“We’re going to extract that tooth,” Dr. Lumin said.
“What do you mean?” I had come in, as I had so many times before, for her to do her magic with cleaning and rinsing the infected gum around the abused tooth.
“But I have lunch with Gail and dinner with Barry.” She lets me out of the chair to call them and cancel my plans. I trust her, but I’m discombobulated, have had no time to prepare.
“People get quite emotional about their teeth,” she says. “To me, I work with them all the time. They’re tools. Very flawed tools. Even young people with perfectly healthy teeth have trouble. One patient bit into a hamburger and a piece of gristle cracked her tooth and she ended up with an implant. They’re like knees – we use them a lot but they wear out and often have problems.”
“Why today?” I ask.
“It’s time. I should have warned you. I’m surprised the tooth has held up this long.”
The original insult to this tooth dates back to the 80s. I was living in Israel and looking for a dentist to deal with some inflamed gums. Someone recommended a woman who had newly opened an office in their neighborhood. She looked in my mouth, shot me full of Novocaine, I guess. Did she use gas too? I can’t recall exactly, but I believe she did.
The next thing I know she had my mouth clamped extremely open and she was doing something that seemed awfully involved for some inflammation, but although I was grunting inarticulate questions and waving my hands, she ignored me. The next thing I know, she had amputated one of the three roots of a perfectly healthy, very necessary first molar on the upper left.
“It’s dead now,” she said. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. “And you’ll have to have a root canal next door.” Unbeknownst to me, “next door” was actually her brother and he did some sort of root canal. Was it the same day? After I had healed?
All I can recall is a terrible space where there shouldn’t be one; a murdered tooth essential to good chewing; a feeling of violation. And some time later, hearing that they were identified as scam artists. Perhaps they went to jail – my recall is hazy. I was left with this abused tooth, crippled forever.
I’ve got crappy teeth, overall. Not only did I grow up before fluoridation, but I also moved many times, forcing me to switch from dentist to dentist, each one of whom hated the work of the previous ones. The filling material was out of date, said one. That crown was old-fashioned, said another. Each country used different technologies. Every individual dentist worked with a frequently unwarranted confidence.
This tooth has been nothing but trouble, but right before my recent trip abroad, Dr. Lumin took another x-ray. “The bones around and under the tooth are gone. If you have an implant – a very expensive affair – you may have to have your sinus cavity moved because the bone is gone and the cavity is right there.”
I can’t picture this. I can’t fathom this. I can’t bear the injustice of my face, my food, my sustenance, my chopping implements being at risk because of a scam artist who needlessly butchered me. “Why didn’t she claim to do work she didn’t really do and demand the same money?” my dentist asked. “Why did she do harm?”
It is like a metaphor for our financial lives. We have worked hard, saved hard, and been ripped off by capitalism, by capitalists. Now they want our social security, our old-age health care, our parks and our libraries. Isn’t our money enough? Must they also do harm?