Open Wide


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Going to the dentist can be intimidating enough, but having a wisdom tooth removed by a prison dentist is a whole other kind of scary.


“Go ahead and open wide for me.”

Never before had more terrifying words been spoken to me. They were made even more sinister by the tone of good-natured banality in the dentist’s voice. Truth be told, I’d just initialed and signed-off on a list of potential complications that could arise during this purportedly routine procedure, some of which included infection, loss of vision, impaired sense of smell, paralysis, and loss of jawbone. Apparently “migrating bone fragments” isn’t only a cool name for a punk rock band, but also a real danger, so I was already sufficiently freaked out before I was even laid flat in the reclining chair and told to show off my maw.

photo courtesy of John Kasawa
photo courtesy of John Kasawa

First came the snap of latex gloves being pulled into place—never a good sound to a guy in prison. Then the overhead light was turned on, and my pulse picked up its pace for no rational reason. His gloves were blue; I don’t know why, but it just seemed strange to me, unnatural. Poking, searching, feeling, manipulating—fingers and knuckles filled my mouth. I laid there, helpless and exposed, my mouth wide open. He was making noises, part inquisitive and part concerned, before pronouncing his final judgment.

“Well, it will be a bit awkward; it usually is with wisdom teeth. But this one is only partially out. I think I’ll be able to get it—with a little luck I’ll get it out of there without splintering or cracking it at all. We’ll just have to get in there and hope for the best.” I had several concerns about his statement.

All of a sudden his assurances of a routine procedure had all come down to:

  1. luck,

  2. hope, and

  3. the fact that he only thought he’d be able to get the tooth.

I wanted certainty, but before I could express any of my concerns, a needle entered my field of vision. I clamped my eyes shut and laid there and waited for it to be over. He stuck me five times. “Well, we’ll just let that get good and numb.”

When I opened my eyes, he was gone. I was all alone. The bright light and ceiling tile stared down at me. My face slowly became numb. I was suddenly hyper-aware of the spit pooling against the back of my throat. It seemed like an obscenely enormous amount, and it became necessary to consciously and diligently remind myself to swallow and to breathe only through my nose, since breathing through my mouth made me feel like I was drowning. My imagination wandered to places it ought not to have been going. My mind fabricated fear as I began to obsess over all those potential complications that began to seem less like potentialities and more like foregone conclusions while I sat under the examining lamp and felt numbness creep across my face. The onset of panic is what I was feeling, and I knew it was (mostly) irrational, but that knowledge didn’t do anything to mitigate my freaking out.

My hands kept clenching and unclenching, grabbing at the hat in my lap, fumbling nervously with my pant legs. My breathing quickened, my stomach clenched, my guts twisted, and I let out a loud fart that I hoped nobody heard or—even worse—would return to smell the foul evidence of my intestinal discomfort. My face felt flushed and hugely bloated, my lips thick and clumsy.

My toes began to tingle just before I lost all sensation. I couldn’t feel my feet. Whether it was all in my head or not didn’t matter in that moment, and I squirmed in my prone position like I was trying to wriggle my way to freedom. My hands worked ever more frantically. My legs moved, too—suspended in mid-air, they hung off the end of the dentist’s chair and looked suspiciously like they were trying to run away from me. I was beginning to think I wouldn’t be able to go through with it no matter how much the tooth bothered me.


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The two medical professionals returned. I didn’t say a word. My body quieted its frantic outward movements, but my insides still churned and squished as my heart sent adrenaline-fused blood splashing erratically through arteries and capillaries. The dentist’s face appeared in my limited view—too close and too big. He gave me a wide smile crammed with teeth, like it was some kind of bizarre advertisement for his profession. Despite my extreme nervousness, I imagined him being the envy of every one of his dentist friends—that they all got together at conventions and inevitably ended up complimenting him on his magnificent set of choppers.

Okay, that should be numbed enough, how about you open wide for me again, and we’ll get going?” He phrased it as a question, but I didn’t think I actually had any choice in the matter. The nurse sucked up some saliva with her stylus, I slammed my eyes shut, and then it began.

The dentist went to work with his pick: poking, digging, peeling, exposing more of the troublesome and unnecessary tooth. The two professionals providing me with quality healthcare were carrying on a banal conversation about office supplies and gossiping about things I didn’t care about and people I didn’t know. Their tones of voice sounded suspiciously like they were flirting with one another over my gaping mouth. All I felt was pressure, no pain. The entire left side of my face was numb from eyebrow to chin. The two of them fell silent as some kind of tool went into my mouth, then something else, followed by yet another instrument until it felt crowded in there.

photo by patrisyu
photo by patrisyu

Can’t quite get a grip on it,” he said.

Seems to be pretty slippery,” she said.

