There is a nail-biting scene in the 1976 thriller, Marathon Man, in which the evil Laurence Olivier character uses his Nazi SS dentistry tools to try and pry information from Dustin Hoffman’s character. Repeatedly, he asks, “Is it safe?” Hoffman’s character is clueless, having no idea who this madman is, let alone that he is war criminal, and therefore cannot convincingly answer the question. At the end of the scene, Olivier drills through a perfectly good tooth. The last thing we hear Hoffman say is, “Aghhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”
Lately, I’ve been thinking about this scene, one I bet nine out of 10 dentists did not recommend patients to see back then. After years of semiannual, routine checkups with positive results, I have recently experienced three not-so-routine procedures on the same tooth: a crown, a root canal, an apicoectomy.
When it comes to my phobias, dentistry ranks right up there with snakes. Perhaps this stems from a dentist story my dad shares. One night, his toothache was so painful that his dentist agreed to meet at his office around midnight. The dentist, questionably sober, pulled Dad’s tooth. The wrong tooth. He lost two teeth that night.
My tooth continued hurting weeks after the crown procedure, so my dentist suggested Plan B, a root canal performed by an endodontist. The endodontist office visit began on an encouraging note. His assistant reclined my chair so I could watch a TV installed in the ceiling directly overhead. She offered a remote. She allowed me to choose any channel. I have rarely been treated so well by a woman. I almost requested a ham sandwich and a beer. I was the king of the world—for once. Well, until the endodontist entered the room. Then, the honeymoon ended.
The TV, I soon learned, was there to distract me from the god-awful root canal, which began, of course, with shots, during which the assistant rubbed my arm repeatedly to get my mind off the needle that was endlessly being gyrated in my mouth like a stir stick making rounds in a paint can. Why do the shots seem to take longer than the actual procedure?
I did watch TV during the shots, until the endodontist pooh-poohed a Headline News celebrity interview. Was he cueing me to change channels? Was there The Dental Channel? I wondered—with celebrity teeth cleanings, perhaps.
My death grip on the remote, due to the anxiety of being in a dental chair, made it impossible to switch channels, though. I finally wiggled a forefinger free to simply turn it off. At least my endodontist wouldn’t be
distracted by the TV.
A wedge was inserted in my mouth to keep it open, and a rubbery mask was put over my mouth, signaling that the root canal was about to begin. Remembering Marathon Man, I tried divulging every secret I knew, even top government secrets I didn’t even know I knew, to get the endodontist to stop, but thanks to the mask, wedge and no speech control because of numbness, my words sounded like a dying man’s last gurgle.
During the procedure, I actually once heard the endodontist exclaim, “Oops.” The one word you don’t want to hear your dentist say.
Oops? Eyes bulging, I tried asking, “Is it safe?”
But again, my words were unintelligible.
Of course, dentists love hearing such nonsensical sounds from patients. They tape record them. They play them at conventions for laughs. That’s why they always ask questions, fully knowing you can’t respond coherently.
That’s where Marathon Man loses some credibility. No real dentist asks a question requiring a simple “yes/no” response. Even a horse could stamp a reply to “Is it safe?” Real dentists only ask patients essay questions. Their conventions must be real hoots.
During the root canal, I recalled the day I got braces. It was my 14th birthday. What kind of parents give a son braces as a birthday present? Was an iron lung too expensive?
Wait. It gets better. That weekend, to really lift my spirits, they took me to the Hadi Shrine Circus. The concession hawkers’ voices still haunt me: “Get your popcorn. Get your cotton candy. Get your peanuts. Get your bubblegum.” Delicacies prohibited for a boy with BRACES. The only thing I ate was chicken broth that weekend. Circuses should at least serve broth on a stick.
The braces lasted 15 months, which was almost as long as it took to do the root canal.
The root canal did not fix the problem, so my endodontist suggested Plan C, an apicoectomy.
Being that this column appears in a family paper, I can’t begin to describe that ordeal.
People often ask me, “What is an apicoectomy?” followed by, “Is it safe?”
To which I can only reply, “Aghhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”