Life stands still and stares…
For awhile now, I have had this tooth, this rotten tooth in the back of my head. A filling fell out like 3 years ago, over 3 years ago now actually. I had a temporary replacement put in which fell out 4 months after it was put in which is probably 4 months longer than expected. It fell out during breakfast two and half years ago in the woods of Woodstock at my friend Paul’s and Amy’s. We were eating a bacon and egg breakfast. The temporary filling fell out and landed in my eggs, over easy.
For a few years now, I have sailed smoothly with this tooth rotting in my head. No problems arose until the beginning of summer when the tooth started to throb. I went to the local pharmacy and the pharmacist gave me a bottle of pills for the equivalent of $2.50 after I told him I had a toothache. This was actually fairly easy to do. I had my phrase book. The phrase was written in characters on the illness page.
Okay, so now and then during the summer the tooth throbbed which I was able to alleviate with Ibuprofen and these pills from the Chinese chemist. Last week, about mid-week, nothing helped. I think an infection had set in. My whole lower jaw was sore. I assumed I might have to have my jaw removed.
Really, I am a crybaby when it comes to discomfort. I have always had it pretty easy when it comes to that sort of thing. When I was a pre-teen, I had braces on my teeth. Those were uncomfortable but that is about the extent of my discomfort. Other than the flu here and there, I have had it easy, a comfortable existence.
So somehow, I had to figure out what to do about this tooth. In China, everything is different. Ordinary tasks sometimes prove difficult. I could not just waltz into a clinic and be sure that it would be taken care of. I really hate to bother the teachers at my school. I know they have busy lives. I do not want to be a fussy foreigner.
Nevertheless, last week, during my bout with this pain in my lower jaw due to this rotten tooth, Qi Min, who is one of the teachers at school who is very helpful, asked me if I had seen a dentist. I told her that I might ask a student to go with me.
At this point, the left side of my face was swollen. Pain is one thing but I really hate to be disfigured as well. People were not staring at my face but I felt as it they were. Qi Min asked if I was taking anything for the tooth. I showed her the bottle of pills. She read the Chinese characters.
“Gingivitis?” she asked. “This seems like the right medicine.”
Of course, hearing the word ‘gingivitis’ made me a bit woozy. When I think of gingivitis, I think of those commercials that list that as about the worst thing that you can get. Has my life come to this? A bout with gingivitis? Will I need my gums removed now? Do I have a gum disease? Oh, this is terrible.
Now, I do not remember exactly what happened but a few days passed and Qi Min asked me if I saw a dentist. I told her no. At that point, she volunteered to take me to see her friend who I assume is a dentist. I am to meet Qi Min in front of the school gates at 12:30 today.
I arrive at the school gates at 12:25. As I wait for Qi Min, I watch the people pass. Now and then, students go in and out of the gates. A few of them I recognize as students from this term or last spring. None of the students that pass are students that I know well; I recognize them but I do not know them well.
As I wait, I ponder what mode of transport Qi Min and I will take to the dentist. I assume she will not pedal me on a bike or pilot me on a scooter. A bus or the underground train is the obvious choices. If the dentist is fairly close, we will maybe hop in a taxi.
While I mull this over, I hear my name called. I look around and Qi Min is standing in the school gate. I am standing on the sidewalk near the street. She tells me to come on a car is waiting. A car? I follow her back and a black new model car is parked waiting inside the school gates.
“Come,” she says. “The car will take us.”
“Is this your car?” I ask
“No,” she laughs. “This is the school car for school business.”
I do not know why but this warms my heart to think that my sore tooth is school business. This could definitely choke me up. She says this as a matter of fact. This is the main reason that I love teaching at Xiang Ming. Everyone treats me as if I am important, part of the school and not some weird outsider.
She opens the back door. I scoot in. She scoots in after me. I tell her how much I appreciate what she is doing for me. She tells me it is no bother. As we weave in and out of traffic, I tell her how hard tasks like going to the dentist are for me, a foreigner. She is very sympathetic. She understands that some minor tasks are major obstacles here. She tells me it is no problem; she has a friend who works at a clinic, a small hospital. We pass a big new building.
