It Hurts to Smile

Anyone who knows me probably knows that I smile quite a bit, and I have a big smile. It bothered me a lot when I was younger, as I have almost always had issues with my teeth. I didn’t brush regularly as a child, so my baby teeth were stained. I sucked my thumb until I was about seven years old, so my front teeth stuck out a bit and made it difficult to form my ‘S’ sounds correctly. Those two slightly crooked and stained front baby teeth hung in there, though, well beyond the age that kids normally sing “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth.” They once again provided me with fuel for self-consciousness when they finally fell out sometime around my twelfth birthday.

All those years of funky teeth made me hate that I smiled so widely and so often, so I tried a variety of solutions such as trying to keep my upper lip down over my front teeth when I smiled or even holding my hand over my mouth when I laughed. Those solutions rarely worked. The only childhood visit to a dentist that I really have any recollection of was shortly before I left for college, when I had two extra teeth that had grown in behind my front teeth extracted. Those bastards were like additional molars, but were strategically positioned behind my front teeth. You know, so I wouldn’t frighten off unsuspecting victims. Mom had insurance that covered me at the time, so I got ’em yanked and left for college.

By the time I made it to my early twenties and ended up with dental insurance of my own for the first time in my life, I had more or less gotten over my insecurities about my mouth. My first visit to a dentist after that pre-college extraction was nearly five years later, and the dentist informed me that, while I didn’t have any problems with cavities to worry about, I would need to do something about my wisdom teeth and gum recession. The dentist suggested that it might be a good idea, before I do either of those, to consult an orthodontist about whether or not the positioning of my teeth was contributing to gum recession.

In a matter of no time I was sporting braces and had my wisdom teeth (all five since I was such a wise guy) out. I expected the braces to dredge up all those youthful insecurities about my smile, but I quickly realized that I was old enough not to care all that much about what people thought. As a matter of fact, it’s quite possible that I had more romantic encounters once the braces went on than before. Then again, there is probably a whole other discussion to be had about quantity vs. quality that I won’t get into right now. The most important fact is that the braces didn’t keep Yuka away.

The characteristic about me that posed a greater threat of convincing Yuka to ditch me when we first started dating was the fact that I smoked cigarettes. And I was no casual smoker, either. According to my brother, I was a “passionate” smoker. I loved every cigarette I ever smoked, even the menthols, hard to believe as that may be. So when the periodontist I visited shortly after Yuka and I began dating informed me that I would have to stop smoking in order for the surgery to yield favorable results, I was in an awkward position. I had considered quitting smoking, on occasion, usually in the interest of dating a non-smoker. Yuka hadn’t pushed the issue the way others before her had, so when it came time to decide whether I wanted to keep my habit or keep my gums, I felt a little more empowered to make the decision for myself.

On the advice of a friend, I quit smoking ahead of schedule, and went in for the surgery in July 2005. The periodontist at the time decided not to go through with the graft and instead just tried to stretch the existing gum tissue. I wasn’t too convinced at the time, and was much less convinced after the fact, that it was a good choice on his part. He suggested that I come back after completing my orthodontic treatment, but by the time I had the braces off I was packing my bags for California. I couldn’t get over how different it felt to smile wide and have straight white teeth (though my caffeine habit still leaves them a bit off white most of the time), so I took a slight break from worrying about my gums.

I’ve been in LA for a little over a year now and have managed to go in and see the dentist a couple times for teeth cleanings. I also visited a couple of periodontists for estimates on the work that needed to be done to save my gums. The first talked about a lot of rather involved and expensive procedures, including the grafting of bone materials harvested from embryonic pigs. In addition to my uncertainties about how well that procedure would jive with God’s law as set forth in Leviticus, when that periodontist submitted her ideas to my insurance company, they came back saying they weren’t going to toss more than a few hundred bucks at the thousands of dollars of work she wanted to do. She never called me back in for follow-up, so I guessed that maybe she didn’t want to risk that I wouldn’t pay.

The second periodontist came at the recommendation of a friend who had a similar procedure done. He looked to be much more affordable than the previous doctor, but his game plan also seemed much less ambitious. He only planned to do the same procedure that the periodontist in Illinois hadn’t gone through with. Nervous that I might miss out on important procedures in the interest of saving a few bucks, I decided to get a third opinion at UCLA Dental. Someone had mentioned to me that UCLA offers work at roughly half of the normal pricing, so even if I did have to get implanted pig bones, they would be cheaper implanted pig bones…and it’s been more than two and a half years and I still followed through with the actions to justify my decision to abandon that longtime friend, tobacco. So I headed on down for a consultation.

Finally, this Tuesday I rode down for the surgery. They warned me that it would cost me $330, roughly the same price that I would’ve paid at the second opinion doc, after insurance. When I showed up and reminded the woman at the front desk who my insurance provider is, she told me I’d only need to pay $82, which was a nice surprise. I sat down in the chair and the doctor went to work, with a crowd of underlings surrounding the chair and watching with awe. As soon as they numbed me up I started to get really nervous about what it was going to feel like, both during the procedure and when the Novocaine wore off. I managed to convince myself to relax in spite of my anxiety, and soon the procedure began and I didn’t feel a thing. Some of the students commented afterward that they’d wondered if I’d fallen asleep, and one mentioned that she checked a couple times to see if I was still breathing. I had to tell myself more than once during the procedure to stay loose and let it happen however it was supposed to happen, and apparently it worked. The commentary between the doctors was a bit troubling at moments (“yes, cut all the way to the bone. That’s right.”), but I didn’t feel a thing. I got an icepack, some amoxicillin, and an 800mg Ibuprofen and I was on my way. I started bleeding profusely at one point in class that evening, but managed to stop it by applying pressure with a moist paper towel.

Other than that, the first twenty-four hours were smooth sailing. I even facebooked my Doc to ask her a question about the mouth-rinse she gave me, and told her to email me some of the pics she took during the procedure. I’ll be sure to post those somewhere for those of you who like blood and gore.

As it stands right now, I’m still not in any great pain. Just as I did after the extraction of my wisdom teeth, I declined the Vicodin prescription. On the way home I started to second-guess the wisdom in that, as the anesthetics hadn’t yet worn off. Luckily my suspicion was correct, and I haven’t experienced any intolerable pain. Discomfort, sure, but I’m hanging in. It feels like I have a big wad of chewing tobacco across the front of my mouth.

I called off work yesterday and today to try to rest up and heal properly, but I made the mistake of going to my meeting last night. I can’t help but smile and laugh around friends, but it wasn’t doing any good for my mouth last night. I needed to stick around for the business meeting though, and by the end of it all I was feeling pretty sore. Hopefully this procedure will have better results than the last one. I’m still trying to figure out why I had to pay ten times more for that one with such disappointing results. Oh well. I’ll keep you all posted.

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One Response to It Hurts to Smile

  1. brian says:

    “it’s quite possible that I had more romantic encounters once the braces went on than before.”

    you said you would never mention my little fetish in public!!!!

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