I could have gotten a swollen head if I took all the compliments from dentists over the years to be a real measure of self-worth. Via genetic roulette (and fluorinated water), I raised a crop of twenty-six perfectly aligned teeth. When my wisdom teeth came in perfectly, quickly, and with a minimum of pain during my late teens, my stock rose to thirty-two, the legal limit. To further add to my all-star dental credentials, I had no cavities through my first eighteen years.
It was with quite a bit of heartbreak that I learned before I headed off to college that I had five cavities. We had just switched to a new dentist after our former dentist’s decision to drive his Rolls Royce to his office really chapped my parents. It appeared that the show-off dentist had missed a couple of spots. (He was in and out of the examination room so quickly, my mom used to say he wore roller skates.) The new dentist gave me the laughing gas, and filled the five little craters in my dental piano, and I was on my way. (My youngest brother alerted me that if I purposely hyperventilated when they told me they were turning off the gas, I could get a quick high. He was thirteen at the time. Following his advice, I must have been so buzzed that I didn’t see the mule that kicked me in the forehead, and left me with a headache so bad I almost crushed the remaining teeth in my mouth.)
There was little dental drama for the next few decades until I had pain in the back corner of my right jaw. I visited my dentist, and she prescribed an antibiotic, explaining that I might have a crack in my lower right wisdom tooth, which led salivary bacteria to reach my jawbone and cause an infection. The antibiotics worked, and when the dose was finished the pain returned, essentially confirming my dentist’s theory. She referred me to an endodontist who, using a blue fluorescent light, agreed with my dentist. He said the tooth would have to come out.
“What?” Extractions, crowns, root canals, even fillings, were for peasants! I was dental royalty! He informed me that they didn’t do repairs on wisdom teeth because they were too far back in the mouth, and we didn’t really need them. Really? I inched away from the doctor, not wanting to be too close when he was hit by the lightening bolt for arrogantly second-guessing the work of the great architect of the universe who, on the sixth day of creation, said, “Let there be teeth!” (Genesis 1:24)
He arranged an appointment with the dental surgeon next door, who pointedly asked me whether I wanted to have my wisdom tooth removed. I told him pointedly that I did not, but that this was recommended by the endodontist, and my own dentist. I insisted he call them both and work this out. Meanwhile, he showed me a cartoon video of a caveman with a cracked wisdom tooth who actually died from the same infection I was having. How grateful I should be that I am not a caveman!
The issue was resolved and I agreed to have the wisdom tooth removed. I expected that a small contraption, similar to an elegant corkscrew, would be slid over my tooth, and with firm but gentle leverage the tooth would be eased from my gums. The doctor gave me a few shots of Novocain, and told me he was, “Just going to poke around and make sure I was numb.”
In a flash, he had clamped a pair of pliers onto my tooth. He began pulling, twisting, and wrestling with me! He screamed at me, “Fight back! Fight back!” Having never been mugged before, I was quite surprised (perhaps the greatest understatement in dental history). Before I could process what the hell was happening, I heard the sound a ’69 Buick makes when it hits a guardrail on a bridge at two o’clock in the morning (another story for another time). It was a hideous metal-on-metal, scraping, and shearing wail that had me convinced half of my skull had just been liberated from my head. The grand torturer gleefully jumped back, holding my wisdom tooth in his pliers over his head. “We got it!” For a moment I thought he would spike it as if he had just scored a touchdown. He laid the tooth on the examination tray, and there it sat in all its pristine beauty, the epitome of a perfectly formed tooth. “It was cracked,” I said. “I expected it to come out in several pieces.” He said sometimes the crack is so deep the tooth doesn’t break. “Or maybe the tooth wasn’t cracked at all,” I thought. He went on to advise me that since there would be no partner against which it could push, we might as well remove the upper right wisdom tooth to prevent it from ultimately slipping out of my jaw. I said, “No,” and hastily beat a retreat from his dungeon. (Fourteen years later, and the upper “orphan” wisdom tooth is just fine, thank you very much.)
I returned to the oral surgeon for a follow-up the next week. I told him I was still shocked at how barbaric the procedure had been. “Barbaric?” he said. “I never thought of it as barbaric.” I actually hurt his feelings.
A week later, while visiting New Jersey for my twenty-fifth high school reunion, I felt something scratching the back of my tongue. Something white appeared to be protruding from my gums. A local dentist informed me it was a sliver of my jawbone that must have come loose during the extraction.
I now have my extracted wisdom tooth in a little glass jar of alcohol, which I keep on my desk. (If I ever go missing my parents can use it to find me, or what’s left of me.) Maybe in the distant future a dental healer can gently fit it back into my jaw, jingle some magic beads, and the tooth will resume its place in the “Mount Rushmore” of my mandible.
In the meantime, I’m brushing and flossing like a madman.
By Keith Douglas Kramer
Photo by Keith Douglas Kramer