She points to the building as we pass and tells me that the building we are passing is a new hospital. The one where her friend works is old. Maybe her friend will be able to treat me at the old hospital. If the friend is not able to treat me at the old hospital, then I will need to be treated at the new hospital where there is newer technology. I tell Qi Min I am grateful to her for taking me to her friend. I tell her that I may not be able to pay today, that I might have to come back. She tells me I needn’t worry about paying at this point. Maybe my treatment will be free. If it is not free, I might have to pay a little but that will be after the treatment.
The car drives out of the new clean downtown area into a typical chickens running around on the street Chinese neighborhood. The car pulls over to the curb. Across the street, I spy a non-descript building that looks like it could be the hospital.
I point to it. “Is that the hospital?”
“Yes,” Qi Min replies as we climb out of the car.
I follow Qi Min into the building. We do not stop at the reception; we walk past it up a flight of stairs to the second floor. The hospital is old. It looks as if it has not been remodeled in 25 or 30 year, if that.
Qi Min knocks on a door at the top of the stairs. The lights are off in the room. There is a small window in the door. I see someone stir. The door opens. A worker is sitting in a dental chair eating a banana. Another worker turns on the light.
Qi Min talks to the workers who happen to be the dentist and her assistant. Rapid fire Chinese is spoken. In the room, I am surrounded by Qi Min and three other women. The dentist and her assistant are wearing lab coats. The third woman is dressed in office attire. This office attired woman sits and watches as everything happens.
Qi Min is my interpreter. She seems to be the only one who speaks English. She tells me the assistant wants to put a clean cover on the dental chair. This seems like all standard procedure, what would take place in America. The only thing different is that though the office is clean, the office is not spotless. The spit dish is bloodstained. I try to not let this worry me. Gingivitis.
After the cover is changed on the chair, the dentist motions for me to sit. I sit. The dentist pokes around on my tooth with one of those sharp little dental instruments. This does not hurt. The dentist has Qi Min take a look. Qi Min takes a look. They assess and discuss the situation. Qi Min tells me there is a big hole in my tooth. They will need to X-ray to get a better idea of what needs to be done.
The dentist, dental assistant and Qi Min lead me into the X-Ray room down the hall. Maybe it is because I just saw Inland Empire or maybe it is because I often think of David Lynch but the whole set up has a Lynchian quality to it. At any moment, I feel as if Laura Dern might appear as an extra as Julee Cruise sings Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart in the background.
The woman who takes the X-ray of my tooth is young. She seems as if she is just out of high school. Maybe she just looks really young. She has a little piece of metal or film that is the size of a matchbook that she jams into the part of my mouth where the bad tooth resides. This smarts. She aims the X-ray gun at my mouth and leaves the room.
There is a flash. The young sadist returns. The dentist, dental assistant and Qi Min lead me back to the dental chair. They are all engrossed with the X-ray. Again, they chatter rapid fire in Chinese. I ask Qi Min what is being said.
She tells me there is nerve damage. The bone is infected. I assume the bone of which she speaks is the jaw bone. This does not sound good. Actually, this sounds bad as in the equivalent of a colostomy bag for the mouth. Will my jawbone be removed? Will I be jawbone-less? Will I drool like a mastiff? Will I need a permanent drool cup?
This is really bad, really bad, much worse than I thought, much worse. I am a bit shaken.
Now the questions come. Qi Min asks me how long my tooth has been this way. Should I tell her two careers ago? This really is embarrassing. I might as well be honest. I tell her two and a half or three years. Why did you not get this fixed in America? I tell her I had a friend that was a dentist and then the friend moved and I moved. I was not sure how to explain it. How do I explain this?
At this point, the dentist gets on the phone. She talks animatedly. Qi Min tells me the dentist is calling her friend over at the hospital that we passed on the way over. Qi Min gives me the X-ray to hold. I sit in a chair in the corner. The dentist gets off the phone. The dentist quickly discusses something with Qi Min. Qi Min asks me if I would like to save the tooth. Yes, if possible, I would like that. Qi Min tells me the place that we thought was an infection may just be flesh. That eases my mind. Maybe I will not have to have by jawbone removed after all. The dentist writes something down, directions for the doctor at the other hospital I assume.
Qi Min gets in the dental chair. She tells me she is going have her friend look at her teeth. Her gums bled this morning before school. As she is examined by her friend the dentist, I sit. Gingivitis, I think.
Ten minutes later, we are in a taxi heading to the new hospital. The driver of the school car had to leave. The principal had to be driven to a meeting.
