The Hellmouth: Or, How I Got A Root Canal

Right now I am sitting in front of my computer, feeling the very last of the Vicodin leave my system. At one time I had quite a bit; my first experience with the stuff. Coming off of it is no fun.

Several months ago I began feeling pain in one of my teeth when anything cold touched it. I decided this was just a cavity, and it it became uncomfortable I would begin going to a dentist for the first time, well, since high school (from which I graduated in 1987). The tooth became neither better nor worse, so I eventually forgot that there was anything wrong with it.

Fast-forward to about a month ago. I decide now is as good a time as any to put my dental insurance to good use and start going to bi-annual checkups. First one scheduled for early September. No problem. Not really looking forward to it, but hey: It’s all part of growing up.

Fast forward to this past Friday. I don’t know what happened, but the tooth started to occasionally throb painfully. My girlfriend suggested I call the dentist right away.

“No, it’s not bad. I’ll wait until Monday.” And as long as I didn’t bite down directly on the tooth, everything was okay – except for the odd moments when it would throb painfully. And those didn’t happen very often.

I was fine Saturday until about 10:00 at night, when I probably bit down on a big chunk of pizza crust. The tooth began to throb continually, and it hurt, but the pain was still at a manageable level. As long as I didn’t lay down. Sleeping was an interesting experience. I had to prop myself up in bed so I didn’t tip over. Unfortunately, this position – as well as the unbearable humidity in the air – meant I didn’t really sleep at all.

Okay, I get the message. I will call the dentist first thing on Monday. It doesn’t hurt all the time, and the occasional Advil will keep things well under control.

Then came Sunday. Oh, evil Sunday.

Morning was not bad. The throbbing was worse, but the pain level was still manageable. And it still came and went. I was careful to not let anything touch that side of my mouth, and for the rest of the morning, I was good.

At 1:00pm I headed over to From the Heart Yoga for our annual martial arts class party, known as “Sifu Day”. I helped set things up. Everything was fine. The party began. Everything was fine. I took a bite of food.

A portal to Hell suddenly opened up in my upper jaw and hordes of demons armed with pinscers, tongs and rusty blades poured through and began digging tunnels through the soft parts of my face. Once they had enough of the nerves exposed, they strung them to harps made from the wrecks of old demolition derby trucks and played bad Insane Clown Posse covers for about fifty years.

And all that happened in the first three seconds. Then the REAL pain hit.

I remember my vision graying out and I reached in my mouth to feel if my tooth had actually just burst in half. The slightest brush of my finger to enamel made the pain double, and through the sound of screaming nerves I became aware of an immense pressure underneath it all. You remember this scene from Total Recall? Imagine that happening through a tooth socket. With a basketball full of bees.

About five years later I picked up my phone and called the emergency number for my dentist (remember, this was Sunday afternoon). An answering service picked up, and I said “Hi. I need help. Now.” and described what was happening. The woman on the other end said “I will call Julie (my dentist) and see what she can do.”

Another year passed. In this time I discovered that direct contact with ice water made my tooth go numb, temporarily. Funny, that. Up until the portal from Hell opened in my mouth, ice water would cause the kind of pain I was currently feeling. I had just discovered a small piece of symmetry in a world of hurt. As long as I had an endless supply of ice water, I would be okay indefinitely.

Early the next year the emergency answering service lady called and said a bottle of Vicodin and another of antibiotics were waiting for me at a local pharmacy. I wish I could remember this angel’s name, because she is certainly on the short-list for sainthood.

Off to the pharmacy, a short trip of a few hundred miles only lasting a month or so. Then off to home and the couch and a bushel-basket of ice cubes.

This is how the rest of the afternoon went. Me on the couch. Glass of ice water. Take a sip. Swirl it around my tooth. When the water warms up, swallow it and take another sip. Occasionally get up to refill my water. Occasionally get up to pee.

The evening went much like the afternoon. As did the night. All night. Into the next morning. Except during the night I would occasionally doze off for a couple of seconds, only to wake up coughing and snorting a mouthful of water all over myself.

I discovered during this time that all of the water I had been drinking had been flushing the Vicodin right through me. It never had a chance to knock me out.

Let me tell you about spending a night cycling back and forth between agonizing pain and complete numbness in twenty-second intervals. I entered a fugue-like state of mind where I didn’t notice the time pass. The minutes and hours didn’t matter; only the seconds before my next sip of ice water. Things were oddly simple at that point. The only thing I had to worry about was, “Will I finish peeing before the water in my mouth warms up enough to let the pain back in?”

I am writing this Wednesday night, and I still feel spaced out and kind of shell-shocked.

At 9am Monday I called the dentist and she said “Come in at 12:40 and we will fix you up.” Finally! 9:00am to 12:40pm. That’s only seventeen years. No problem.

At 12:40 I, my girlfriend (who had been a saint, a nurse, and a comfy blanket all rolled into one through my ordeal), and my big bottle of ice water strolled into the office of Julie Wemmer. Fifteen minutes later I was in a dentist chair looking at an x-ray of my tooth. There, up in the roots, was a shadow about the size of an uncooked lentil. Dr. Wemmer said that was the abscess, and that it was right on the bone. That tiny little thing, smaller than a pinky nail, was making me want to get at the tooth with a guillotine.

The good doctor called an oral surgeon and within minutes I was on the road to the other side of Grand Rapids.

Somewhere in here the Vicodin finally began to kick in. I had been drinking a little less water, and had managed to choke down a mushy banana, so the drugs had something to hold onto to begin doing their stuff.

And right about this time the ice-water trick stopped working. The Vicodin upset the balance just enough that ice-water again did what ice-water usually does, which was to cause agonizing pain.

I wish I could remember the name of the guy who performed the root canal. He and his assistant got me into the chair, numbed my gums with a swab, then numbed my tooth with a needle, then packed all kinds of stuff around the tooth and went to work.

By this time I had been without sleep for over 48 hours, and without food (other than the banana) for over 24. And I was full of Vicodin.

I fell asleep immediately.

I woke up when the serious drilling began. I smelled hot enamel. Then hot skin. Then we drove by a garbage dump. That was the smell of the abscess draining around the hot drill bit.

Then I fell back asleep.

When I woke up again, the job was done. Elapsed time from walking into the dentist office to walking out of the oral surgeon: 3.5 hours. The O.S. told me the tooth was cracked all the way down to the gum, and that was where the infection got in. He told me to get a crown ASAP. I thanked him profusely, settled the bill, and Cynthia and I headed for home.

The left side of my face was numb, and I was over-sensitive to almost every stimulus. Everything look brighter and more colorful, smells were stronger, sounds more clear. All of the noise my nerves had been sending to my brain had drowned out most everything else.

When I got home I made Cynthia and I smoothies, took a sip, then fell asleep for three hours.

Everyone I have spoken to since, who has had an abscess, agrees that there are no real words for that level of pain. It simply can’t be described in any rational way. My mother said hers fell somewhere between being in labor and giving birth, although leaning more towards birth.

So if anyone reading this blog ever goes through the unbelievable pain of an abscess, I have two things to say. First, God help you. You are in for a miserable time of it. And second, washing the tooth in ice water makes the swelling, and therefore the pain, go down a lot. It may actually disappear for a few seconds.

Or a couple of weeks, depending on how you measure time at that point.

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