Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Brace Yourself: Not for the Weak of Stomach

I was sitting on my bargain-outlet green couch in our apartment in Nashville, eating Cheetos and watching The Weather Channel. My husband was in the second bedroom, which we used as an office, poring over textbooks on ethics and constitutional law. As I swallowed my latest bite of Cheetos, I felt a bump in the roof of my mouth. I thought it was a piece of food that had somehow become suctioned to the roof of my mouth, so I tried to clear it away with my tongue. When that didn’t work I stuck my orange cheese-dusted finger into my mouth and picked at it with my fingernail, expecting it to spring free and give me relief. It didn’t budge. Something was wrong.

Growing worried now, I jumped up from the couch and ran into the bathroom. I tried to angle my head so that I could see the roof of my mouth, but in the end it required a combination of hand mirror stuck partway in my mouth reflecting onto the bathroom mirror in order for me to spy what the foreign object was stuck to the roof of my mouth.

It was a tooth.

The idea of a mutant tooth coming in through some random spot in the roof of my mouth threw me into a full-fledged panic. What was wrong with me? What was that tooth doing? I wanted it out now.

I ran to my husband and showed him my mouth that had turned into a freak show in the past few minutes, and he sat there bewildered. I’m sure he suggested something along the lines of going to the emergency room. He believes every physical event out of the norm, such as when he gets diarrhea, is a symptom of imminent death. He has so frequently said to me the words “I think I have a serious health condition” with all the somber gravity of someone delivering devastating news that it has become a joke. Whenever he starts to complain about anything, a headache or gas pains, I turn to him and say with alarm, “I think you have a serious health condition.”

So it’s fair to say that, as I was already worried about what on earth was going on in my mouth, I found no comfort in him. I called the dentist office to see how soon I could get in. The first thing she asked was if I was in pain, but I was not. She still managed to get me an appointment for the next day.

I’ve always thought I had pretty good teeth. Not perfect, but good enough that they didn’t need much work and I had been fortunate enough to avoid the horror of braces during those awkward teen years. It’s true that I knew that I still had two baby teeth in my mouth – my “fangs” – but I had them for so long at this point (age 23!) that I figured I was going to keep them for life. Previous dental x-rays in Wisconsin showed that my adult canine teeth were up there but not in the right locations. Nothing was ever done about this. Of course I blame my parents, who were in charge of my dental care as a child, for not addressing the issue until the financial burden was on me. Well played, mom and dad.

I also felt that somehow moving “down south,” especially into the foothills of Tennessee where jokes about bad teeth were part of the local lore, had jinxed me.

My dentist kindly reassured me the next day that it was not a big deal, and she gave me the name and number of an oral surgeon who could give me advice on what to do next.

The oral surgeon’s waiting room was beautiful, with a stately, marble-column-and-velvet-fabric aura. He x-rayed my mouth and declared that I should go see an orthodontist to get a recommendation and then the orthodontist would send me back to him to get the work started. So off I went again to the next expert, the orthodontist who told me that it should only take about a year and a half of braces to pull the two teeth into place. Perfect, I thought with complete naiveté. I had about a year and a half left in Nashville and then we would be moving back to Wisconsin. I could start the next phase of my life with my teeth in the shape they were meant to be. I decided to go ahead with the procedures.

The process would begin back at the oral surgeon’s office, where I was going to have my wisdom teeth pulled as long as I was there. My late-blooming adult teeth hiding under the roof of my mouth would be hooked up to chains so they would be ready to attach to braces and be dragged into place. It was about this time that I realized both evolution and the science of oral medicine had absolutely failed us. Is there anything more archaic than having metal wires hooked up to your mouth so that your teeth can be painfully pulled in one direction or the other as we suffer with the metal poking our mouths and putting ourselves on restrictive diets? I won’t even get into the indignity of being an adult with braces. It just seems that there must be a better way, and yet no one has come up with anything.

