This past Thursday I got a metal spike screwed into my jaw.
And it hurt.
But not as badly as I feared. To be honest, it’s all my fault. Well, all my 20-year-old-self’s fault. Too much soda and not enough brushing and flossing in college.
Damn you, Dr. Pepper!
I dreaded the possibility of getting an implant. My mother had at least two (maybe three; things you don’t pay attention to as a kid). And I knew that she lost at least one of the false teeth while brushing too hard one day. Right down the sink. And I had heard her use the word “root canal” on several occasions.
So when I had a rotten tooth removed one fine wintry 1996 day in South Bend, Indiana, I asked the dentist about a root canal.
He told me the price.
I asked how much to remove the tooth.
1/10 the cost.
“Yank it,” I said.
So I’ve had a big gaping hole in the back left of my lower jaw for…ah…a couple of years now. Since 1996, every time I’ve gone to get my teeth cleaned the dentist would recommend either a bridge or an implant. Since 1996, I’ve put it off. At first it was because of the cost. Then it was because of laziness. Finally, it was because frankly it scared the bejeezus out of me.
But I could delay no further. And in a pandemic, no less.
Now, I’ve already written a short story about the pleasantries of having wisdom teeth removed over two and a half hours (and you can read all about it in a hilarious story that includes quotes from Johnny Got His Gun and Metallica, for only $0.99!).
But my experience in Japan was MUCH different than that in Indiana.
For starters, the office was spotless. I mean, completely, utterly spotless. Not a microbe to be found. And like most clinics in Japan, it is owned by a single person (the dentist himself).
And of course masks are absolutely 100% necessary just to walk in the door. And they take your temperature. And they all wear gloves. And everything, I mean everything, is 100% computerized (this is actually one of the main reasons I chose to go there).
Back in December, after I made the decision to get the implant, the dentist warned me that he was more expensive than some other places. Why? He added two extra steps.
First, he took a CT scan of my entire head. Then he created a 3D digital image that allowed him to zoom in on the location of the implant and precisely measure the angle and depth needed for a solid plug.
When he showed me this photo, he was happy to point out that “Westerners” typically have denser bones than Japanese. He was sure this would make the implant more stable.
Then he used silicon to make a mould of both upper and lower jaws. This was really disgusting. The dental assistant had to stand behind me, holding the mould in place while it solidified. I had to resist the gag impulse for about 5 minutes each time. Then the dentist had to check to make sure that the moulds fit together the same way my teeth did (this would allow him to make a new fake tooth precisely to match my bite).
This past Monday, I went in for a “deep cleaning” again. The dental assistant once more chastised my lack of attention to the inside of my lower front incisors.
On Thursday, just before the procedure started, the dentist told me that unlike in the US (where he had had some experiences mostly in comparing procedures at various conferences), in Japan, dental surgery was treated like other types of surgery.
In other words, they covered my entire body. And I do mean, the entire body.
We started of course by having me wash out my mouth with a foul-tasting sanitizing solution. Then the chair reclined and they put a cloth over my face with a hole big enough for just my mouth (this is typical of all dental cleaning, as well). Then they added more cloth to cover my forehead and back of head, then taped it down so I couldn’t move anything but my jaw.
Then they draped an enormous, heavy cloth over the rest of my body, from chest to toe. Of course, I was able to rest my hands on the armrests of the chair (which, I have to say, was really, really comfy).
So basically the only part of me that could be seen was my mouth. They even put disinfectant around my lips just in case.
As the dentist did his work, I realized that the mould was probably going to save me days of pain. You see, it was designed with a tiny hole precisely over the spot where the implant would go. So rather than cutting open the entire gum, he simply drilled directly into the spot needed.
A precision strike.
I later found out (he showed me the drill bits) that he had drilled to increasingly open the area, making it wide enough for the implant but not so wide that it would wobble.
So if my jaw were a piece of wood, he would have basically been inserting a wall plug. And then screwing the implant in tightly.
I could hear the ratcheting reverberate around my head. A tiny ratchet, but a big echo.
Trapped in myself, body my holding cell…
OK, it wasn’t that bad. Obviously, I could move my legs and arms. But there was no pain. After an hour, it was over. We went to do another CAT scan to confirm the angle was correct. Then he showed it to me as “before” and “after” images on a huge computer screen hung on the wall.
High tech shit.
“There,” he said, beaming. “I told you it wouldn’t hurt that much.”
He was right.
Now I just have to chew everything on the right side of my face for the two months or so until the fake tooth arrives and my jaw has healed enough to screw it in place.