Saturday, January 30, 2016

Chipmunk Cheeks

Life is moving forward at an alarming rate. Things haven’t quite yet returned to “normal” and I’m not sure they ever really will, but life goes on. Yesterday, I had an appointment with the oral surgeon. I had two teeth that needed to be extracted. I wasn’t looking forward to it by any means. Dentists, of all kinds, scare the Bejeezus out of me! 

My dental fear began in my childhood. When I was young, we didn’t have a lot of money for unnecessary things. Often times, even necessary things had to fall by the wayside because there just wasn’t enough extra income to take care of those things. One of the things that got pushed to the back was routine dental visits. It wasn’t that my parents didn’t want to give us the best care we could get, it was just simply that we couldn’t afford it.

We did get yearly checkups. My mother made sure of that. She knew it was important for teeth to be taken care of, but when you have 3 little mouths to see about, even those annual visits could add up rather quickly.

We lived in a small, rural town filled with kindhearted people. Neighbors knew each other well. Children respected their elders. Any parent on our street had the right to correct or discipline any child at any time whether they were related by blood or not. That’s the way it was back then and we were okay with it.

In our little city, Mama knew just about everyone. The local grocers were dear friends and so were many of the other businessmen and women. Often, when our family didn’t have money to pay for a service, Mama could sign a ticket promising to settle up later or she could work it out in trade. She’d often barter her sewing skills to provide for something her children needed. She was very resourceful.
There was one local business person I wish Mama had never befriended, and that was the local dentist, Dr. West. He was nice enough, but for some reason, he didn’t believe children felt pain. Whenever I went to his office to have work done, he’d smile and say, “This will only take a minute.” As he’d rev up his drill and lower it into my mouth, I had no idea what to expect. It didn’t take long for me to discover there was a vast difference between his minute and mine. To this day, I am still traumatized by being drilled on without anesthesia or even the smallest amount of Novocaine. Dr. West didn’t use it on me. Now I don’t know if he didn’t use it because it cost more money and Mama told him to forego it, or if he was genuinely a sadist. Whatever the case, after that first visit and that first dose of extreme pain, I decided I did not like going to the dentist and never, ever would.

Since Dr. West was the only dentist in our little town, I had to see him many times throughout my childhood. I know I must have left some of my fingernails embedded in his dental chair because I gripped the armrest so tightly during my procedures. I remember crying and pleading with him to stop as he would be drilling, but he never did. He’d just smile and keep on going.

Those childhood memories have haunted me for ages! Now flash forward to yesterday…it’s pretty sad, but I can truthfully say that even after 50 years I’m still scared to death of the dentist. Just hearing a drill causes me to turn pale as a ghost and have heart palpitations. I told this new doctor, my oral surgeon, about all my childhood trauma. He listened and assured me I wouldn’t experience anything like that with him. I wanted so desperately to believe him. I crossed my fingers and prayed he was telling the truth.

The nurse came out from the back office and walked with me to the surgical suite. She asked me to lie down on the gurney and told me to relax. She could see the fear and trepidation on my face, so she patted my arm gently and said, “It’s going to be okay, I promise.” Another promise…I hoped she was telling the truth, too.

She placed a small cuplike thing over my nose and told me to breathe normally. I lay there a while just listening to the music coming through the speakers. The nurse was above my head doing something I couldn’t see. I could hear metal clinking against metal so I assumed she was laying out instruments for the doctor. In a few minutes, the doctor stepped in and asked me to open my mouth. I obeyed and wished I hadn’t. He took a long syringe and injected 3 very painful shots of Novocaine on each side of my back molars. He did the right side first and then the left. I thought I was going to jump off the table when the first shot went deep into my gum line but I dug my fingernails deeply into the arm of the gurney just as I’d done during my childhood days.

I continued to lie on the gurney and the nurse occasionally talked to me. She assured me the doctor would be back soon and we’d get started. While I lay there, my lips began to get numb and feel very swollen. It felt funny to have fat lips and a cup over my nose. I told the nurse I had fat lips and she laughed. I guess she had been adjusting the amount of Nitrous Oxide all along and I just didn’t realize it.

It seemed like hours of waiting on the table for the doctor to return, but I’m sure it was just minutes. I could see small vapor trails out of the corner of my eye as they drifted up from the nose piece. I assumed that was from the “laughing gas” although I didn’t find it very funny. I did enjoy the music the doctor had chosen to pump into the surgical suite speakers. Eric Clapton was playing “Tears in Heaven” and that’s the last song I remember although many played during my surgery.

The doctor came in and told me to open my mouth again. He said all I should feel this time was pressure. It seemed like he was done in just a few minutes and he was telling me I did great. Large wads of cotton gauze were packed into place. I continued to lie on the gurney breathing pure oxygen now and gathering my wits about me. As I left the office, my husband escorted me to the car. I told him everything that happened and explained how grateful I was to have been sedated.

Today has been a rough day. The sedation has completely dissipated and the jaw pain has been pretty severe. I am unable to eat anything for a week or so but I’ve got some nutritional supplements I can drink and they will get me through that period. I still don’t like going to the dentist very much but having this procedure done just proves my life is still moving forward. I’m not stuck in the cancer rut any longer.

It’s nice to look at my calendar and see it’s not filled with appointments related to cancer every other day. Last year, I was going to a specialist almost every three weeks. Now, although I still have to go, the visits are stretching out further and further. My next appointment for anything related to cancer is at the end of March. I would smile about it, because it makes me so very happy not to have those frequent visits, but my cheeks are so swollen and it hurts to smile. I’d never have thought having “chipmunk cheeks” would make me happy, but it does. Being able to focus on something other than breast cancer feels great, and even through the pain, I can be thankful to be alive. Life continues to move forward and I’m so glad it does.


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