I think if someone had ever told me what a root canal actually was I would have spent every day of my life up to this point making sure I never had to have one. I’m talking flossing and brushing more consistently and going to the dentist for biannual cleanings like a grown-up. Instead, I internalized an irrational fear of the dentist and last month went for a cleaning for the first time in four years. And only because my wife would seriously not get off my case. The hardest part for me was finding the right dentist. There are so many options and you don’t want to pick a bad one. I’ll agonize over a restaurant’s menu every time. Even restaurants I love, I’ll get the same thing because I go out so infrequently that I want to make sure I’m getting something I like. Fortunately, Jenny picked a dentist and I rode her coattails to ADT Dental on Hennepin in Uptown.
ADT is a dental practice staffed entirely by women, which did wonders for putting me at ease. I generally hate having men work on my body in any way. It’s nothing homophobic, I just feel more comfortable around women. Probably because I’m a mama’s boy. So I made an appointment and my cleaning was going swell until my dentist Dr. Knox said “Uh oh” whilst looking at my x-rays.
“This looks cavity is pretty deep,” she said, staring into my gaping mouth and then asked her assistant to schedule me for a full hour in case it wasn’t a routine filling and she had to do a root canal treatment.
“I have to have a root canal?” I asked, voice trembling.
“We’ll see,” she said. “When the decay gets into the pulp of the tooth, we have to do a root canal.”
“So what’s a root canal?” I asked. “Other than the stereotypical thing you do not want to have when you go to the dentist.”
And then she matter-of-factly described what was going to happen on my next visit if she found that the cavity had broken through to the pulp. I’m glad she didn’t describe the whole procedure, because my next appointment wasn’t for another three weeks and I really wanted to be able to not agonize over the prospect of having a root canal.
My next appointment rolled around on Monday May 6. My fear of dental work rippled through my body but the dental assistant who was in charge of getting me prepped for the procedure was great and put me at ease. Her name was Theresa. She put a little memory foam pillow under my head and gave me some sunglasses to tone down the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights. Then she put some numbing gel on a q-tip and stuck it in my mouth and made sure none of it dripped on my tongue. All of the prep was done calmly and very carefully. I felt good. Dr. Knox came in and talked about the weather. It was the pretty much the first day of Spring in Minneapolis after a bafflingly long winter that included a massive snowstorm the weekend prior. She numbed me up and I felt nothing. She drilled into my tooth and within second knew that my tooth was doomed.
“I’ve got an exposure here,” she said to Theresa, crushing my tiny hope that I’d been able to avoid going to the dentist for four years and escape without any major problems.
She transitioned from filling my cavity to giving my second maxillary molar a root canal treatment. Effectively, this involved drilling out the top of the tooth the way major mining corporations do mountaintop removal. She dug out some pulp, got the tooth ready to be root canal-ed and filled it up with temporary filling. The whole time I couldn’t stop The Mountain Goats song “Source Decay” through my head, which felt strangely appropriate. When she was done she had Theresa schedule my next appointment. Through some strange twist of fate, Dr. Knox had a cancellation on Wednesday morning and I could have it instead of having to wait another two weeks.
“Yes,” I said, way too enthusiastically for someone who was being scheduled to have a root canal in two days. I dwell. I’m a dweller. And anytime I can just get something out of the way the better because I don’t have time to dwell on it.
I took a sick day Wednesday and got to ADT twenty minutes early at 8:10. I was in the chair at 8:20 and a dental assistant named Nettie got me prepped. I tried to expel fear but fear overtook me once Nettie put the numbing gel on my gum and it leaked all over my tongue. I received neither memory foam pillow nor sunglasses and maybe I would have asked if my mouth wasn’t filled with stuff. I should have asked for Nitrous Oxide too, the $83 charge be damned. In hindsight, remembering as little as possible from this experience would have been a positive thing. Instead, Dr. Knox got started and within minutes I got my first twinge signaling that I either wasn’t numb enough or they couldn’t numb my teeth and gums deep enough. I spent the next hour and a half white knuckling it, waiting for the next bafflingly agonizing twinge to come. It wasn’t really so bad, the pain, but the not knowing when the next one would come created a sort of psychological agony. I foolishly opened my eyes to see the files Dr. Knox was using to dig out the pulp of my tooth and that just made things worth. The scraping. The scraping! After that all I could think about was the “Is it safe?” scene from Marathon Man.