My husband came to sit in on my oral surgery. I gave him strict instructions to ask the doctor if it looked like my teeth would be able to be moved into place before they went ahead and yanked my baby fangs. I didn’t want to be toothless if moving the adult teeth was a long shot. He said nothing.

He did, however, really enjoy watching the procedure and then repeating the gruesome details to all our family and friends. “First they slice the roof of her mouth along the inside front of her teeth, and then they pull it back so that it was a flap hanging in her mouth. Then they could get to the adult teeth underneath and glue on the metal bracket and chain that would snake out from underneath the roof of her mouth after they put the flap back and sewed it up. And her baby teeth popped out like nothing! The wisdom teeth were a bit trickier. The doctor had to put his foot up on the armrest on the chair for one wisdom tooth in order to get the leverage to yank it out!”

I was asleep for all of this, of course. I never would have had to know the details of just how my mouth had been violated.

While I don’t remember anything during the surgery, the moments before and after it were less than ideal. I don’t respond well to anesthesia. The problem is not falling asleep. It puts me under just fine. In fact, I had been talking with coworkers about it before the appointment. One of my friends was saying she was terrified of the anesthesia because she thought she would die while she was under. Another friend said that she started laughing when she was put under for her wisdom teeth surgery because she knew she was about to fall asleep and somehow found that funny. I admit relating more to friend number one’s reaction than friend number two.

When they started the anesthesia my doctor asked if I was nervous, and I bravely said no. Then he said, “A lot of people don’t like it because they’re afraid they’re not going to wake up.” Nothing like just putting your fear right out there. I’m sure my eyes grew wide as he spoke the words that of course I was thinking. But then when he asked me to start counting backward, I remembered my giggly friend and smiled as I drifted off to dreamland.

Waking up was the hard part. I woke up and felt sick. I didn’t want to stand up. But I got the feeling that I had been taking up the chair longer than they expected. I felt bad and wanted to get in the car and go home. I also must have looked a mess. They decided to take me out the long way instead of through the waiting room. I would exit through a back door that would bring me to the outer hallway and then I’d walk past the doctor’s office door to the front door and never have to scare those waiting in the lobby for their appointment. It didn’t work.

I groggily got to my feet and my husband supported me as we walked out through a different door and entered the outer hallway. Before I even passed the oral surgeon’s door I could feel that I was going to pass out or throw up; one of those things was going to happen if the other didn’t. My husband veered me right back into the main door and into the waiting room of the office, where the receptionist jumped up to help steer me back into my room as fast as possible. I could feel the cold sweat drenching my body as I lay back onto the chair I had been in two minutes ago. My doctor and nurse apologized but I closed my eyes and ignored all of them for another 10 minutes until I was finally strong enough to make it to the car. It was a torturous ride home. Even after we got back to the apartment and I was lying on the green couch (because I couldn’t make it all the way down the hall to the bedroom), my husband brought me a notepad and pen so I could talk with him and the first thing I wrote was “You shake floor.” Even his footsteps were making me queasy. And there is nothing you want less than to throw up when you have your mouth filled with bloody gauze.

The promise of braces for only a year and a half didn’t work out either. I came back to Wisconsin with my braces still intact and two teeth that were still firmly under the roof of my mouth. Then I found a new orthodontist and oral surgeon and dentist who had slightly different plans for me. We kept trying to pull the teeth in but eventually realized only one of them was going to make the journey. The other had to be pulled out and an implant was drilled into my jaw instead. So I went through different ugly duckling phases, from braces and missing teeth to braces and one missing tooth to a retainer with a fake tooth to finally getting all the metal pulled out of my head except for the part screwed into my skull that now held a perfect replica of what my tooth should have been. In the meantime, five years had passed and I had given birth to my first child.

