Uncomfortably Numb

When we last off, our heroine was proving how Jewish she was with stories of her family’s refusal to believe that she was old enough to cross a street without holding someone’s hand. In today’s episode, our heroine will prove how Jewish she is by recounting the saga of her experiences going to a dental school clinic to get her cavities filled to save money.

But seriously. I think we all know that dental work is expensive and if you have 17 cavities (well, 7, officially) you might as well go to a university dental clinic and have perfectly decent treatment there.

I have gone to the clinic before. Although my dentist took pleasure in my pain, reminded me of all my unsuccessful relationships and let his supervisor make lewd comments while hovering over with me a sharp object, he was a fourth year and for the most part, really knew his stuff.

I assumed that when I went back this year, also with a broken filling, that I’d get another dental student who really knew his stuff.

And the dentist that I got does know some stuff. He knows that if I’m moving to SF, I should swap my BlackBerry for an iPhone. He knows how to be really polite to his superiors. He even knows how to explain where Ithaca if you tell him that you’ve never heard of Cornell, and he fails to realize you are kidding.

He knows how to tell you in a very soothing voice that you are “doing great” and are “almost there” as he injects you with a big shot of novocaine. Unfortunately, he does not know how to find the nerve he needed to inject, and thus fails to numb your tooth, and has to inject you four times. But that comes later.

The trouble actually started at the very beginning of the session, when it turned out he didn’t know where to find my x-rays. (those horrible photographs revealing my outwardly acceptable teeth to be internally decayed.) He kept walking away, coming back and gasping, “ugh! I can’t believe this happened.” He sounded like me, when I’m having a panic attack about not being able to find my keys. Usually, when I have one of those panics, it takes me about an hour to wind down, so I did not feel excited about the fact that if he did manage to find the x-rays, his frenzied self would be holding a drill in my mouth.

Finally, he found them. Apparently trying to lighten the mood, when he came back, he told me, “the director of the program was really sad when I told her you were moving to California. She looked at your chart and was really excited to fill all those cavities.” It’s like that joke about dentists giving away lollipops to make more money, except that clearly no one had ever explained to him that it was a joke, and that if he admitted how badly he wanted people’s teeth to rot, he was probably not going to have a very good career.

But I said nothing, because I hadn’t had coffee, and I was feeling a bit uneasy about the fact that right after the dentist, I was headed to a meeting with a relatively well-known writer and her agent. Instead, I opened wide when he said, “Look, a lollipop!” and shoved a Q-Tip with the red numbing paste into my mouth. Then came the needle. Apparently, in order to numb the tooth, he had to shove in a very sensitive spot and inject me for a very long time.

Now, as most of us normal, well-adjusted people know: pain sucks. The only thing that sucks more than pain is having someone coo at you as though you are a puppy on the verge of being house-trained while you are in said pain. “It’s ok!” He told me. “You’re doing an awesome job!” Awesome job of what? Writhing in the chair?

When he finished, he said that we should wait 30 seconds, and then he could start drilling. 3 seconds after he started drilling, I writhed again. The injection had failed.

And so we tried again. And then we tried to drill again. And then I writhed again. And so we tried again. And then I writhed again.

“Ok, so I guess I didn’t find your nerve,” he concluded, putting down the drill. “The rule is, we try three times and if it still doesn’t work, we get a supervisor.” He walked away. I curled my knees into my chest and contemplated. Three times? he was allowed to inject me incorrectly three times before anyone else helped? And this happened often enough that it was a rule?

I immediately went my safe place: the screen of my BlackBerry. I’d led my dentist to believe that I needed to be on call in case the office needed at anything at any point, when what I really needed was someone in the office–or anywhere– to email me a funny joke so I could stop thinking about the horror of the situation I was in.

When he came back with his supervisor, he explained, “She’s just not numb.” The supervisor, an older Eastern European woman, sat down and promptly began slapping my face. “Can you feel here?” she asked, kneading her fingers in my cheek.


“Here?” She was flicking my chin with her thumb and forefinger.


“Ah! See,” she continued flicking. “When you test the patient to see if she is numb, you have to test the chin. Then you know you got the nerve.”

“But I did get the nerve!” He insisted. “I tried three times.”

She shook her head, and began flicking my chin again. “See, does this hurt?”

