Friday, August 05, 2005

PainWatch 1: the visit to the dentist

First, many thanks to Sperwer for taking me to Dr. Lee's office today. I can see why he puts a lot of trust in her: she's a real professional.

Second: I have no renegade wisdom tooth (called a "love tooth" in Korean: sarang-i) to photoblog today, for a couple reasons. The major reason is that they basically broke most of my tooth up and ushered it out of my mouth in pieces. And today, as it turns out, was only Part One: I've still got my roots. A second appointment has been scheduled for early September.

Here's today's story, divided into its major phases.


Sperwer picked me up in his plush, Batmobile-like sedan and we tooled over to the dental clinic. Hot day. Good thing Sperwer's got A/C in that car.

Dr. Lee's clinic is a clean, quiet place. When I stepped in, I was immediately greeted by a statue of the Virgin Mary on a table, flanked with candles and guarded by a phalanx of flowers. Sperwer and I left our shoes at the kudujang (shoe shelf, if you will; a common fixture in Korean establishments) by the entrance, then got processed in at the front desk for our respective appointments. Sperwer was led away for his trial; not long after, I was taken to a waiting chair.


It was rapidly established that the clinic workers preferred to speak in Korean. "Oh, you speak Korean!" one chirped. "If you don't mind, let's continue in Korean because it's easier for me." The first clinician I met wasn't Dr. Lee, who was floating among several patients at the time. My clinician, who was wearing a mask, had very pretty eyes. She quizzed me about what my problems were; I told her about the huge, smelly cavity digging its way through my upper left wisdom tooth. She rooted around my mouth with her barbed instruments and mirrors, and gave me a small mirror so I could see the cavity for myself, tucked way in back and causing a bit of gum rot.

I've lived with (and rooted around in) the cavity for years now, so its dimensions were easy to figure out just through imagination. What I saw in the mirror wasn't at all surprising: a large cavity right at the gumline. My other teeth turned out to be in pretty good shape, probably thanks to a certain hardiness I inherited from my Mom's side (she didn't get her first cavity until she was 40), as well as a regular brushing regimen. Confession: I don't floss regularly, but that might change.


I can't count the number of times my chair was adjusted-- sit up, lie back, sit up, lie back-- the ritual was almost in keeping with movement during a Catholic mass: stand, sit, kneel, stand, sit, kneel.

After the initial examination and cataloguing of my hygienic sins, the arm of my chair was pried open and I was asked to step over to the X-ray room.

The last time I'd visited a dentist was in August of 1992-- that is to say, almost exactly thirteen years ago. I have only vague memories of how the X-ray procedure went back then-- I think it involved slipping something into my mouth and sitting still while a large, loud machine took pictures of me and filled my skull with cancer-producing radiation.

This time around, I had to stand. It felt a little bit like a phase in an eye exam: I had to wrap my mouth around a plastic-covered probe of some sort (maybe that's what shot the X-rays out into my skull, the little bastard), grip a set of ergonomic handlebars, and hold perfectly still while the machine used laser crosshairs to align itself on my head. As several comedians have noted, it's never comforting to see the clinician exit the room when they start the X-ray procedure.

The process itself went well, but I had a strong desire to laugh because the machine was nothing like what I remembered from thirteen years ago in the States. Three purple plastic pincers came down and clamped themselves gently on my skull: forehead and sides. The X-ray components began their ponderous-but-graceful scan, swirling balletically around my head. Unlike my previous procedure, this session was relatively quiet. I suppose they've improved the machinery since the early 90s.

When all that was finished, I was permitted to drop my hands back down to my sides, stop biting the alien probe, and step back from the now-quiescent pincers. Then I was led back to my seat and asked to wait for Dr. Lee.


Sperwer had told me Dr. Lee was a very nice person, and that she could speak some French, so when she showed up at my chair, I asked her in Korean whether the rumors were true. She was very modest about her French ability; after testing her out, I mentally placed her ability in the high-beginner level. I suspect, though, that she knows more specialized, dentistry-related vocabulary than I do.

When I told Dr. Lee that I used to be a French teacher, she was delighted: "Oh, we've got a French monk here right now!" She asked me if I'd like to speak with him. I was a bit thrown off and stammered, "Uh... now?" She nodded vigorously, got me out of the chair, and led me across the office to a sitting room where three men were in conversing in froréen (my neologism: French-Korean mix; sounds cooler than corçais).

There were two grey-robed monks in the room, one French, the other Korean. A third man, who was Korean, sat off to the side. The monks were obviously Catholic (which made sense: this was an obviously Catholic establishment). I spoke to the French monk first and was pleased to hear myself speaking French fluently. My accent, which I know has slipped, was still good enough to keep the monk from guessing my pays d'origine, so I told him flat-out I was American. The Korean monk, as it turned out, spoke excellent French.

Dr. Lee seemed thrilled to watch us all jabbering with each other; I could tell she was trying to follow the conversation, but she gave up with a laugh. I explained to her in Korean that we were talking about religion, which immediately caused the Korean monk to perk up: "Ah, you speak Korean?" I gave my standard Short Explanation: my French is a lot better than my Korean, but my French is also going down the tubes.

We did a round of handshakes, then I was led back to my chair.


By this point, Dr. Lee had cleverly accomplished her unstated objective of putting me at ease, and I was smiling when I got back onto the chair. She did a sharp-object tour of my mouth, a quicker version of the recon done by her pretty-eyed assistant, and gave me a lecture about brushing thoroughly, flossing, etc.