After what felt like forever, Dr. Knox went to do something and left Nettie to take some X-rays of my mouth. She just couldn’t get it right and kept blasting tiny Hiroshimas at my face until she got someone else to help. The new dental assistant got it in one try. I began to truly hate Nettie at this point and knowing that I was at her mercy for the foreseeable future, I was ready to leave. I wasn’t, however, ready for Dr. Knox to come back and tell me that we had run out of time and she was going to wrap it up for the day. A root canal is pretty bad, but getting 2/3 of a root canal is even worse. She filled up the tooth and asked if I wanted anything for the pain and I nodded fiercely and she gave me a prescription for Vicodin. She told me that wouldn’t you know it, she had an opening on Friday and I took it. The sooner I could get this over with, the better. I got my prescription filled, went home, took a pill and spent the rest of the day trying not to dwell on the fact that I had to go back for more in two days.
When Theresa came out and told me they were ready for me I almost wept. She looked like an angel. A sweet, tooth-repairing angel. She got me in the chair, made sure none of the numbing gel got into the rest of my mouth, and hooked me up with the memory foam pillow and shades. The dimming the shades provided relaxed me enough to become OK with the inevitability of pain. Sure there would be twinges, I thought to myself, but damnit it must be done. Dr. Knox came in and numbed me up and after a few minutes Theresa came in and asked how I was doing.
“I’m getting a real Hawaiian feeling!” I said, referencing the other Mountain Goats song that had been running through my head during this week of procedures. Then came the lazy, stoned guitars of UK Surf version of the Pixies “Wave of Mutilation.” I tapped out the lacksidaisical drumbeat with my thumbs as Dr. Knox and Theresa the Dental Assistant dug out my tooth like it was no big deal. I felt nothing, and the psychological terror was diminished by the calm demeanors of Dentist and assistant and shades and the radio station they always have going that plays acoustic versions of 90s hits. I remember hearing Lisa Loeb doing an acoustic version of “Stay” and feeling incredibly relaxed. Before I knew it they were practically done and Theresa got the X-Ray in one go because she is a professional. They jammed a bunch of gutta-percha into the hole and closed it up.
Theresa had me sign something for the crown preparation and Dr. Knox sanded my tooth down to a nubbin. Theresa molded a temporary crown and fit it over my tooth and it took a solid hour to do all of this but it was no worse than a routine cleaning compared to the digging, scraping, twinge-ing, senseless radiation, and general panic of the root canal. I was in the chair for two and a half hours that day and when it was done I almost cried. Tears of joy! I wanted to tell Doctor Knox that I now understood and respected the modern miracle of dentistry and that I was a changed man. One who would brush more thoroughly, floss more than once daily, use a fluoride rinse, and come have my teeth cleaned by the twice a year (so long as I never had to deal with Nettie again because when you have doubts about someone’s abilities and they are working on an incredibly sensitive part of your body you really, really, really, really don’t want to do that ever again so help you God).
I learned my lesson. I tempted fate by thinking I could get away with avoiding the dentist for four years and when all is said in done the root canal and crown are going to cost almost $800. That is a 50-inch HDTV. 2 and a half Xbox 360s. Roughly 90 six-packs of delicious craft beer. 540 delicious beers! One student loan payment. Tickets for two for 16 Twins games (cheap seats). A month’s rent. Still, some lessons you have to learn first hand before you make sure you actually learn from them. If someone had told me what a root canal actually was and I knew my tooth would be filed down to a nubbin and replaced with a reinforced frankentooth, I might have taken better care of my teeth but I might not have too. Fortunately, I can get on an installment plan and it won’t be such a big deal, but it’s still money our perpetually broke household could really use. But if that’s what it takes for me to address the fact that I’m a grown ass man, then I suppose that is how it must be.
Long story short: Take care of your goddamn teeth.