I just hate it when I go in for my semi annual cleaning and the dentist says “you know, I’ve been keeping an eye on this filling and I think it’s time to do something about it! ” He demonstrates to the dental hygienist (who, perhaps, might grow up to be a dentist someday) by maneuvering his probe between an old filling on my left lower wisdom tooth and the tooth.
When I hear this, I’m afraid that he’s going to start drilling then and there. But this job is apparently too big for extemporaneous measures. I make an appointment and escape to Seattle’s gray, moist exterior, for now. But this proves to be an unfortunate escape, because it gives me a week to think about what’s going to happen next! In what seems like no time at all. I’m back in the chair.
The hygienist checks my blood pressure and pulse with a little handheld gadget. “Your blood pressure is pretty high,” she remarks, rattling off numbers. “Is it always that high?”
“I’m kind of nervous,” I admit.
The dentist comes in. “I can’t be sure until I get in there; but there’s a good chance you’re going to need a crown.” I got my first crown a couple years ago after I broke a tooth. I’ll bet my blood pressure is really up there now.
“Do what you’ve got to do,” I tell him. I may be terrified, but I’m not stupid. An hour and more Novacaine shots than I can count later, it’s become clear that I do need a crown. The job is maybe half done but everybody is ready to call it a day. He makes some kind of temporary filling and says “let’s try something different next time. ” Something different is nitrous oxide. What I know about nitrous oxide: I once read a 1920s mystery in which the villain was a dentist. He used nitrous oxide to knock out the detective (who’d been so foolish as to climb into his chair) and make an escape.
A week later, I’m back in the chair. My blood pressure checks out high. “The way nitrous oxide works is that it helps the anesthetic to work. It’s not actually an anesthetic itself. It relieves anxiety, which changes the signaling in your nervous system so the anesthetic can work. ” He straps a sort of cap over my nose; I hear a hissing sound. “How does that feel?”
“I feel a little tingling in my toes. Honestly, I can’t say I’m very impressed.”
I get instructions on how to breathe nitrous oxide. Inhale deeply. hold my breath for five seconds, and exhale. “It’s the 60s?” Yes (laughter all around). And exhale through your nose, not your mouth. We can’t enjoy what you’re enjoying; we have work to do.
“Let’s turn up your mixture, and have you practice for three minutes.” I remember another relevant book here; The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. Or maybe the scene was from a different book? Anyway, a drug test subject is challenged to say when some number of minutes has passed. He is pretty disoriented and has no grip on time; but he remembers his heart rate. So he stealthily feels his pulse, counts his heartbeats and astounds the experimenters by telling them when the time is up.
I estimate that it will take me five seconds to inhale and exhale. This plus the five seconds during which I am to hold my breath sums to 10 seconds per breath. That’s six breaths per minute, for a total of 18 breaths. I breathe and I count, maintaining separate totals for how long I hold each breath and how many breaths I’ve taken. The tingling feeling spreads upward, until I feel like I’m wrapped in a wonderful blanket. After a while, a voice says “Open your mouth wider, please. ” Are you talking to me?
The dentist gives me three Novacaine shots and starts in. I can feel what he’s doing, but it doesn’t hurt. And I’m really having too much fun to worry about whether it’s going to hurt. They cram a lot of stuff into my mouth, and explain how to signal with my hand if I want more or less gas or need them to stop. I want more. Things go along smoothly. They say I might feel sleepy; but I am alert, or so I suppose. At one point the dentist starts squeezing my lower lip against my teeth. I reach up and pull my lip out of the way, to his surprise.
The job is done. They let me enjoy their nitrous oxide for a couple more minutes while they are making my temporary crown.
I keep on taking 10 second breaths all the way to the bus stop.