Long In The Toothache
"These Fat Depressives: they’re always complaining of pain; they’re never happy unless they’re moaning." The consultant was musing to himself. He was a very important man. He hadn’t much time to spare for this silly woman.
He glanced at the notes. She’d complained of an acute abscess to her dentist nearly a year ago and then come afterwards to the Dental Hospital with the same complaint. Well, clearly she couldn’t have had it all that time. She couldn’t have put up with the pain.
True, she’d kept going back to her dentist. But that was the way with Depressives: obsessive about health, always wanting attention. The dentist hadn’t pandered to her, sensible fellow. He hadn’t taken any X-rays. As he’d told the woman last summer when she’d had her breakdown, that proved the ‘pain’ was just her nerves.
Coincidence that she had, after all, developed an abscess on that tooth, and it must have been there a while or the bone wouldn’t have rotted so far. Still, it would have been chronic. Lots of people had so little discomfort from chronic abscesses that they were only discovered in the course of other dental treatment. The pain of acute abscesses was of a different order of magnitude altogether, though they all become chronic if left untreated.
He knew how to deal with Depressives: Shock Treatment. It never failed. Let them know you’ll stand none of their nonsense. They needn’t whine to you for sympathy. If only everyone would treat them in the same way. They’d soon snap out of their silly behaviour then. He prided himself on his decisiveness.
She entered his room nervously. Her eyes were puffy. She appeared tired and confused. Of course, she was on Librium and amitriptyline.
"You Fat Depressives!" he greeted her. "You grind your teeth, don’t you?"
"No," she replied, and started to cry.
"All Fat Depressives on amitriptyline grind their teeth."
"Well I don’t." The silly woman was weeping copiously and blowing her nose. What a mess she looked! No wonder no-one had ever wanted to marry her.
"The last three Fat Depressives I had all ground their teeth. Why should you be any different?"
"I’m not a Fat Depressive; I’m a person. And I’ve got a lot of toothache. My mouth is a sheet of pain."
"A bit of sensitivity: we all get that as we get older. Don’t be childish. The fact is you grind your teeth while you’re asleep and that makes them hurt a bit."
"But I don’t sleep! That’s the point! I’m in too much pain. That’s why I had the breakdown. I’m so desperately tired."
"Rubbish, Woman! Of course you sleep. You just think you don’t. Pull yourself together!"
“And I’m very concerned about my work. I have a good honours degree and a distinction in teaching – but how can I give of my best to my pupils when most of my concentration is focussed on this excruciating pain and I’m so tired I can’t think properly?"
Ah that was it! She needed something to blame for poor performance in the work situation! – A classic example of neurosis!
He raised his voice to drown hers: "It is no good being hysterical with me, Young Woman. You’ve got to learn to be quiet and listen. You Neurotics are fond of the sound of your own voices."
"Tell me, Mr Lambert, don’t ‘Depressives’ ever get toothache? I have had an acute abscess left untreated for nearly a year; I have had a just-detected cracked cusp which has been painful for almost as long, one tooth just filled because it had decay and another still awaiting treatment. There are sympathetic pains all over my mouth. I am in torment."
"Stop exaggerating. - You Fat Depressives are all the same. You eat oranges and drink fizzy drinks all day, don’t you? I know these fad diets."
She looked bewildered at the change of direction of his questioning. "I don’t eat oranges. My teeth hurt too much. I never drink fizzy drinks. And I’m not normally fat. The amitriptyline holds water in my body and has caused me to gain two stones. – But what has any of this to do with the abscess, the decay and the cracked tooth?"
"Fat women always claim they never eat. - I’ll make you a bite-guard to wear at night to stop you from grinding your teeth."
She realised the advantage to the Dental ‘Mafia’ of covering up gross diagnostic errors over such a long period, but surely a consultant would have had a greater allegiance to truth and scientific exactitude than to negligent incompetents, professional colleagues or not. Surely he must realise that it was stretching credulity and coincidence too far to maintain that an abscess, a cracked tooth and two decayed teeth had all appeared by magic on the day that, fighting her appalling weariness, she had made a scene and insisted that her ex-dentist write a note for the Dental Hospital to have another look at the abscess!
The interview was at an end. He had not looked at her teeth, of course. You didn’t need to, with Depressives. The diagnoses were always the same: tooth-grinding, ‘target teeth’, acidic foods, sugary drinks, imaginary pain and exaggeration.
Well, he’d do the operation to remove the abscess and the rotting bone in June. At the same time he’d excise the scar from a previous mouth operation as it had healthy nerve tissue trapped in it. There was no urgency. She was a healthy woman in no pain and could wait four months.
He informed her doctor that she was just a Depressive. It wasn’t possible to have pain in so many teeth. "We have a Pain-Prone Neurotic here, Doctor. If I were you I’d treat any pain she complains about with a pinch of salt. These people waste a lot of our time."
The day of the operations came. He had not told her what to expect. She lived alone and would have made suitable preparations had she known how ill the operations would make her, how long they would take, how much blood she would lose. She was in ghastly pain in some other teeth. They had been treated at last, but the trouble had gone on so long before they were treated that they were taking months to ‘settle down’. Her tongue was exquisitely sore from contact with rough edges of temporary crowns and from encountering oil of cloves – balm for aching teeth but corrosive to tongue and gums. She was desperate, absolutely desperate – genuinely suicidal because of the continual pain, tension and lack of sleep. - She forced herself to remain calm. Some relief was at hand.
