The root canal

Like so many of the things we dread in life, the anticipation of the root canal was worse than the act itself. That I had to get my crushed molar fixed was non-negotiable but that didn’t make it any easier to walk up the stairs to the dentist’s. In the end though the discomfort was greater than the pain and both were assuaged by the relief that I wasn’t paying for my [now former?] dentist at home to do it because it was cheaper by an order of magnitude (even if the conditions weren’t quite as spartan and sterile as one grows to expect from a dentist’s surgery at home).

Dr Thimbu – we’ll call him that because he was from Bhutan – arrived late. I was sitting in the waiting room trying to write, distracted by a static-clouded television blaring in the corner.

“Please come,” Dr Thimbu said, not explaining his lateness.

We entered the surgery through a dusty lace curtain. The walls were painted different colours and a large paneless window looked into the adjacent surgery. As I lay back in the dentist’s chair Dr Thimbu pulled the dirty windows closed, shutting out the mist but not the traffic noise, while I contemplated an empty fluorescent light fixture overhead with scorch marks at one end.

“Ok so let’s have a look now.”

I opened wide and concentrated on the electrical wires sticking out of the far wall as he began introducing various instruments in my mouth. His unmasked face was close to mine; I could smell his breath and no doubt he could smell mine. As he leaned over me I could smell his armpit too, it wasn’t an unpleasant odour but it was certainly a more intimate experience than visiting the dentist at home.

The pain was bearable for the most part – occassionally when he struck a particularly tender part and I winced he gently scolded for moving – but the discomfort grew in intensity as the procedure went on.

My face started twitching.

“Don’t move! I am putting something hot into your mouth now.”

This was confirmed by smoke wafting out of my mouth and the acrid smell of burning bone accosting my nostrils. I’m not sure what he was doing in there with red hot bits of metal, cauterizing the nerves perhaps. I concentrated on breathing through my nose, ignoring the choking feeling of the saliva pooling in the back of my throat.

Eventually I gurgled and waved my hand to indicate that I needed a break.

“Ok you can rinse now.”

I leaned over the basin and spat into the glass bowl. Algae grew around its base. I wondered if the water was filtered.

Even as he kept pumping more local anesthetic in I kept flinching as he drilled down into the roots.

“I think you have a low pain threshold,” he suggested.

“I think I’m liking you less the longer this procedure goes on,” I replied and we both laughed.

I grimaced, sweated, crossed and re-crossed my boots over the vinyl chair and alternated gripping the sides of the chair with hugging my chest. The worst was when the drill motor slowed between bursts of excavation and the burrs of the metal bit would catch on the teeth jarring my jaw in a way that not even the anesthetic could mask.

The whole procedure seemed to take longer than it ought to have. Dr Thimbu kept calling out to the nurse for implements and she would be out of the room. Then she would wander back in, an apparition in pink and rummage around in the cupboards for whatever it was that the doc had called for. She had a nervous tick like a hiccup that sounded like a retching burb. At one point she was required to shine a torch in my mouth in addition to the dentist’s light. It was a regular old torch and she shoved it right up close under my nose. Then she coughed without covering her mouth and I got the giggles thinking about the ‘Computer says no’ sketch in Little Britain. I was again scolded for not keeping still.

Dr Thimbu’s iPhone rang and he answered it (leaving his gloves on). The only word I made out was ‘patient’; I assumed he was telling the person at the other end he had to go but the conversation continued. Afterwards we bonded over Apple products; he had seen my Macbook in the waiting room. It was a one way conversation as my mouth was filled with his hands. He also stopped periodically to chat to the various people who kept wandering into the room, usually leaving something in my mouth for the duration; denying me a chance to rest my aching jaw. Then a young boy walked into the room. This was a bit much I thought, does the concept of privacy just not exist here? An unseen hand then dragged the toddler back through the curtain and it was just the dentist, the nurse, the miscellaneous other guy and me again.

It was taking hours and I was exhausted; I drifted off for a moment.

“Try to keep your eyes open,” Dr Thimbu instructed, “your mouth closes when you sleep.”

I followed his directions but with reservations. Until this point I had kept my eyes firmly closed after my first glimpse of the various implements entering my mouth; drills, needles, picks, and an ancient dentist’s mirror where the head had come away from the shaft and had been wedged back in with a piece of cardboard. I didn’t want the bone dust and flying saliva in my eyes either, nor the plastic measuring stick that Dr Thimbu accidentally dropped onto my face coming to rest on my closed eyelid.

Then Dr Thimbu was removing soggy cotton and other bits of dental detritus from my mouth; tossing them with his tweezers across my body into a grimy plastic bin. His accuracy was impressive and better yet it signaled that we were nearly done.

Finally after three hours I had a temporary crown. I had had six different hands in my mouth during the procedure. All wore latex gloves though; from entering the room to leaving it and returning and everything in between including answering the phone. Still, my mouth was probably the most unhygienic place in there and it tasted like bleach for an hour afterwards so I guess it was more distasteful than unhygienic. I left with a stack of antibiotics and pain killers wrapped in a piece of old newspaper too and felt confident in the Dr Thimbu’s work. He had been calm and patient throughout despite my aversion to power tools in my mouth and we even shared some laughs together.

Post op

There, that wasn't so bad was it?

The tooth was tender afterwards and eating is an activity now confined to the right side of my jaw. In a week or so I’ll go back to get the permanent crown fitted. All up it cost NZ$150 – which will be covered by insurance. I hate to think what it would have cost at home. I think that in spite of everything, given the price and the choice I’d rather get it done here.

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4 Comments on “The root canal”

  1. Sam says:

    Classic, the Little Britain reference was superb.

  2. […] next most common search term are ones concerning broken molars, and relate to the gnarly experience I had with a doughnut and a dentist in […]


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