The taxi pulls into the drive of the hospital. Here since the mass populace does not drive, there are not the huge parking lots like in America. As a matter of fact, I see only a few cars scattered here and there. I assume these cars belong to the doctors but of this I am not sure.
We enter the building. We do not check in at reception. Qi Min asks the lady something. As she asks, she is holding the directions from her friend the dentist behind her back. I think what we are doing is somewhat clandestine. We go to the elevator. Where we need to go is on the 5th floor. I do not say anything but there are only 4 floors in the building. We get into the elevator.
“The 3rd floor,” Qi Min corrects herself.
We get off on the 3rd floor and take a look around. This is not the right floor. Qi Min asks the woman at the reception desk. A woman in a nightgown limps past.
“The 4th floor,” Qi Min corrects herself once more.
We walk past the elevators to the stairwell. We walk up to the 4th floor. A sign says Stomatology.
“This is it,” Qi Min informs me.
We walk down a corridor past a queue of waiting patients. Now, I feel a bit like a spoiled foreigner but I do enjoy this. This is much cooler than being on the VIP list for some ridiculous rock show. I feel as if I am Robert Plant or Robert Conrad.
We walk through a set of double doors. A vacant desk sits on the other side of the doors. Qi Min tells me the person that sits at the vacated desk is whom she needs to see on my behalf. We stand there in limbo for less than a minute or two before a woman walks up. Qi Min tells her hi and hands her the paper that the dentist sent along with us.
The room is huge taking up a wing of the building and split up into cubicles. A dentist is in each cubicle. We are taken to a cubicle where a young woman is waiting for us. She motions for me to sit in the chair. She looks at the tiny X-ray. She then tells Qi Min something. I ask what she said.
“She needs to rip out the nerves,” Qi Min tells me.
Rip out the nerves? That does not sound good. I do not voice my fear. Thus far, I have been in capable hands. Earlier, I told Qi Min one of the reasons I am glad she came with me is because I would hate to go somewhere and not know if the person is capable or not.
“Like teachers,” I told her. “There are good dentists and there are bad dentists.”
“That is correct,” she replied nodding her head.
Now, however, the dentist standing over me as I sit helpless in the dentist’s chair wants to rip out the nerves. Okay, well, let’s rip out the nerves. Break it up. Do the Watusi. Kick out the jams.
This is when the serious poking, pulling, prodding and scraping commences. To my relief, this is not painful. After five minutes of this, Qi Min asks me if it is painful. I tell her no. she tells me that is because the nerves are dead. Thank God for dead nerves I think to myself. Kick out the jams.
“In America, dentists like to torture their patients,” I tell Qi Min. She laughs. She passes this on to the dentist. This does not garner the response that I thought it might. The dentist just shrugs as she puts a sharp dental instrument back into my mouth.
In between pokes and scrapes, the young dentist puts some cleaner on the tooth that may or may not be everyday household silver polish. It is not delicious. She motions to the spit dish. I spit. This spit dish is not bloodstained.
Fortunately, this whole scene is non eventful. There is never any pain or even any discomfort even as she is ripping out the nerves as if they were speaker wire that needed replacing. There is a smell of rot from the nerves but it is not overpowering. In fact, the smells are much worse on my daily trek back and forth to school.
After thirty minutes or so, the dentist leaves. She does not tell Qi Min where she was going or what she was doing. She is gone for what seems like 10 or 15 minutes. When she returns, Qi Min tells me that she is going to give me a shot. The dentist carries an enormous needle back to the cubicle. This is probably going to be painful I think to myself. So far, nothing has been painful. Joe Cocker can stand a little rain. I can stand a little pain.
What Qi Min and I thought was a needle was not a needle after all. This is an instrument to clean the tooth. This tooth will take a few visits. The dentist is cleaning it in preparation for the next time. After the cleaning is finished, she jams white stuff into the teeth which I assume is a temporary filling. The tooth has an antiseptic taste to it.
The dentist tells Qi Min something. Qi Min relays the information to me. I may suffer some discomfort for a few days because the piece of cotton the dentist wedged into the tooth. The white stuff is cotton. Who would have thought?
We schedule my follow up appointment for Friday. For the next few days, I will be going about my business with a piece of cotton jammed in my bad tooth. That is okay. I do not mind. The dentist could have removed my jawbone.