Of course, if I knew then what I know now, I would have had them yank all four teeth and put in implants for both of those teeth. I would have been done in a few months as opposed to five years. Five years of pain, unattractiveness, and hefty medical bills. The last surgery, to attach the fake tooth to the metal implant after it had been given enough months to heal inside my skull so that it wouldn’t be dislodged when I bit down, was on my 28th birthday. I told the receptionist this as I was scheduling and she offered to change it to a later date, but I couldn’t wait another day. It may have been an unpleasant birthday, but it was still a gift to myself, because I was finally done.
My million-dollar smile. Sorry about that college tuition, kids.

Friday, February 1, 2013

We Must Still Boldly Go

On January 28, 1986, I was in seventh grade science class when some classmates came in and told us the space shuttle carrying the teacher had exploded during launch. They had been listening to the launch on the radio in band class. My science teacher was a bit rattled and didn’t want to believe what the students were saying until an announcement came over the intercom confirming that it was true. We filed into the lunch room that day and televisions had been rolled into the cafeteria so we could watch the news. We saw the explosion replayed over and over and tracked the pieces of debris as they streamed downward and splashed into the Atlantic. On the news that night, every minute of the newscast was filled with Challenger coverage. Even the weather report had a little space shuttle figure showing what the winds were like in different levels of the atmosphere and discussing temperatures in Florida that day, wondering if any environmental issues could have played a role.

After we learned more about what happened that tragic day, my science teacher talked to us about how the compartment the astronauts were in was in free fall for two minutes and 45 seconds before impacting the ocean at a phenomenal speed. At least a few of the astronauts survived the initial explosion, because three of four emergency air packs found had been manually activated. My teacher wanted us all to imagine what that would have been like, the short yet extended period of knowing what had just happened and what was surely to come. My class of 28 students sat quietly in their seats facing the clock and my science teacher sat up front facing out at us. We started a moment of silence as the large institutional clock’s second hand swung up to 12 and started ticking off the seconds. We sat mute, unmoving, with our eyes on nothing but that second hand and our thoughts on nothing but the astronauts locked in their fate. My teacher turned around after about one minute and thirty seconds to watch the clock with us. At one minute and 45 seconds he exclaimed sadly, “That is a very long time.” A couple students pointed out to him that it had only been one minute and 45 seconds and not two minutes and 45 seconds. At first he didn’t believe us, but when he saw all our nodding heads, he realized that the torture lasted even longer than we could stand, sitting there contemplating the fate of people we had never met. One of the girls in the class got up to grab a tissue out of the box on the teacher’s desk to dry her tears, and then we moved on to our lesson about different types of energy.

Seventeen years and four days later, on February 1, 2003, I was sitting at my computer on a Saturday morning while my husband was at work and my young son played in the living room. I was instant messaging a friend who is also a stay-at-home mom whose husband was at work that morning. I had CNN on in the background and saw the usual program interrupted as the words “Shuttle explodes over Texas” appeared on the bottom of the screen. I had been waiting to watch the shuttle landing that would be aired on TV. By this time everyone knew the dangers of launches, but landings seemed like relatively safe, low-power descents where the craft glided through the atmosphere to its airplane-like landing. But on this day the TV screen was filled with an image that looked like a large bright meteor breaking up in the atmosphere as it streaked downward toward Earth.

This late January-early February window of bad luck for the space program began before I was born. On January 27, 1967, three astronauts died during a routine ground test in the Apollo capsule after an electrical spark ignited a fire.

This earliest tragedy occurred when humankind was getting ready to walk on the moon, 384,000 kilometers away. The shuttle tragedies occurred on liftoff and reentry from the space shuttle’s normal orbit of 320 kilometers off the Earth’s surface. But now there isn’t much of a space program left. While the space station still orbits above us with a crew of five, we must rely on other countries to get astronauts there and bring them home. All the space shuttles have been retired. There are no replacement vehicles in the works. The US’s space program is creeping backward. A poll on January 29 asked, “Is human spaceflight worth the risk?” A surely biased group of those who visit answered with a resounding YES, earning 94% of the vote. But the fact is that we have to continue to boldly go where no man has gone before and venture toward other planets and eventually other stellar systems. Because in the end, it’s mankind’s only option against extinction.