The Root Canal

I have spent more time in a dentist’s chair in the last two months than I have in the last 45 years. This is not saying all that much considering I’ve not been to see a dentist ever in the last 45 years.

Don’t judge me. Some of you carry around the same dark secret as me. It’s not personal. I just don’t like the thought of going to the dentist. And if my teeth don’t bother me, I don’t bother them.

I floss. I brush regularly. I inspect and probe. I rinse. These are the basics of dental care, and I practice them religiously.

I’ve managed to keep my secret to myself by keeping my mouth shut whenever my friends talk about going to the dentist.

“Well, I gotta go see my dentist next week.” This statement is designed to engage me in an experience common to civilized adults. Most people assume that everyone has been to the dentist.

My response is vague. “Oh!” The intention here is to sound empathetic without conveying any real interest in continuing this conversation.

“Yeah. This tooth right here,” as he hooks his index finger inside his cheek and pulls the flesh away to reveal a lower molar, “has been throbbing for two days now. You know what I’m talking about.”

“Umh.” Yet another non-committal attempt to dodge the issue.

“I bet they’re going to do a root canal on me. (curse word) My brother-in-law had one done a couple years ago and it liked to have killed him. You ever had a root canal?”

“Oh gosh!” I roll my eyes in an effort to say I know exactly what he’s talking about when the truth is that I am clueless.

“I’d rather somebody just knock me in the head with a hammer than have a dentist shove a drill down through my tooth. But what’s a fella gonna do?”

“Whew.” Which means I know exactly what I plan to do. Never go.

I’ve heard my whole life that a man should never say never. And my time of avoiding the dentist has come to an end. It looks like 2023 may be the year I make up for decades of avoidance.

I’ve avoided the dentist for one fundamental reason. Fear. No one ever says, “Boy, I can’t wait to go the dentist. It’s great!” Most every story told of experiences in “the chair” bring to mind scenes from a Stephen King film. I don’t watch horror movies for the same reason I don’t go to the dentist.

My first real adult tooth pain started about six months ago. I chomped down on a BBQ sandwich, which is soft and tender, and it felt like a 3” needle got jammed up into my cheek bone from my jaw.

But, as painful as it was, it went away. Not just for a day or two, but for a couple of months. Then it hit again. It went away again, but this time just for a couple of weeks. Over time the pain became more consistent. The relief less frequent.

It was time for me to face my fear.

Dr. Cox said he wanted to save my tooth, but to do that he would have to send me to get a root canal. Though my face was stoic, on the inside I could feel decades of fear beginning to release a silent scream that twisted my gut in knots.

I became the guy asking people about their experience in the chair.

“Oh, good grief, I thought I was gonna die.”

“Oh man, I’m so sorry to hear that.”

“Eew. That’s rough. I’m glad it’s not me.”

I was very encouraged by all the support. I’ve been coaching myself to deal with the anxiety of submitting to the chair. Reminding myself that a handful of people said it was no big deal. One friend went right back to work after getting drilled. One knew the guy I was going to see, though not for a root canal, and said that I’d be in good hands. “He’s the best,” she said.

I’m back in the chair. Big window in front of me. A large paper napkin covering my chest, held in place by a strap around my neck.

The Doc comes in and sits down next to me. He snaps on a pair of latex gloves.

“We’re gonna get you numbed up in just a second.”

I opened wide enough to take a tennis ball. He grabbed my lower cheek flesh between his index finger and thumb.

“I’ll massage the area a little bit and then you might feel a small prick. You ready.”

“Uuh-huuh,” was all I could get out beside a low gurgle.

“How was that?” he asked.

“Did you stick me already?”

“Oh yeah. The first ones done.”

“First one?”

“There’s two more.”

I never felt a thing. This guy is good. My face is beginning to tingle. The left side of my tongue feels like it’s the size of an uncontrollable eel. The left half of my lower lip is pretending to swell up like an inflatable raft. And the best news, my tooth doesn’t hurt anymore.

I ask the assistant if she could take my glasses and put them on the counter.

“Wooodh yu mihndth tak’un ma gwathweses?”

“Oh, we’ll just leave those on and let them be your safety glasses.”

Two things. She is an expert in understanding Numb English. Secondly, I’m wondering why in the world do I need safety glasses.

After about 20 minutes the Doc came back in and tilted my chair back. He inserted a green rubber mat to cover my mouth where he could see only the one target tooth. Clamps were involved. I couldn’t swallow.

“You comfortable?” he asked.

I don’t think it mattered whether I could answer or not, but I grunted more Numb English.

“You’re gonna feel a little pressure. Just keep your head tilted a little toward me.”

This is when I realized what the safety glasses were for. As the Doc went to grinding on the top of my tooth, I could see shards of tooth flying out of my mouth like wood chips out the spout of a Bandit 12XP Chipper.

The other thing that caught me off guard was the smell of burning tooth enamel. It reminded me of burning hair.

“Let’s irrigate,” the Doc said. More suction. Tiny little drill bits went in and out. The assistant poked my lip. I jumped. “Sorry,” she said.

The whole time HGTV is on the screen in the corner. I’m watching a house-build in the Colorado mountains. Doc and Cathy, the assistant, are discussing the pros and cons of green paint and vaulted ceilings while poking around in my mouth.

It took about an hour in the chair to get it all done. No pain. All that anxiety for nothing.

I’m not recommending you run out and get yourself a root canal for the fun of it, but this guy is good.

On the way out and in my very best Numb English I said to the receptionist, “Thwanch yewh werry muth.”