I nodded.

“Then you did not get the nerve!”

“Fine,” he sounded almost offended. “You do it, then.”

“I will! And you will watch and learn how.” She grabbed her needle, and began. “See, you really have to feel around, really stick your fingers in to find where the spot is, then you can feel it. Ah!” She had apparently found the spot. “Do you want to feel it so you know?” she asked him


“Ok, nevermind. But see, you went in the wrong place, because she is atypical. If she is atypical, you really have to look for the spot….oh….and then,” she pushed my jaw together. “You have to inject her when her mouth is half-way shut. You cannot tell her to open wide.”

“Ok, so, that should work.” We waited two minutes, and then she started flicking my chin again. “Feel this?” I did not. In fact, I couldn’t feel the whole left side of my face, which might have seemed more promising if I was not heading directly to that meeting.

“Ok, great. She is atypical!” The woman loved that word. She peered into my mouth and grabbed a wad of cotton, shoving it into my inner cheek. She talked over my head, to my dentist. “Ok, so she’s bleeding, so whatever. The blood vessels are there, so what are you going to do? It happens, it’s not your fault.” She removed the wad. “Now, you learn how.” I wanted to let her know that a) I had taken pretty good notes b) knew how to stop bleeding and c) I hoped to never need to use a syringe on my own cheek. Then I realized she was talking to him. He leaned over. She began teaching.

“Ok, so first…” and she began flicking my chin again. “We see is the chin numb, yes?” Then she grabbed another syringe, noting to me, “It still has the cap on it.” She guided the student hand into my mouth, asking, “so now do you want to poke around and find the spot?”

He sighed. “Ok.” As he was reaching his fingers in, he knocked the cap off the syringe. “Oops! cried out the dentist/teacher. “Ok, we’ll get something blunt.” Before I knew what was happening, the top end of a dentist mirror was being prodded into my atypical mouth.

Meanwhile, I realized that I had lost feeling on the entire left side of my face. I managed to glance at my watch and also realize that my meeting was in 45 mins. Fortunately, they were ready to discuss fillings. She suggested something called an amalgam.

“Won’t that take a long time?”

“Not for me!” She declared.

“But Dr. L, you’ve been practicing for 40 years, and I haven’t been officially practicing for any.” I think I would have been become seriously alarmed at this point if I had not been so shocked that this conversation was actually taking place over my head. Fortunately, I was distracted by worrying about my meeting, and the line of drool that was inevitably forming down the side of my incapacitated cheek.

Finally they agreed on a type of filling that was easy enough for him to do, and she left.

“I’m really sorry about that,” he said, as though it was her fault that he’d missed my nerve three times.

“It’s ok,” I muttered. “This will make a great blog post!”

“‘My student dentist couldn’t make me numb and then I found out I was atypical?'”


Now, normally I am very chatty dental patient, but I was surprised when he lifted up the drill and asked, “why are you quiet, what’s wrong?” It is always a big challenge to remind your dentist that you are not friends, but I offered, “I didn’t have coffee today, and I only got four hours of sleep. “

“Yeah, four hours, that’s not very many.” He began whirring the drill. “If I told people how much sleep I get, they would totally freak out about the fact that I am holding a drill in their mouth.”

I spit out the suction tube. “How much sleep did you get last night??”

“Oh, six. Last night I got six. But sometimes I get two, and I just think people would not like to know that someone was drilling in their mouth on two hours of sleep. But that’s dental school!”

At that point, I just started laughing, because I knew if I didn’t, I would cry. I laughed through the entire drilling, filling and polishing.

Later, when I told the story to my co-workers, they laughed too. Despite my pain, fear and total shock, we were all having a pretty good time until suddenly someone pointed out the biggest problem in my story, “Why are you still referring to this person as dentist?”

Another agreed, “he’s about as much of a dentist as I am!”

Hopefully this means I can get my cavities filled in the office without missing any work.


4 thoughts on “Uncomfortably Numb

  1. One of the funniest things I've ever read! “Look, a lollipop” just about did me in, and then you get to the chin-flicking and the thrice numbing and the comment about having to remind your dentist that you are actually not friends….oh, this is ripe with laughs for me (I, who am wearing braces for the past year with 10 months or so to go…they go so nicely with my gray hair!)


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