Picture it: Bayview Elementary, three and a half decades ago. A small K-4 school which educated the mostly working class children of a once-thriving railroad town south of Duluth, Bayview was best know for its giant (200 feet long!), seamed, bumpy, scathingly hot metal slide – this was, of course, way back before such things were banned for burning too many nine-year-old butts.
Bayview was also where I attended Pat Anderson’s third grade class with my close friend, Tracy. Though an extremely awkward-looking, badly permed and plastic-glasses-donning dork, I still managed to maintain the general uppity attitude of Lucy from Peanuts. I was bossy. I was bratty. I needed attention. And, when the frosty, blow-dried blonde Mrs. Anderson sought to cast the namesake character in the dental education play Tillie Tooth, I was determined that the starring role would go to me. I sweet-talked, bribed and threatened Tracy into stepping back so that I would have no competition. I was pushy as hell, and, eventually she did just that. Giddy, I wrapped myself in white robes to portray Tillie, the most beautiful of molars, paying tribute to toothpaste and shaming sugary sodas. (I’m pretty sure this whole thing was sponsored by Colgate.)
I, being a smug brat, remained smug and bratty throughout the run of the play, rubbing everyone’s noses and incisors in the fact that I had the big, starring role. I was insufferable.
Since so very much time has passed since I obnoxiously graced the stage as Tillie, I guess I’d thought I’d gotten away with such abhorrent behavior. Well, guess again.
On Sunday, I woke up with a mild-ish toothache. Annoying, but nothing that was going to wreck my day. I’ve been finishing up Yoga Study, a nine-month training which delves into all eight limbs of yoga, the history, the spirituality, the health and anatomy benefits, and yes, of course, the many poses. Sunday was our final teaching lab, and each of us taught a portion of the original sequence we’d created for 20-minute blocks. This meant about two hours of uninterrupted yoga practice. A few minutes in, I noticed the dull ache in my jaw was worsening. By about my 50th down dog of the afternoon, I was in agony. The movement, the inversions, the blood rushing to my head – I was desperate to stop, walk out, and rifle through the front desk for a painkiller, but I didn’t want to seem disrespectful to my fellow student-teachers. I gutted through the final asanas, taking plenty of long tabletops, skipping any pose which moved my head lower than my heart, and collapsing gratefully into savasana. The moment we finished, I flew out of the studio, flopped down heavily on my couch and consulted with Google, DDS.
I determined I must have lost or swallowed a filling, and decided to call my dentist the next day. I took several different painkillers (take that, liver!), but nothing even took the edge off. I tossed and turned all night, counting the hours until I could be in the dentist’s chair for what I hoped would be a quick fix.
On Monday, I managed to get some production work in with my good friend Don at The Post House, but the pain was becoming impossible to ignore. I couldn’t eat, or swallow even the most tepid of liquids comfortably. Even if I tried to chew only on the other side of my mouth, the slightest movement of my jaw would cause violent waves to ripple up my entire right side.
Finally, after what felt like years, it was Tuesday morning and I was at my very likable dentist’s office with his very likable staff. An X-ray revealed an infection deep below the root, which was pushing up against it and causing the torturous tremors every time I so much as breathed over it.
“Nothing we can do right now,” he said. “We need to get the infection down, and then you’ll be looking at a root canal.”
He sent me on my way with a prescription for amoxicillin and (hooray!) Vicodin. I went promptly over to Walgreens, where I, a former retail and foodservice worker who prides myself on my patience with and good treatment of retail and foodservice workers, nearly ripped the blonde curly-headed pharmacy tech’s blonde curly head off.
“An hour?” I screeched, then remembered everyone has cell phone cameras and I didn’t want to go viral as the latest middle-aged Karen meltdown.
(Sidenote: Walgreens was pretty slow and terrible throughout this process, with one exception I’ll share below. Though I’ve been a Walgreens loyalist for years, I’m probably going to start using CVS.)
I sat in the car, trying to think of anything but the pain, which had started to decentralize from the tooth itself, radiating up my cheek to my right eye, and down my neck to my right clavicle.
“Just gotta get the painkillers just gotta get the painkillers,” I muttered to myself, over and over. Shaking due to my lack of food intake, I tried unsuccessfully to get a piece of avo toast from the nearby Dunkin’ down.
A long sixty minutes later, meds in hand, I drove home, optimistically thinking things would now turn the corner.
Throughout the evening, I kept waiting, oh-so-hopefully, for relief from the medication that just wasn’t coming. I still couldn’t eat, drink or sleep. Even walking around the house caused a jaw jostling that resulted in renewed, scream-worthy radiation. Maybe I should go to Urgent Care, I thought, and my shoulder-angel agreed. But it’s just a tooth, said my shoulder-devil. They’ll laugh at you.
By 1 a.m., I didn’t care. I woke Tom and Nate, and we were on our way.
The easy-on-the-eyes ER doctor was quite sympathetic, offering to extend out the Vicodin I had burned through, as well as give me a shot directly in the nerve that would block the pain. “It won’t be pleasant,” he said.
He came back with a cartridge and about a five-inch needle, jamming it in the far back corner of my mouth. It certainly hurt, but in a different way that was a welcome distraction from the other pain. It took a second injection, but finally, it did the trick, and we left and headed to Walgreens for more pain pills.
“Well, at least you got Dr. McDreamy,” commented Tom as we left. Small victories.
We got to Walgreens at 2:55 a.m., where the jovial night pharmacist advised us he couldn’t fill a second opiod order within one day, but that we were in luck – the “pharmacy day” changed at 3 a.m., just five minutes away. Wow, another small victory! Maybe things were really turning around this time.
We got home about 3:15, and finally, I slept.
I woke up the next morning, Wednesday, feeling a bit better from the sleep, but I still looked like I’d been hit in the face with a softball, and the pain was back full-force, truly worse than anything I’ve ever experienced – and I was in labor with Nate for 47 hours, most of them unmedicated.
All week, I had found myself raging at everything and thinking the most terrible, judgy thoughts about people around me, completely worn down from the throbbing sensations and the lack of sleep, not to mention weak and wobbly from the lack of any substantial nutrition. I needed a fix now.
Desperate, I called the dentist. The assistant who answered was extremely sweet and sympathetic, surmising that I must be resistant to amoxicillin, and recommending they send a scrip for a new antibiotic. “More and more people are resistant these days,” she said. She also moved up my procedure, from Thursday to Monday.
Today, Friday, I had taken a planned PTO day just for mental health and fun. The fun parts aren’t really happening as I’m still exhausted and hurting, but I can finally, finally feel some progress happening. I’ve learned a new empathy for people who live with chronic pain – I now understand painkillers, even the “good ones,” aren’t a miracle cure-all, and that there’s a level of pain that can’t just be “set aside.”
There are lessons here, people. Don’t be smug about getting the leading role in your third-grade dental education play. Tillie’s ghost can come back to haunt you long after, in the most unexpected of ways. (Tillie is still a thing – who knew?)
On to Monday …