He had a student to assist him. He talked ‘at’ the patient. - It was only a local anaesthetic despite the operations lasting well over an hour. She had her mouth open and the scalpel and aspirator in it. Blood and saliva were removed as they appeared. She was unable to reply even if she had wanted to.
"Well Miss – Er -, you will have followed the Falklands Campaign. Brave men. They know what genuine suffering is."
As he cut through the gum during the apicectomy he accidentally cut deeply into the dentine of the perfectly healthy tooth next to the abscessed one. – God! - That’d be painful when the anaesthetic wore off! Rather her than me! Still, she’d be in shock today and it wouldn’t be absolute agony till tomorrow. It’d do her good to have some real pain for a change, anyway.
She was, after all, extremely fortunate to get the services of so eminent a dental surgeon on the National Health!
The following day, after a night of sitting upright to keep the swelling to a minimum, she was amazed to discover its actual extent. Her nostrils were splayed out to either side far wider than the outer corners of her eyes. The space left was too narrow for breathing. She had to breathe through her mouth. Blood and saliva ran down her chin. The upper lip was so swollen that it extended right over her lower lip, touched her chin and turned up at the bottom so that the inside was on the outside, so to speak. She strongly resembled the snouted Trolls she had once seen in a performance of ‘Peer Gynt’.
All was stiff – stiff as a board, she started to think, but realised that if a board were pressed, its rigidity would resist. If this stiffness were to be pressed, what would happen? The blood-gorged flesh would surely tear internally? She must try to keep very still and not touch it or stretch it.
But it was necessary to eat and drink to restore her strength after the loss of blood.
This was not only painful; it was extremely difficult. Her lips did not make a seal, since the upper was so much bigger than the lower. To drink in the normal way was impossible, as the upper lip was unusable. She had to introduce a small spoon into her mouth and ‘pour’ a little liquid from it into the bottom of her mouth and then bend her head backwards for it to reach her throat. It was a messy, immensely slow business.
She had not believed her ordeal could worsen so much. The healthy tooth which had been damaged by the surgeon’s carelessness astonished her by being the most harrowing of all the teeth. The scar excision had proved a much bigger operation than she had been led to expect. Painful throbbing extended from her mouth, up the side of her nose and as far as the outer edge of her left eye.
Her mouth was to her the very jaws of Hell.
The sweet focus was her TONGUE.
How deliciously sensitive the tongue to delight! – How agile a member when all had been well with her mouth! But for three months now it had been constantly chafed by the temporary crown and sticking-up point of the tooth which had been cracked. She had been embarrassed at school by having to use chewing gum to cover the sharp point. This was effective but it had to be continually chewed in order to function. If just left on the point without chewing, it went flaccid and soft in the heat of her mouth and slipped its mooring.
But how was she to chew? – With the great need for inactivity for healing to take place and the swelling to subside?
Unhappily, there proved to be no choice. The tongue’s demands were the most strident. She chewed all day – and all night, since the pain from the tongue would not allow her to sleep. In sleep the chewing gum would leave the tooth, the tongue would relax onto the point and the pain would wake her from that tiny sleep.
How could this torture have been allowed to happen? If an I.R.A. prisoner had been made to suffer as she had, Amnesty International would have intervened. But she was allowed no advocate. Her torturers were the prosecution, judge and jury.
She could feel the tight flesh tearing as she chewed. She could feel the stitches tugging through the delicate skin. She knew that she was doomed.
Lack of sleep. Horrendous pain.
She had the stitches out a week later and begged that the sharp point be ground down. It was, a little, but the remaining tooth tissue had to be conserved at all costs, apparently, even the possible cost of her sanity. She had no strength to argue and her tongue did not permit much speech.
Three days after this the migraines began. She took paracetamol and embarked on a futile expedition to find and purchase a glue to stick the chewing gum into position. She obtained some, but the glue remained in position and the gum slid off! Then the next shopkeeper told her that the glue was poisonous.
The fifth migraine in a day – she had not believed so many were possible in a day – attacked her on her way home. It was the end. No-one would help her. No-one understood her wretchedness and it increased when she sought to explain it. since this involved moving her tongue. So many teeth hurting; gums throbbing; face painful; head pounding; eyes aflame and unseeing.
As a stumbling, purblind, weary, yet supremely lucid and logical act, in order at last to end the pain and blessedly to go to sleep, she stepped in front of the approaching car.
Every word I have put into the mouth of the surgeon in talking to me is what Mr Reg Dinsdale (I have used a pseudonym in the story) actually said to me, but there was more than this, of course.
I have telescoped two ghastly interviews into one.
Much of what ‘she’ says in the story was actually written for the surgeon, as I was far too ill to speak much.
He did look in my mouth actually, to see if an apicectomy on the Upper Left 2 would be feasible. But this was only after he had made his ‘diagnosis’ – of Depression and Tooth-grinding!
The car stopped (end of story). I felt contrite that I had frightened the driver – though it was not a pre-meditated act. I went to Dr Hazel Radley and told her I had just attempted suicide. – Please would she help me to get the dental treatment I needed? – Coldly she told me not to be silly. – I was not in pain, she assured me.