Friday, April 27, 2007

What's a Tooth Worth?

While I wait for the vicodin to kick in, let me talk about teeth.

So you want to know what a tooth is worth? How about $2,200? That's what a root canal and crown will cost for my tooth #14 on the upper left. I'm one of the lucky ones with dental insurance, but they will only pay about $1,000, and my cap for the year is $1,500 so there won't be much left for the next tooth to go.

So instead of buying a new computer, a replacement for my aging truck or a round-trip ticket for my next trip to Bangkok, I'm paying for a tooth. If my jaw didn't still ache from two-and-a-half hours in the chair at the endodontrist's office yesterday, I would be more poetic than bitterly ironic about this. But my patience wears thin.

As the cost for dental specialists has risen, I've chosen to pull the damn things out when they've outlived their use. But I'm running out of teeth. I can no longer chew on the right side of my mouth, and when the left goes I'll be restricted to a permenent soft diet. Mush anyone?

No, I don't floss more than once or twice a week, and my gums are bad. In fact, I'm a poster child for "long in the tooth." I've had root planing twice, where the gums are pulled back and the roots lazered clean, but it doesn't seem to last. Deep pockets? I've got lots of them, and my dental hygienist is appalled. I figure if God had meant us to floss, she would have provided us with the string.

I once had a neighbor who, when faced with deteriorating teeth and gums, had them all pulled out and new ones screwed into her jaw. It cost $25,000 and a couple of months of recovery, but her tooth problems were over and she never had to sit in another dental chair listening to the whir of the drill and smelling the odor of burnt enamel. I listen to music on my iPod and try to meditate but am unable to block out of the sound of "that's a deep one" and other extraneous information.

A couple of years ago a tooth cracked while I was traveling in Thailand. I was directed to the sign of the smiling tooth around the corner from my hotel where a woman dentist with minimal English probbed the problem and said: "Extraction." Why, I asked her. "Pain!" she replied, and I let her take it out. She didn't need any more English than that. The procedure was relatively painless and it cost me only $25.

My endodontrist here was a young woman and, after telling her the above story yesterday, we discovered that we had both stayed in the same Buddhist monastery near Ubon Rathathani. I considered that a good sign. She was surrounded by the latest in dental technology, including a digital x-ray machine. After the long procedure, I could see both x-rays and photographs of the offending tooth. She pointed out a fracture that could eventually result in another cracked tooth, a candidate for extraction. At least there will be no pain this time because the nerve is gone. The last time I visited an endodontrist, the tooth lasted only a few months after getting its roots removed before the remains of it had to be removed. Why didn't God provide us with teeth that wouldn't wear out?

When I paid the receptionist for my share of costs, I grumbled about the expense. Her reply was to reassure me that "your teeth are forever."

Yeah, right.

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