise soon enough after a shower. After collecting myself, I moved to get off the couch and… promptly fainted. As I went down, I heard the alarmed “WTF?!” noises of both R and A. When I came to, I was back on the couch. Still woozy, I tried to sit up and was gently pressed down. “Have you had lunch?” asked R. “Um, no,” I replied. The look I got in response was not friendly. “Lie down – you’re going nowhere for a while.”

So I lay there, self-pitying tears occasionally sliding out of my eyes, sipping sugar water and idly wondering if G was single (I can’t switch it off – it’s a problem). I tried massaging my earlobes; I vaguely remembered reading somewhere that they were an acupressure point, good for relieving stress and inducing calm. The following day, fully sober, I realised I’d seen it in a movie, The Truth About Cats and Dogs. And it only worked on Great Dane mixes. Oh. I called my sister to ask if she would come and get me. She agreed. Three seconds later I remembered it was her birthday. Ten seconds after that, I remembered her birthday presents were sitting on my armchair, unwrapped. My sister is a saint.

After feeding me soup, my sister put me to bed with painkillers and a hug and took her unwrapped birthday presents home. I fell asleep with chlorhexidine mouthwash still making my mouth smart, only to wake up at 3am with a wet face. A fumble with the light switch revealed a pillow stained with blood. My gums carried on bleeding gently – with me replacing gauze every 20 minutes or so – till about 7am. At 7:30am, following what was possibly my twentieth saltwater rinse, I emailed work to say I wasn’t coming in.

I’ve been back to the clinic a further two times since December. My mouth is a hundred times better. My teeth look and feel amazing. I’ve stoped biting my cheeks. My gums don’t bleed for the hell of it and are a normal-sized, healthy pink colour. I have bought an electric toothbrush. I can eat toast again. It’s a miracle of modern medicine. I am in debt. But I am so delighted.

I must end this here, though – I have some flossing to do.

8 responses

  1. I want to hug you tight and stroke your hair to soothe you. You poor poor thing. Dental injections ar my least favourite thing in the entire world. Even with that numbing gel there is a weird pressure pain to them that I hate more than anything else. I admire you so much for enduring this.

    But please, let us know in future, we’ll bring soup and peroxide to deal with the bloodstains and make sure you’re ok and not all alone after doing so many rounds with dental surgery and weird pain synapses!

    Holy Mother of Batman, lady.

    This was such a great read – an equal mix of ‘ARGH, NO’ and guilty arfs. But I’m glad to hear you’re better and that your gums are of appropriate rosiness; I caught bits of your dental tribulations on Twitter and was wincing. Mannn… dental injections – why are they 459x more painful than the procedure? How does that work?!

    This makes me so very afraid, though. I have an upcoming appointment with the dentist, after I developed pain in my gums so bad that I was taking Nuromol by the fistful, chasing it down with tumbler glasses of rum punch. Fair to say New Year’s Eve went with a swing… The man who I shall henceforth refer to as ‘Real Life White Jay’ made me steak for dinner not long after The Swelling; lemme tell ya, chewing steak with one’s tongue is sexy in ways the English language cannot adequately convey.

    Question – how is being a ‘tongue thruster’ a bad thing, exactly? Genuinely curious (and attempting not to snigger).

  3. Tongue-thrusting means I actively push at my front teeth with my tongue. All the time. It means that I was aggravating the realignment of my teeth, helping to make them more unstable. :(

    Hope The Swelling has gone down for you..!

  4. I feel your pain. No, literally – I had the exact same set of procedures – from the root planing to the surgical excision of deep pockets – only with the added “AAAAAARGH” factor of the anaesthetic wearing off before the stitching was finished and because I have a particular sensitivity to adrenalin,they couldn’t give me any more without risking a seizure . I spent the last half hour of the two and bit hour procedure being patted and soothed by a dental nurse (who was also stealthily monitoring my pulse) while what seemed like white hot steel needles were pushed through my scalpelled gums. In addition, my blood was extra clotty – so much so that my blood blocked not only the head of the dental aspirator, but banjaxed the machine itself, so I had to take regular breaks to spit out gouts of bloody flesh.

    On the plus side, six years later I have still got 3/4 of my teeth (some were just too shallowly rooted to last) and my dentist treats me with a huge amount of respect, so fingers crossed you have an even better result!

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