When Nancy grinned widely at the other kids in class, she exposed the secret she had waited all weekend to show to her classmates. She had lost a tooth and couldn’t wait to share the details with her teacher and friends. The tooth in question had been loose for two weeks and the anticipation had been almost more than she could bear. When the same thing happened to me recently, I finally realized something that everyone already knows – a wiggly tooth that finally comes out is much cuter when you’re six years old than when you’re an adult.
My mother was afraid of dentists and I was determined to not follow in her footsteps. At the tender age of ten I called a dentist to make an appointment. I had a toothache and knew instinctively it was the right thing to do. When my mother and I showed up at the office a few days later the receptionist asked if I was the one who had called. I looked down at my shoes and nodded yes, it had been me. As I looked up slowly, my hair covering most of my face I could see her smiling.
“You’re a brave girl, Connie. What brings you in today?”
This was the beginning of the end of my childhood. I became the one who handled the things my mother could not. It was awkward at first and then we fell into a rhythm that worked for both of us. Taking care of my teeth was just one aspect of what I was in charge of on a regular basis. Thirty years later I would be making appointments with the dentist for my mother, insisting she go and then making sure she followed the instructions that were given. By then I had also begun picking up the tab for such things and I was always glad I was in a position to do so, easily and painlessly.
The summer before I entered college I had all four of my wisdom teeth removed. They were impacted and it was quite an ordeal as I healed for the next few days, but then I moved on to enjoy the remainder of my summer.
During my first two years at UCLA I wore braces. By then I was married and able to pay the $25 a month to the orthodontist who had been referred to me by one of my chemistry professors. His name was Dr. Ruel Bench and it would be decades later before I would learn that he had been an innovator in many areas of dentistry. In collaboration with Dr. Robert M. Ricketts, he introduced the medical and academic world to the concept of something called Bioprogressive Therapy, a philosophy which stated that a face should be treated as a whole, rather than focusing one’s attention on just teeth and occlusion. It involves over 100 principles that are divided into the “four” sciences known as Social, Biological, Clinical, and Mechanical. There was talk of Dr. Bench putting braces on a show dog, but I never asked him about that. To me he was the voice of reason when it came for caring for your teeth, and all aspects of your health with solid and sensible strategies and behavior.
Fast forward to November of 2017, when my dentist informed me that my ex-rays had shown that I was experiencing bone loss. One of my lower molars needed to be worked on by a periodontist and he recommended someone in Santa Barbara who was a specialist and highly thought of in the dental community. This would be an expensive job and necessary if I was to save that tooth. My insurance would cover most of the six thousand dollar price tag and I agreed to have the procedure.
This required six visits over a three month period and the use of cadaver bone to build up the weakened tooth and bone. I can’t say it was painful as much as uncomfortable. The bone graft was taking and in late December I scheduled the final visit for January 9th, 2018. The Friday before I had second thoughts and for some strange reason I did not feel like going. I called the office and cancelled the appointment. They told me they would hold the time open for me if I changed my mind, but I somehow knew I wouldn’t. No, I didn’t want to reschedule; I promised to call and set up an appointment for a few weeks later.
On the morning in question I gave little thought to this appointment I had cancelled for no real reason. Then it happened… After weeks of wildfires, heavy rain caused flash flooding and mudslides in charred areas of Santa Barbara County, devastating the town of Montecito. It began in the early morning hours, just as I would have been traveling along that stretch of highway to get to the periodontist located just north of Montecito. I couldn’t breathe for a moment. When I finally exhaled and then reflexively inhaled I choked on my breath and got up to walk around my office.
Engaging in a game of “What if?” is never productive, so I only entertained these thoughts for a couple of minutes before moving toward gratitude and the idea to help in any way I could. During the next few days I would learn that twenty-three lives had been lost that morning, and two of the people were ones I had known personally. Days turned into weeks and then months, but even years later this event is fresh in my mind and one that can bring thoughts of joy, sadness, and hope for everyone who was lost and for those who survived.
I did return for my final appointment and my repaired tooth was pronounced fit and ready to endure the trauma of anything I might throw at it over the coming years. But that all came to an end when just three short years later all of the painstaking work fell apart.
I was at my regular dentist for a cleaning when the hygienist frowned and put her tools back on the tray. I sat up a little and she exclaimed,
“You have a loose tooth!”
I blinked a few times before responding and the next thing I knew the dentist had pushed his way in to poke and prod the lower left quadrant of my mouth.
“You’re going to loose that tooth,” he announced, stepping back so I could sit completely upright.
He didn’t understand. That tooth had been my six thousand dollar tooth, one I told stories about to everyone I knew. This story had a happy ending and I did not wish for that to change. I asked him if he was sure. He was. Then he referred me to another periodontist who would take it from there. I was dismissed soon after this short conversation ended. There had to be a better solution, and if there was then I would be the one to find it.
This “better” solution would only come after several weeks of deep thought, reflection, and contemplation. I did go for a consultation with the periodontist referred to me. Upon the initial examination he had wanted to do major work in my entire mouth and proclaimed that I could look like a movie star for 25K. When I told him I was happy with the way my teeth looked right now he looked at me in a way I can only describe as sadness and pity. This was more about his bank account than my dental health, I believe. He said he recognized my name from the work I do in the community and he saw dollar signs appear above my head. I paid for the consult and drove home.
As I pulled into my driveway I had the thought that I should call the first dentist I had gone to when I moved to a new city in 2006. He was already in the first Rotary Club I had joined soon after and I had even done some marketing for his dental practice over the years. Then I moved to Santa Barbara and began going to a new dentist that was closer to home. He and I still know each other from the volunteering and non-profits we are still connected with and I’m close with one of his family members as well. The following day I called him on his cell phone and he was excited to hear from me as he was driving home back to his office after lunch.
Our conversation was a short one. I gave him an abbreviated version of the story I’ve shared with you here. Then I asked him if he could simply extract the tooth in question. His succinct reply was appreciated. The following day I showed up at his office. The procedure was slightly uncomfortable and practically painless. An hour later his assistant handed me a small plastic envelope containing my six thousand dollar tooth. It’s a souvenir that will continue to remind me of the value of simplicity in my life.It sits on the top shelf of my medicine cabinet, alone in the dark and next to several plastic containers holding teeth, tonsils, and gall stones. Yes, all hold stories for another day.
I now have 23 teeth in my mouth and 9 more in the medicine cabinet. This includes the four wisdom teeth I mentioned, my four bicuspids that were taken out before the braces were affixed, and the one this story is truly about – the 6K tooth and its adventures. Twenty-three is a prime number and not one I ever would have associated with teeth. My goal is to keep each one of these healthy and strong and in my mouth for the remainder of my life.
I’m Connie Ragen Green, navigating the world with a prime number of teeth and most of my marbles intact. Come along with me, if you will and we will discover the mysteries of the universe, one secret uncovered at a time.