Teeth are sort of a big deal in my family. My mother had all of hers pulled when she was just 29. The fact she had been a preemie likely was the primary contributing factor as to how her teeth formed. Despite having received extensive dental care and aggressive treatments by high school (in an attempt to retain her natural teeth) gum disease and decay resulted in the ultimate decision to pull them all. If I ever have nightmares, typically they involve my teeth being broken or falling out. I have awoken many a night over my lifetime to run my tongue over my teeth and am always relieved when my tongue finds no hole.
The only time I have had any of my teeth pulled was when my wisdom teeth were extracted as a fifteen-year-old high school sophomore. A Facebook post earlier this year by my nephew Charlie brought the experience rushing back to me. I asked his permission to use his x-ray, showing his pierced septum. He’s opted with his wisdom teeth to not have them all removed at the same time. While everyone’s wisdom teeth experience is different, I think mine was unique in that I spent two nights in the hospital to do it. When I gave birth to my son and had a rambunctious two-year-old at home, I got just one night of hospitalization.
I’ll preface my story by saying that I am the youngest of three and the only daughter in my family. That may be a contributing factor as to why I spent two nights in the Pediatric ward of a hospital in order to have four teeth extracted. Another factor may be that when my eldest brother had his wisdom teeth removed, my mother took him on the city bus. He had the last appointment of the day and the anesthesia was still wearing off when he was brought to her in the waiting area. She had to work him into his letter jacket while he cried from the after-affects of being put under. A high school kid, taller than his mother, being led to the bus stop for a return trip home was not a scenario my mother would have enjoyed repeating. I imagine perhaps that my father provided transport home in the blue Plymouth station wagon as a courtesy to my other brother when his time came. For whatever reason, when it was my turn it was determined that I would have my four impacted teeth removed at Fairview Southdale hospital.
I was checked into the hospital the evening before the surgery, in order to be prepped and ready early the next day. I shared a room with a girl that was having her extraction done by the same surgeon the following morning prior to my own procedure. She was a model, who had a shoot scheduled two days later. I’ve always been a bit curious how that turned out.
Prior to being taken to pre-op I was told that my surgery was scheduled for six AM and that once the anesthetic had warn off enough in recovery, I would be brought up to the same room and could have as much to drink as I desired, fluids having been withheld since the previous evening. The procedure ahead of mine must have gone more quickly than anticipated, as I remember waking up to the annoying sound of crying and trying to focus on the clock on the far wall that appeared to be bouncing like a basketball. The clock indicated it was about five minutes prior to the six o’clock hour. I was terribly thirsty and confused and I remember thinking that I needed to get it together, as I was going into surgery in five minutes and also, the annoying crying I heard, that was actually me. I then realized my mouth was so dry because it was stuffed with gauze and little foam tubes. I was being suffocated (so I thought) with a plastic mask. I wasn’t having it, I yanked the mask off and started digging the packing out of my mouth. A nurse sat knitting in a chair a few feet from the left side of my gurney. I remember very intentionally wanting to hit her knitting with the bloody gauze. She rose and tried to calm me, attempting to keep me still. I then realized that my one arm was on a board and still had an IV in it. Then I was drawn to a commotion to my right, a boy, perhaps eight years old who was crying for his mother. I’m pretty sure he’d had his tonsils removed. His crying annoyed me and I looked over at him and drooled blood out the side of my mouth, completely on purpose, in hopes of shutting him up. It’s bizarre how clearly I remember the details of this event from 1979, perhaps because the behaviors resulting from the sedation were entirely counter to my normally good-natured and nurturing personality. I was irritable, downright mean and despite the clock continuing to bounce I lied that I was ready to return to my room because I was so incredibly thirsty.
With social media so prevalent, it’s not uncommon now to see posts regarding patients coming to after outpatient procedures or Youtube videos of oddly emotional passengers on their way home from appointments. From my era, we just have our stories and mine doesn’t end with the trip back up to Pediatrics. When it came time for my own kids to have their teeth removed, I made sure to schedule them at a time when they could recover leisurely at home. The office had a lovely waiting room but the waiting patients never saw anyone who had already had their teeth pulled depart after their procedure. A rear exit was used and patients were brought down in wheelchairs. My daughter’s extraction took place between Christmas and New Years. Just as the oral surgeon indicated, the swelling and discomfort was the worst on the third day following surgery. My daughter and I were convinced that my son would be hilarious after surgery but the only unique behavior he exhibited was a general annoyance at us asking if he felt okay. He had hardly any swelling and was disgusted by the quantity and strength of the medications he was sent home with.
I had several friends visit me after school that day. The surgeon also came up later and brought me a cup filled with liquid and my teeth (and the skin around them) in it. When I requested to keep my teeth I had assumed I would get them in a small brown envelope like the one my brother had brought his long rooted teeth home in. I was a little disgusted.
I rested off and on, watched TV, ate a liquid diet of hospital offerings and dosed in and out of sedated slumber. I awoke confused and disoriented in a darkened room with illumination coming from the hallway through a partially opened door at my far right. To my left was a large window and a midnight blue sky speckled with stars. I had no recollection of where I was or how I got there. My eyes adjusted to the limited light and at the end of my bed was a figure. I realized it was a nurse and cradled in her arms was a baby. The nurse asked how I felt. What? How do I feel? How would you feel if you were fifteen, never had a boyfriend, had only kissed a boy through an obligatory activity such as Spin the Bottle or some other such “game” and suddenly you’re in the hospital with a newborn baby? I was panicked! I asked “Do my parents know I’m here?” She responded that it was too early for them to be here but they would come later to take me home. By “me” I assumed she meant “us” unless I’d put this baby up for adoption or something. I was pretty sure I was grounded for life. Then I suddenly felt a beautiful aching in my jaw. Wisdom teeth!!! I’d had my wisdom teeth pulled, there was still a metallic blood taste in my mouth. I’ve never experienced anything like this again in my life, a moment where something that seemed so insurmountably wrong resolved itself with that sort of instant clarity. While it was a “situation” that simply wasn’t, the relief that rushed over me was very real!
Later that day my parents did come and pick me up. In the days to follow, I swelled like a chipmunk and then bruised as though I’d been in a fist fight. Yet I felt relieved to have dodged teen parenthood. In retrospect it’s a hilarious story but at fifteen I was too embarrassed to even share the amusing anecdote. There is no good way to say “Mom and Dad, I thought I had a baby. Funny, right?” In an ironic twist, the next door neighbor brought her newborn over to visit during my recuperation. Looking at this picture nearly 38 years later reminds me of what I briefly thought life was going to look like for me. While the nurse took a tiny restless patient on her rounds to offer comfort, I doubt she realized she almost gave a teenage patient cardiac arrest!