Have you ever chipped a tooth? It’s a pretty common accident. When I was about 10 years old, I walked into a metal pole in our basement and crushed the bottom half of my front tooth. It’s crazy how badly this hurt. My hands flew to my mouth to stop what surely must be cascading blood, but there was no blood, only searing pain. Off we went to our family dentist, a kindly man but quite old with arthritic, trembling hands. He wasn’t sadistic like Steve Martin’s dentist in Little Shop of Horrors, but it was terrifying sitting in that chair as he hobbled and muttered about, always looking like he just forgot what he was doing. That broken tooth was capped but soon needed a root canal. Another scary day in the chair with Dr. Trembly. Since then, the steady stream of coffee, red wine and general oxidation slowly aged that tooth in gradient shades of yellow, then brown. Yuck.
Dentistry is an odd business. I remember reading somewhere how the depression rate among dentists is super high and I thought, yeah, I get that. Lots of people hate going to the dentist. Even though most of the dentists I’ve gone to have been lovely people, it’s not a pleasant experience and I’m loathe to face the shame of fessing up to not flossing as often as I should. We used to go to a dental group that embraced the marketing up-sell. High-resolution monitors showed graphic before and after shots that made you lose your lunch or your appetite. The bright whites and perfect smiles were just a phone call (and thousands of dollars) away. These used-car salesmen, ahem, dentists alighted on me like moths to the flame. “Replace this dark tooth with a pearly white veneer, and we’ll do all the other mismatched crowns to match! Only $20k!” Whaaa? I’ll drop that kind of money on a new kitchen, but not on any dental procedures that weren’t completely mandatory. Plus, we had three kids! College tuition! The cost seemed exorbitant for what I dismissed as a cosmetic improvement.
But all of a sudden, that ugly tooth started to bother me. I found myself not smiling too much, not showing my teeth, super conscious that it looked awful. Photographs made me cringe and retreat. My husband encouraged me to have it fixed, and my current dentist gently but firmly advised the same, explaining how it could be done simply and not too expensively. Ok, I was ready. And then a funny thing happened on the way to prepping for the crown and veneer. I mentioned the OTHER front tooth was feeling a little tender, and after an x-ray I was handed a name and phone number for a periodontist and told to call him immediately. Why did it feel like this other tooth was about to give me the slip?
“I don’t see how you can keep it,” said Perry O’Dontist, the relaxed, handsome, confident and dashing sailor/oral surgeon, if the nautical motif and photographs in his office were to be believed. Keep it, like, in a jar? No. Due to bone loss it had to come out, and he recommended an implant. After extraction. Then a bone graft. And I’d wear a flipper. It would take about a year (!) start to finish. I have to say, as I digested all this information, he sat there calmer than a yacht at anchor. He answered all my questions, repeating the same things a few times, and never once rushed me or tried to wrap up the conversation before I was ready. His capable, buoyant manner put me at ease. I’d go sailing with him.
So, out came my front tooth and in went the flipper, a retainer placed on the roof of my mouth with a fake tooth that magically sits where the original used to be, like a seat filler at the Oscars. I think it’s called a flipper because the more apt moniker of snaggletooth just sounds bad. That flipper worked like a charm. No one ever saw the ugly gap, although eating became a precarious minefield to navigate. No biting into an apple or corn on the cob, but also no more hot coffee burning the roof of my mouth. I developed a love-hate relationship with the flipper, thankful for its subterfuge but resentful of its presence. The fear of discovery was real, like that time I ate something that stuck to the flipper and caused it to turn perpendicular and lodge in place. It happened while I was eating lunch with a friend who knew something was up when my wide eyes started to fill with tears.
As Perry had explained, the process took a year because each step had several weeks of healing or setting, especially the synthetic bone graft. Of course, one crucial item we needed was the new tooth. I was dispatched to a lab in Chantilly, where a quirky technician with a handlebar mustache and bolo tie wielded a huge camera and told me to relax and smile wide. Good lord, here were my “before” shots that would surely end up ruining someone’s day in a dental marketing campaign. In fact, the photographs were all about matching the subtle gradations, degrees of opaqueness, color and clarity in my teeth. I had a mouthful of rainbow going on, thanks to all the different dentists tinkering around on crowns and cavities over the years. This whole process was nothing if not a learning experience.
Finally, the bone was set, the base was in, the new tooth was delivered, and it was time to screw. Perry had a spring in his step as he set that bad boy in place, culminating a year of hard work. I bid adieu to my trusty flipper and its attendant Stockholm syndrome. The new tooth looked great, even though the sensation was unlike anything I’d ever felt before. Suffice it to say I now know how a piece of wood feels when you turn a screw into it. A little violated, to be honest. But, holy mackerel, it looked surprisingly natural. Back I went to my sweet regular dentist, who did an amazing job matching the implant to the new veneer on the old dark tooth. Remember that one? The one we wanted to upgrade before this whole implant nonsense began?
What a difference a year (of dental surgical procedures) makes! Seriously, it feels great to smile again. Turns out there may be something to marketing this stuff, because much more than simply a new tooth, this has been a renewed outlook on life. Perry was proud and happy on our final follow-up visit, and we hugged and wished each other smooth sailing as we charted our separate courses. So yeah, I got screwed by my dentist, in the best possible way. The smile says it all.