Oral apprehensions

In a feat of magnificent self-control, the dental hygienist did not flinch. There she was, peering into my gaping maw, inspecting, poking and scraping teeth and gums, and miraculously she didn’t throw up.

Pro that she is, you wouldn’t think she would. But my mouth hasn’t been examined by anyone with “dental” or “dentist” in their job description since the Obama administration for a plethora of reasons, none of them interesting, credible or justifiable. “Massacre” is the word I figured would spring to her mind as she toiled in my mossy abyss.

I’m a mad brusher and flosser, but I dumbly dropped the ball on getting my choppers checked, and after a while I just let it slide, perhaps the least responsible thing I’ve done since paying good money to see that Spin Doctors tribute band.  

Going into the eons-belated dental appointment, I braced for catastrophe. I entertained Dantesque visions of cavities, gingivitis, cracked crowns, mouth cancer, hairy tongue syndrome, or worse. I imagined my teeth encrusted with piles of plaque, towers of tartar. Dentist? Get me an archeologist.

Dentistry isn’t gorgeous. It’s violent, invasive, queasy, medieval. Still, dentists don’t scare me much. I’m not one of those characters who whines and quivers over the periodic oral exam. My mouth has been through a lot, including braces, a few crowns, scads of fillings and wisdom teeth extraction (all four). 

When I was 14, a dental surgeon propped up a few of my receding gums by slicing strips of skin from the roof of my mouth and using the flesh to support the sliding gums. That happened.

I’ve rode merry clouds of nitrous oxide and been jabbed with novocaine needles the length and girth of bratwursts. I’ve seen my own blood smeared on the minty-green dental bib. What else can they do? I’m pretty much ready for anything. 

And so I went to the dentist this week, steeled, as I said, for that scene in “Marathon Man.” I pictured drills and pliers, sandblasters and buzzsaws.

Instead, I got teddy bears and lollipops. The hygienist couldn’t have been more pert and welcoming, a living bubble machine. (Not only that, but the ceiling television was set to “The View”!) 

She proceeded to do the poke-and-prod routine with hooky metal utensils and rather than recoil at my neglected mouthful, she actually complimented the super job I’ve been doing maintaining my oral health. Clearly, she said, I take my toothsome hygiene seriously. I would have smiled if seven of her fingers weren’t jammed in my mouth. 

And so I won Round One in the dentist ordeal. Of course I had more in store, the big stuff: the x-rays and the photos and the exam by the capital-D Dentist. This gig wasn’t over by a long shot, and with my luck I’d be getting some kind of shot with the longest needle available. 

I was ushered into a new room, where the official dentist’s chair spread before me, the full-length recliner straight out of Torquemada. Once you lie back in this chair, it’s over. Once you open your mouth, you’re doomed. Rinse, spit, repeat, scream.

As it’s been 135 years since I last saw a dentist, the young doctor who eventually entered, after a pair of technicians took x-rays and photos, was of course new to me. And to my delight, she was just as chirpy, enthusiastic and calming as the angelic hygienist — a human puff of nitrous oxide. 

But she was serious, too, and got down to business. The upshot: I am a fastidious cleaner, but I grind my teeth and need a tooth guard for sleep; I have two slightly cracked molars that will eventually require crowns; and I have one “baby” cavity that did not concern the good doc a bit. 

In fact, she practically laughed it off. And at long last, relieved, disabused of my festering fears, and with no fingers and pokers clogging my mouth, so did I.

Finding form in shapeless times

Following an acute infection diagnosed on Easter, my appendix is just super. A regimen of antibiotics, a pill as chunky as a grave adult multi-vitamin, has snuffed the appendicitis, vaporized the pain and eased worries. But not all worries. No, of course not.

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The surgeon who’s my supervising physician cheered my improvement but cautioned that the infection could return in three weeks, three months, a year, who knows. He’s suggested preventative surgery relatively soon to snip out that hateful organ. 

Such dreamy thoughts for the quarantine — just what I or anybody needs right now. Boy, when this all blows over, I get to have belly surgery! 

