My summer vacation, which began 10 days ago, unfortunately started out with a whimper.
I have a tube put in my ear - the same kind of tube that little kids get placed in their ears - and it became blocked and infected just before my school year ended, resulting in an ear infection. While I was suffering from this new and profound pain, my wisdom tooth cracked, exposing a nerve, but for at least a couple days, I assumed the pain was from my ear infection and did nothing.
A perfect storm of sorts.
Eventually I went to my dentist and discovered the true source of the pain. Needless to say by then the pain and suffering had become quite intense, and because my oral surgeon was out of town and every other oral surgeon was apparently booked solid, I had to wait five days for the tooth to finally be removed.
Not a great way to start my summer vacation.
The five days of waiting were especially challenging. During that time, I had to teach an all day workshop at a non-profit, perform in a show in New York City, and DJ two weddings.
I also attended a poetry reading by Billy Collins and took care of the kids on my own for a day and night when Elysha left for a Hall & Oates concert in Boston.
It really was a perfect storm.
The actual extraction of the tooth wasn't exactly a piece of cake, either.
As a dental patient, I am a nightmare. I was in a car accident as a teenager that sent me through the windshield and knocked out the entire bottom row of my teeth in one chunk. That chunk was eventually wired down (the most painful moment of my life) and most of my teeth miraculously survived, but it was the start of my battle with post traumatic stress disorder, which was heightened five years later when a gun was pressed to my head and the trigger was pulled in the midst of an armed robbery.
I've been battling PTSD ever since.
Dental work triggers my PTSD something fierce. Add to this a paralyzing fear of needles as a result of my near-death experience following a bee sting and the dozens of shots that followed and the idea of surgery to extract a wisdom tooth nearly had me in tears. I couldn't sleep in the days leading up to the surgery. I thought about it constantly. I wondered if I could just learn to live with the pain of an exposed nerve and forget the surgery entirely.
But here's the good news:
Enter Dr. Howard, my dental surgeon. Unlike so many doctors who I have met over the course of my life, Dr. Howard listened patiently and intently to my fears. He validated them, assuring me that he understood how and why I felt the way I did. He spoke slowly and clearly. He repeated his explanations with patience and kindness when I asked. He did not lie to me. He told me what would hurt and what would not, and it all turned out exactly as he described.
He made me feel normal. I was a grown man, struggling with PTSD, nearly in tears over a routine dental surgery, but he made me feel normal.
This is what a patient like me needs to get through these situations without the panic that can produce three months of nightmares, which is entirely possible following a procedure like this. I found a man who cared about the whole person: mind, body and teeth. It made the surgery so much easier, and I have slept well ever since.
He also called me the next day to check on me, which was both unexpected and appreciated.
A few minutes of genuine empathy, a bit of effective communication, and some much appreciated patience can go a long way, especially with someone like me. If you're in a doctor or dentist office and feeling nervous, afraid, or consumed with abject terror like I was, demand the same treatment. Insist upon it. If you don't receive it, let me know. I'll be happy to chime in on your behalf.
Words matter. They can make all the difference.
When one of my former students was battling cancer years ago, I went to New York City to donate platelets on her behalf. The nurse, who had been working in the blood collection unit for 30 years, told Elysha that I was the worst patient of her career.
I don't doubt it. When it comes to needles, I am a mess.
Years later, I had to give blood for a routine test. In that instance, I encountered a nurse who listened to the reasons why needles terrify me. He said, "I get it, man. That's one enormous negative feedback loop you have going. I'd feel the same way if I was you. Let me help you through this. Okay?"
It was the least stressful blood draw of my life.
Words matter. Kindness is a powerful tool. Patience can mean everything.
I'm sitting here now with an ice pack on my jaw. I'm on the mend. My mouth still hurts, but it's nothing like an exposed nerve. My summer is back on track, thanks to a doctor who knows how to remove a broken tooth and knows how to handle a broken psyche.