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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Terrors of Modern Dentistry**

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

*Chicago Tribune
May 6, 2011
as "In a manner of speaking"

*Somerset Daily American
May 7, 2011
 as "In a manner of speaking he followed the code"
Root Canal.

Nowhere in the extensive American lexicon can be found words that strike a deeper or colder terror in the heart and mind.  “IRS Audit” is a distant second place by comparison.  The expression has become so closely associated with excruciating pain that its use has leaked into common colloquial expression: 

(From the girlfriend) “My parents want to meet you.”
(From the boyfriend) “I’d rather have a root canal.”

(From the wife) “My mother’s coming to visit.”
(From the Husband) “I’m scheduling a root canal.”

As a class, orthodontic procedures of any kind are far from being anyone’s favored activity.  It can only be a break-even proposition.  You either walk out with clean teeth, or a mouth full of hardware and exotic polymers. 

One day, two years ago, I was having lunch.  I was deep into Tennyson and minding my own business, when I heard an audible crunch, which was immediately followed by a pain that lanced right through my eyeball.  I immediately grabbed water and flushed my mouth.  Big mistake.  The now-exposed nerve root shot back with a pain so intense that it actually caused my eyes to cross. 

Somewhere in “The Man Code” is the codicil that states “Whatever the injury or level of pain, The Man must act with complete imperturbability.”  Anyway, this is the monstrous lie we tell ourselves. And each other.

The next morning, ensconced in the dental chair, the dentist probed the source of my complaint.  His first reaction, “Oh, you’ve just lost a small hunk off the side.  We can fix that easy.”  Cue the deep sigh of relief.  Then the X-rays came back.  That’s when I heard the absolute last thing anyone wants to hear from a Doctor: 

“This is worse than I thought.”

The tooth had cracked in half.  “What are the choices?” I asked, trying to keep my voice from trembling (remembering the Code).  “Well, the orthodontist will either send you back here for a simple filling…or he’ll do a root canal.” 

I felt the blood drain from my face.  Verbally, the best I could manage was a whispered, “Ouch.”  Seeing my reaction, he hastily added, “Not any more.  The new techniques make the whole thing completely painless.  You won’t feel a thing.” 

Buoyed by optimism, I faced the coming event with a sort of peace.

Then, I talked to some of my colleagues.  This is the one thing you should never do.  First of all, the stories they tell are second, third, or fourth-hand accounts and suffer varying departures from the truth.  Secondly, there are those who will claim expertise in subjects about which they are neither qualified nor trained.  I mean, think about it; how could someone with a degree in accounting know so much about brain surgery, anyhow?

I recounted my hopeful tale to one of my friends.  He started to grin and silent laughter began to convulse his body.  Defensively, almost defiantly, I declared, “They told me it wouldn’t hurt at all.”

He shook his head.  “Or they could have told you the truth.  ‘Mr. Couey, you’ll be subjected to two hours of unshirted hell that would test the limits of Jack Bauer.  You’ll scream for mercy and beg for the blessed release of death.  If you survive the procedure, the ensuing weeks will be marked by severe pain and sleepless nights.  The good thing is that at the end of this ordeal, your experience will have prepared you to endure any conceivable method of torture and interrogation.  You’ll be a better American for it.’  He shook his head.  “You see, once they get you strapped into the chair, it’s too late to say “no.”  And then ominously, “And in a Dentist’s office, no one can hear you scream.”

He patted me gently on the shoulder, and in an outrageously lame attempt to be comforting, said, “Seriously though, I’m sure you’ll be just fine.”

Suddenly, my macho melted away and I became a weepy little girlie-man.  On the inside, of course.

The good news is that I survived.  Actually, since the tooth was in the back, I opted for a simple extraction, which was painless, as advertised.  Instead of three hours with my jaw jammed open, I was “outta there” in 15 minutes.

And thus the secret clause in “The Code.”  Endure pain when necessary, but avoid it at all costs.
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