Surgery sucks and so does house arrest, but distractions are plenty. Sort of. Not really. I toggle between reading and writing and watching the occasional movie (“Little Women,” “The Lighthouse,” “La Collectionneuse”). I spit words into my journal, take a brisk walk, shop for books online, practice my French (lie!), donate money to animal causes and ponder the meaning of life, this stuffy, neutered, unmoored version of it. 

Chat with friends on FaceTime, you say. I don’t do FaceTime, yet I had to with my doctor a few times to discuss my ailment — his idea. It was my first time, my iPhone deflowering, if you will, and I cannot say I wasn’t mortified. It went swell. 

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The appendix episode has lightly anchored this adrift vessel for now, furnished a focus, given me something to gnaw on, something to be more anguished about.

My journal jots reflect some of the days’ monotony, some of the dread of what’s out there (COVID-19, a maniacal leader) and what’s inside me: “I’m cured. I am not cured. This thing, I fear, will return like a cancer,” I wrote yesterday about my pesky malady. I muse about the pets with withering boredom: “The gray cat’s eyes weep and glisten with viscous slop that congeals into a tar-like goop.” And I note time’s quarantine creak: “Grinding forth, the day leaves skid marks.” One entry reads simply: “Blech.”

Chalky-gray is the new black. Specificity has fled. Vagueness as an existential condition is unsettling. Stasis lurks. We waft, not run. Atrophy, hovering near, sees its chance.

Where are we headed? That’s the burning question, one I’m not sure I want answered.

Bedlam in the belly

I either have colossal gas or appendicitis. I am enduring fantastic abominable distress right where my appendix sits with, frankly, blatant purposelessness. (The medical world still hasn’t figured out the function of the troublesome caterpillar-shaped organ. It’s the platypus of human anatomy.)

Of course I’m a tad concerned. Now is not the time to rush to an urgent care center for surgery. A certain pandemic has priority over my sword-in-the-belly pains, even if appendicitis can, in rare cases these days, be fatal. Plus, you never know about what insurance will cover and, besides, hospitals make me woozy with multi-pronged dread. All I can see in my predicament is a hot mess, but in more profane language than that. 

Getting nervous as I seized my stomach, I phoned a doctor friend, whom I hoped would ease the angst. He sort of did, sort of didn’t. Ending the call, my face bore the glacial, expressionless visage of Michael Myers’ rubber mask. The good doc said the cramps and pain could be caused by constipation. Whew. Then he added that I might require a CT scan to identify the culprit. Oof. If the pain spreads I should worry, he said; if it decreases, I’m probably in the clear. 

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That is not me. I don’t have a goatee, and I’m not quite at the pillow-hugging stage.

Good signs: I have no fever. While deep breaths hurt, I can walk with minimal discomfort. And, after chewing Gas-X and popping Advil, I woke today with far less pain than the excruciating night before.

But I’m not out of the woods, and there’s this reminder from one of those frightening medical sites: If you don’t get treatment for an inflamed appendix quickly, “it can rupture and release dangerous bacteria into your abdomen.”

So I remain in a wait and feel pattern. It’s a delight.

Déjà vu has smuggled itself into this picture. As a kid, I had unreasonable hypochondria, leading to near hysteria when, at 7, I felt a sharp pain in my left side that I swiftly self-diagnosed as appendicitis. For hours I curled up tearfully in my parents’ empty bed and envisioned horrors of surgery and gloom and, naturally, death. (Never mind the appendix is on the right side.)

This is different. This bears signs of something moderately serious. It’s painful and fraught with the unknown. I’m not sure where the symptoms point to: hospital, surgery, gastrointestinal earthquakes, the all-clear thumbs up? As I type this, pangs besiege my belly. Something must be done.

* Update: On Easter Sunday, I elected to go to urgent care and get a CT scan at the urging of the doctor friend. After blood tests, a urine sample and the fairly harrowing CT scan (aka CAT scan, all whizzing machinery and sci-fi shivers), it was discovered I indeed have minor, early-stage appendicitis. This normally requires in-and-out surgery, but the surgeon suggested I stay away from COVID-slammed hospitals and prescribed an oral antibiotic regimen, two pills a day for a week or so. The non-surgical treatment is increasingly common for appendicitis, he and my doctor told me, and quite effective.

I grinned widely. Hell, yes, I thought. Hell, yes.