Root Canal Pt. 1


Screen Shot 2017-12-06 at 2.39.46 AMI had a root canal retreatment today. This is not to be confused with a root canal treatment. A retreatment means, in my case, that you had a root canal some time ago, but neglected to do Part 2, the important part, the part where you get a crown put over the top of your compromised tooth to restore its original strength and power.

Apparently, when your practitioner cleans out all the dead or infected nerve endings inside your renegade tooth, she has drilled away so much tooth structure that the blown-out eggshell of a molar that is left will not be strong enough to the endure the impact of heavy chewing.

I decided to test this theory back in 2011, when I felt that enduring the root canal was enough suffering to get me through the rest of the decade, and I vowed to never return to the dentist again. Besides, the tooth seemed functional enough.

Apparently when you get a root canal you are supposed to return to your dentist for the crown, otherwise the tooth doesn’t have fortification and bacteria can get in there, or you can fracture the tooth or get lost on the subway and miss your connecting flight to French Polynesia.

Six years after my root canal, which brings us to this week, the soft tissue surrounding that tooth began to hurt so badly I felt like I was hallucinating conversations with my dead ancestors.

“Have a little something to eat,” my grandmother Ruth said, from back at the shtetyl, although this was confusing to me since she lived most of her life in a retirement complex in Ft. Lauderdale.

“I can’t, Grandma. I think I just broke a tooth on your apple cake.”

“You’re just now having pain in a tooth with an incomplete root canal treatment from six years ago?” my therapist, Fran Pasternack, asked.

I nodded, glumly.

“Fuck of a good dentist,” Fran said. My therapist is not exactly what you would call a blank-slate practitioner. I stick with her not only because she’s an excellent and responsible listener, but because her unflappable optimism often has the effect of being terribly funny. For example, when I was lamenting that I might lose my molar on account of having waited six years to complete the work, she replied, rather earnestly, “My dentist told me not to feel bad if you need a tooth pulled because you really only need two teeth to gnash your food with.”

I laughed really hard when Fran said that. Fran wasn’t laughing, though, which only made me laugh harder.

“Which two teeth are the ones you should keep for gnashing?” I asked.

“Probably the back ones,” Fran replied. Later on, reflecting over my therapeutic hour that day, I wondered how a person would bite into an apple with only two teeth, and if those two teeth had to come into some kind of occlusion with each other for it to work. The thought was perhaps not as comforting as Fran had intended, so I made a few calls around town for a good endodontist.

I have a weird habit of neglecting my health but also worrying about the neglect for great periods of time. It is actually amazing how long I will worry about an adverse condition before doing something about it. I may take this up someday with Fran, but for now I am happy to listen to her stories about how you only need two teeth in your mouth to gnash things.

Still, I had a painful abscess. I know this because I consulted the Merck manual online. I needed to get to the dentist, but my dentist was in prison. I’m not lying. He really is in prison, and I’m sad about that, because I really love my dentist. I love my dentist because when you call the office, or at least when you called the office before he went to prison, he would answer the phone himself. He has a sexy Spanish accent that makes you wonder if Antonio Banderas gave up acting for amalgams and bitewings. The second reason I love my dentist is because he is handsome. I think it is extremely important to have a dentist that is handsome, as this can have a very calming effect on a person like me, someone who cannot even drive by a dentist’s office without chewing a fistful of benzodiazepines.

I went down to the Urgent Care clinic and told them that the Merck Manual told me I have an abscess, and after a long conversation with a male nurse who told me that his favorite movie was Somewhere in Time, I got a prescription for Penicillin and a referral to a practice that specializes in root canal retreatment therapy.

There were x-rays. Then, the dentist, Dr. Mejia, walked into the room, put on her gloves, and started tilting the light above my head.

“Wait. You’re – wait! You’re just going to start right now?”

“Yes. You have an infection in your tooth. We have to clean it and see what’s going on.”

“Will there be anesthetics involved?”

“Yes. I’m going to give you plenty of novacaine.”

“But — a needle right into the abscess?”


“Won’t that be painful?”

“I’m not going to lie,” Dr. Mejia said, and she looked a tiny bit bored. “It’s going to hurt.”

I told Dr. Mejia that I was happy enough with the x-rays and the information, and that I would call her later about any other steps after consulting with Dr. Pasternack.

“Is that your dentist?” Dr. Mejia asked.

“No. My psychotherapist.”

Dr. Mejia looked confused. “Does she have a dental background?”

“Yes,” I said, thoughtfully. “She says I’ll be fine with just two teeth to gnash.”

I went home and watched a movie on Netflix with a bowl of buttered antibiotics. Within a few days, the abscess was gone and I was pain free. Why rock the boat? I wondered. I could probably just keep taking Penicillin and avoid doing the retreatment altogether, or in the least I could keep eating pills until my own dentist’s jail sentence was up.

But after the first course of antibiotics was done, my tooth started hurting again. I solved this problem by taking another round of antibiotics. But now my stomach hurt.

“It’s time,” Fran Pasternack said, not unlovingly, but also pretty firmly.

“What if I lose the tooth?” I asked. “Implants are expensive. Better to just ignore the issue entirely,” I concluded.

In addition to all her other teeth, Fran has four implants and a missing a molar on the back right-hand side. She is quite comfortable with this arrangement.

“You can be without a back tooth for a long time,” she said. “You can deal with an implant later.”

I trust Fran. She may not have gone to dental school, but I have known her for nearly twenty years, and I don’t think she would advise me to go for a root canal retreatment unless she really felt it were necessary.

So I went. Except the secretarial staff said I could not take the Xanax that I brought with me unless I had someone to take me home, which I did not.

Suppose I take the pill, I said, but I just lie to you and say that I did not take the pill. That way you won’t be liable if anything happens to me when I drive home, I said.

Hold on, the secretary said. She left the front desk. She came back with Dr. Mejia.

“You can’t leave the office on Xanax without someone to drive you,” Dr. Mejia said. She did not look like she was going to discuss the matter any further. I sighed.

“We can give you gas,” Dr. Mejia said. She waited. I looked helplessly at the secretary.

“Our patients feel very comfortable with the gas,” the secretary offered, rather hopefully, I thought.

to be continuedAmy, Root Canal Part 1

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