Dr. Lee explained that the cavity had reached so deeply into my tooth that "only a shell was left" (she said this part in English because I didn't catch what she was saying in Korean). As with many Westerners, my wisdom teeth have long, curved roots, which promised to make extraction difficult. The object of the game for today, she said, was to remove a large portion of the visible tooth, expose the nerve, and deaden it. We'd worry about removal of the rest of the tooth next time. While I wouldn't be needing a root canal, I would be undergoing "minor surgery" on my next visit, to pull the gum back and make root removal easier.

Dr. Lee next gave me some local anesthetic-- totally painless injection-- and led me over to a large, flat-screen monitor showing my tooth X-ray. I could feel the neighborhood around my wisdom tooth deadening; strange. She showed me how my cavity looked: it was a mean, dark shadow hiding among a bunch of bright, healthy teeth.

What happened next would surely have freaked me out had I not been anesthetized. We went back to the chair and drilling commenced. A good bit of my wisdom tooth was simply cleared out, piece by piece. This involved three women in the unenviable task of rooting around in my mouth with rubber-gloved hands-- performing suction, irrigation, drilling, and who knows what else. Drilling operations occasionally had to stop so that Dr. Lee could check on my progress. My only duty, from what I could gather, was to lie there quietly with my mouth hanging open-- something I already do quite well.

At the time, I didn't think to ask my saviors to preserve the toothy bits, which is why I come to you, Dear Reader, with nothing in hand.

The drilling stopped. Dr. Lee suddenly announced in crisp, professional English, "The nerve has been exposed!" This was the only truly creepy utterance during the entire session, which was otherwise very pleasant. Right after Dr. Lee made that announcement, I wondered whether everyone would simply stop working on me. In my imagination, the staff would kill all the lights and file zombielike out of the clinic, leaving me sitting stupidly in that chair to await the arrival of some horrible, cthonian beast that feasted on the flesh of supine dental patients. It would rise up out of the floor... in my recumbent position, I'd be unable to see it... and the last thing I'd feel would be the sudden mass of writhing tentacles smothering my face, squeezing my throat-- and the horrible sensation of great fangs clamping around my skull and bursting it.

Luckily, "The nerve has been exposed!" wasn't the end of the story. No lurching zombies, no sudden tentacles, no bursting skulls. I was once again given a mirror and allowed to look at my tooth, which was-- pardon the pun-- a mere shell of its former self.

The rest of the dental ritual was devoted to nerve-deadening and sealing everything up with some sort of quick-setting resin (Sperwer speculates it's a kind of plastic). That was pretty much the end for me: I paid a hefty W10,000 for my trouble (I'm being sarcastic; W10,000 is currently about $10, an impossible price to find in the States for competent dental work), and set a return appointment for September 2.

As a parting gift, I was given a prescription for Ibuprofen because, as Dr. Lee informed me with practiced regret, "It's gonna hurt when the anesthetic wears off." I wasn't allowed to bite down for the next ten minutes, to allow the resin to harden.

Sperwer graciously drove me back to Smoo campus. I grabbed some cash from an ATM, went to the local pharmacy, and bought my drugs. The lady at the front desk of the dental clinic had cautioned me not to take the painkiller unless I was in real pain, and the lady at the pharmacy gave me exactly the same advice. Which brings us to...


This blog now goes on PainWatch (currently reading Green). I have no idea how long that anesthetic is supposed to last. My appointment with The Chair began a little after noon, and as I type this, it's about 6:00PM. No real pain to speak of, and I've already eaten a large meal and successfully downed some cold Nestea Green Tea with no apparent ill effects. Perhaps Dr. Lee really killed that nerve dead.

The question now is whether I'll remain this pain-free until September 2. I do feel some subterranean rumblings in my gums, hints of amusement to come, but if the drugs are supposed to have worn off by now, then maybe there won't be anything more than rumblings.

While I consider myself pretty tolerant of most forms of pain (OK, maybe I wouldn't do so well against porcupine quills), PainWatch blog entries will appear only when I suffer major agony. Low-grade to middle-grade pain won't make the blog. By "agony" I mean teary-eyed, nearly incapacitating, maybe-gonna-scream-and-shoot-blood-out-my-ass agony, folks-- the kind I'll be able to blog only after the pain has begun to subside and the ass-blood has been cleared off the floor.


I was one of those cruel kids who learned early in elementary school how to use a magnifying glass to focus sunlight onto helpless insects-- usually ants. The burning smell isn't something you forget, because a burning insect smells nothing like burnt toast. Today, while surrounded by three women and being drilled by one of them, I smelled that insect-burning smell coming from inside my mouth. Again, if I hadn't had the local anesthetic, I might have found the olfactory experience less than amusing. As it was, the smell was merely one of many sensory data assaulting me at the time, and I felt nothing.

I didn't check to see whether Korean dental clinic waiting rooms hold stacks of outdated magazines. On my next visit, if I remember to do so, I'll look around.

For those in Korea who might need dental work done (or even a routine checkup), I highly recommend Dr. Lee's clinic. If you need information on it, I'll get it from Sperwer and pass it along to you. Dr. Lee speaks English very well, and her staff appears to speak it, too. Most of the English I heard today consisted of the "lie back," "bite down," "close your mouth slightly" variety. You won't be hearing any florid disquisitions on Buddhist phenomenology, but you'll hear enough English to guide you through a procedure.

Ave, Dr. Lee! And thanks, once again, to the intrepid Sperwer. Dr. Lee told me quite sincerely, "You've got a good friend there." Indeed.


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