I’ve had several teeth pulled in my 68 years and I’m loath to lose another. My recent annual checkup gave me five hours in which to contemplate how modern dentistry can rescue us from bad habits by repairing our magnificent molars.
My epiphany began when the dentist displayed my X-rays on a wall-mounted TV. Using a stylus on a touchscreen laptop, the dentist circled and then drew arrows toward two back teeth. The marks appeared on the TV to highlight cracks atop the teeth. Both needed to be ground down to stubs, removing all cracks and decay before installing artificial crowns. Other teeth of lesser concern were also circled. But the arrows showed where biting down on a pit or bone could split either or both damaged molars, inviting calamity.
I marveled at teeth as a construct of God or nature. Properly care for, they can last practically forever
I did not doubt the circles and arrows. How much and how soon I asked apprehensively. There came a brief delay while the office staff crunched the numbers and then delivered the news: after insurance, I would have to pay $1,258 per tooth, and if I could remain in my chair past the one-hour checkup time, the dentist would fit me right in.
All hesitation vanished. I could charge the work and forestall the danger. Thus, I ended up spending most of the next several hours with my head back, mouth open, wincing at the sound of the drill, and trying not to gag as a water tube washed tooth bits away.
About two-thirds through the ordeal, I enjoyed a break during which the dentist saw two other patients. Meanwhile, the dental assistant made rubberized molds of the tooth stubs. The molds would be sent to a factory that would fill them with composite zirconium to make crowns to fit each tooth stub and be cemented into place later.
My appointment had begun before lunch. I left around closing time with temporary crowns and a lasting admiration for the office’s efficiency. As a former business and science writer, I’m fascinated with commerce. The dental practice was like a hair salon with several chairs. Keeping seats filled defrayed overhead and insured profit.
But I had more than business on my mind. While staring at the TV, considering my options, I marveled at teeth as a construct of God or nature. Properly care for, they can last practically forever as was driven home when I’d asked whether the tooth stub below the decay would support a crown. Yes, the dentist assured me. The root was strong as was the jaw. Crowning would build a safe chewing surface on a solid foundation.
It made scientific sense. Without brushing or flossing or dentistry beyond extraction, cave dwellers had left behind tooth and jaw fragments that archeologists and anthropologists theorized over when no skulls or skeletons could be found.
Other lessons can be drawn from the mouth, some tragic. Uninsured working people might have skipped the checkup or been unable to put the work on maxed-out credit cards. Street people with poor nutrition and self-destructive habits may lose teeth, roots, and bones. Even if they righted themselves, missing front teeth might advertise past misfortunes.
All this occurred to me as I considered how to pay that day’s charges, plus the costs implied by the other circles. Writing is a business too, and to make it profitable, a writer must keep putting ideas into words and pouring words into stories, each customized to fit the fancies of different audiences.
Meanwhile, I advise what any elder might. Care for your teeth. It will pay dividends throughout life. And long, long after they’re all that remains of you, archeologists and anthropologists will agree that they belonged to one of the wisest of our species.
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