I couldn’t tell if this was for my benefit or not. If it was meant to be some kind of twisted play-by-play or color commentary designed to keep me informed and at ease, it didn’t work at all. My mouth felt like it was about to split in two—opened so wide, full of so much stainless steel and latexed digits.

“Oh, it’s a girl!” the nurse exclaimed with a playful lilt to her voice. I laid there, wondering what that could possibly even mean. One of the many devices chattered against my teeth with that peculiar metal sound. It felt like chewing on a fork.

Hold it, hold it.” (This, from the dentist.) Silence for a long, breathless moment. “Okay…” He began to pull.

The more he tugged persistently on my tooth, the more I strained to keep my head still and stable. This was no easy task. He had put his left hand on my chest for leverage and was really going at the tooth—trying to twist it, clamp it, get underneath it. I heard him start to breathe heavier, and every once in a while a frustrated sigh escaped his lips. Soon he was mumbling intermittent snippets of reflective dialogue that didn’t do anything to set me at ease. Once again something metallic in my cramped mouth slipped and knocked against a tooth, making my eyes fly open. “Dammit,” he said. It wasn’t quite a yell, but it was certainly filled with frustration.

Pulling his face back so I could see him more clearly, the dentist delivered an apology, but then admonished me to hold still. I had been holding still. He recommenced his tug of war with my tooth. I squeezed my eyes closed again and began to silently repeat a lousy litany, which amounted to a hastily phrased, fearful, malformed prayer:

Please let it be okay, don’t break, don’t break, don’t let it break…

The tedious tooth was on the left side of my mouth, but the dentist was yanking so hard that my whole head was moving, no matter how hard I tried to fight his efforts. My lower jaw felt like it was coming undone and about to separate—the right side hinge was being taken in a direction I was fairly certain it wasn’t designed to go.

I’ll be okay, I’ll be okay, please let it be okay…

A sudden pressure pushed on my chest, and I opened my eyes to reveal the dentist with his knee on my sternum. He was essentially crouching atop me as he desperately, valiantly, attempted to achieve an angle and advantage on his foe. Again, I shuttered my eyes and thought about how his new tactic couldn’t possibly bode well for me. Then everything changed for the worse.

First there was a loud crack, almost like a gunshot, and it reverberated through my skull. Following immediately on the heels of the first sound was a disturbing crunching, grinding noise. This was accompanied by a highly professional observation.


Yes, my dentist actually said “uh-oh.” Then he whispered a barely audible curse.

photo by Stuart Miles
photo by Stuart Miles

Oh, shit.”

Professionalism personified.

Apparently the tooth had shattered, though I couldn’t feel the pieces in my numbed state. Instinctively, I closed my throat off from swallowing any of the bits that might be pressing to gain access to my esophagus. “Clean it out please, nurse,” the dentist said, his voice straining to remain composed. I heard none of the signature sounds of suction.

Nurse!” The dentist was panicking and couldn’t hide the terror-filled tone of his words. Her stylus poked the inside of my mouth, kept attaching itself to my tongue in its endeavor to slurp up all the blood and jagged shards of my own tooth. I was moaning; I’m not sure how long I had been doing so, but I would guess that it began sometime around the time the gunshot of fractured tooth went off inside my head. The suction stopped, and I made the mistake of opening my eyes.

The dentist’s blue-gloved fingers were smeared with my blood. The instrument he wielded looked like some fancy needle-nosed pliers, and they, too, were generously coated in red. My moaning turned into a strange whimpering sound, like that of an injured animal caught in a trap.

Please calm down. Let me do my job.” The dentist was trying to be commanding, but his voice came out high-pitched with stress. I closed my eyes against the horrors being inflicted upon me and tried to relax. A moment later I heard the clink of something hard hitting a metallic surface. It wasn’t until I heard it a second time that I figured out that it was the sound of a hunk of tooth landing in the stainless steel tray. Even though the removal of my tooth was the entire objective of the procedure, for some irrational reason, hearing the tooth bits fall into the tray freaked me out. Once I recognized the sound, I started kicking my feet up frantically, and my hands gripped at the air in front of me as if I were trying to climb out of my predicament.

Stop it, now!” The dentist finally sounded like he’d regained some authority. This served to appease me and made me feel somewhat like the situation was under control.

I’ll be okay, I’ll be okay, please let it be okay…

I lost count of how many bits and pieces of tooth and possibly bone that I heard clatter into the metal receptacle. The dentist diligently gathered tooth shards while the nurse maneuvered the suction tube around his nimble fingers in a perfectly choreographed dental ballet. I declined the dentist’s offer to have a look at the tray filled with my oral castoffs; I didn’t have the stomach for that sight. Thankfully, nothing was left behind, and my recovery went fine—no complications. In spite of the eventual positive outcome, though, I still wasn’t in any hurry for another visit to the dentist.

Can you blame me?

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