On the Subject of Teeth and Dentistry

This is a lovely time to drag out of cold storage a humor column I wrote in 1996, entitled “Drill, Sergeant”.


Drill, Sergeant

My wife played softball on Saturday and spent Sunday wobbling around the house like Weeble. She had odd-shaped bruises in weird places (a thin, streaky one on her ankle, a splotchy Rorschach blotch on her shoulder and small but nevertheless real bruise in the cleft of her chin — the Kirk Douglas special) and stiffness in her joints. Lactic acid, produced in bursting moments of athletic activity, leaked through her muscles, making them achy and sore. She debated whether or not to be fed intravenously.

Don’t feel too bad for her. The pain my wife was feeling was brought about by her own doing. It’s a subset of the entire “Feel the Burn” philosophy that dictates that unless you exercise your body until your neurons misfire, you’re not really exercising at all. This is in turn a subset of a larger philosophy that embraces pain, and how much of it you can take, as an indication of character and internal makeup (Not REAL pain, mind you. Real pain is brought on by circumstances that you cannot control, like car wrecks, or food poisoning, or Charlie Sheen popping up in a movie you’re watching. Real pain is random. Real pain is scary. Real pain hurts).

On one end of this philosophy, you’ve got my wife and her softball aches. On the other end you’ve got G. Gordon Liddy barbecuing his hand, taking “Feel The Burn” rather too literally. Somewhere beyond Liddy’s finger food, however, is a story that my dentist told me earlier in the week, while he was shaving down my teeth.

My dentist had his medical schooling paid for by the Navy, and in return was stationed at Parris Island, tending to the dental needs of the Marines there. In all respects, my dentist said, the Marines were fine, upstanding men, both officers and gentlemen.

But the Marine officers also had this thing about anesthesia: they didn’t want any. They would come in to his office, salute and say “Sir, I request not to have Novocain. I would like to test my endurance to pain.” Then they would sit down in his chair, their uniforms neat and freshly pressed, to await the dentist’s ministrations.

This freaked out my dentist for a while, until he was pulled aside by some of the other dentists who had worked on the base longer than he. “Look,” they said, “If they’re dumb enough to ask, you might as well give them what they want. Just tell them not to move.” He did. They didn’t. After the work was done, my dentist said, the backs of the Marine officers’ neatly-pressed uniforms would be drenched with sweat from collar to seat.

The payoff for the Marine officers (other than quality dental care) were the bragging rights they got out of it: someone was tooling around in their mouth with a high speed drill, and they TOOK it. Like a MAN. Like a MARINE. At social functions on base, my dentist would be approached by his patients, who would have a friend in tow. “Sir,” they would say, “Please communicate to my colleague here how much pain I endured in your chair.”

“We drilled right on the nerve,” my dentist would invariably reply. Everybody went away happy.

If I were a dentist, I don’t know that I would want to have a reputation as a master of nerve pain, but my dentist didn’t seem to mind, and now we have a corps of Marines ready for whatever feats of dental malice our enemies may hurl against us. As an American, I sleep better at nights knowing this.

How do I feel about this “No Pain, No Gain” philosophy? Well, ask my dentist. He drilled right on the nerve, and I didn’t flinch once. It’s because he numbed my face so thoroughly there are parts of it I still can’t feel.

45 Comments on “On the Subject of Teeth and Dentistry”

  1. I can advocate for the other side as well and say that my Marine husband, who went through Paris Island as a boot, was terrified of dentists for years and refused to go until I nearly dragged him (we’d been dating for about 9 months at the time, and it was the first time he’d gone since he’d had his military once-over, or so he said). He’s as salty as they come, got appointed to Annapolis out of the fleet – but he’s all about the novocaine!

  2. The part of numbing the face that I’ve always, er, “enjoyed” is when the dentist hits a nerve going in with the needle.

    Last time he did that, I nearly hit the ceiling. And I have a pretty high pain threshold.

  3. I enjoyed your story. I was never stationed at a Marine base, but had several Marine patients as a young Navy dentist. It might have been a local micro-culture thing…I don’t remember any No Anesthetic requests from those days.

    In general, dentists love nothing more than positive feedback. “I was worried, but that didn’t hurt a bit.” And even if we were uncaring SOB’s, I’ve got to tell you it’s difficult to do a good job on someone who’s not numb. Imagine if your keyboard jumped when you tried to type on it. You wouldn’t work like that for long. Not even twitter. You’ve got it right, Better Living Through Chemistry. Good luck this afternoon, sounds like you’re in good hands.

  4. Oh my. Oh, oh my. I get nitrous for regular *cleanings.*

    I may be scarred for life after reading that.

  5. Growing up on the Gulf Coast of Florida, just south of Tampa, I had the wonderful experience of (1) non-floride, sulfury-smelling well water, (2) bad genetics, (3) old-fashioned tooth powder and (4) a dentist who didn’t exactly believe in the use of novocaine with a young boy until the drill (and a chunk of his forearm) were buried ‘way down deep into a tooth. Oh, and did I mention he used the old-fashioned and rather slow electric drill? I swear that, every time he had to drill, I could feel the individual RPMs of that drill (and the seemingly rather dull tips, as well). Then I moved to the northern part of the State and, when I kept feeling a slight twinge in one tooth, had to endure the experience of my dentist torturing me with what felt like a cattle prod to figure out I needed a root canal (“Now, tell me if THIS hurts like a sumbitch…”).

    And my wife’s family (blessed, as are my two daughters and wife with all sorts of non-cavity genetics) wonder why I nearly break out into hives the week before my dental visits NOW!

  6. Eh, dental pain isn’t that bad. A number of years ago I had a root canal done, sans numbing agent, just to amuse myself.

    Now I’ve moved on to sinus surgery w/o anaesthetic. The really cool part was when I smelled the burning flesh and realized it was coming from inside my own head.

    Didn’t see that one coming.


  7. Nathan I’m right there with you. One time my dentist hit a nerve, the next time he hit a cluster of nerves.

    Once I got past the shock I was sufficiently numbed though.

  8. If this were Terry Goodkind’s blog, this post would be called “On the Subject of Truth and Destiny.”


  9. #7 …”The really cool part was when I smelled the burning flesh and realized it was coming from inside my own head.”

    ah yes. does that bring back memories!

    especially since the surgeon then proceeded to pack my nose with 10,000 yards of gauze which held the stench of my own burned flesh right next to the olfactories for several weeks.

    of course that wasn’t the worst part: the hammer and chisel on the nose, followed immediately by the pliers snapping cartridge.

    And I was awake for every stroke of the hammer and snap of the pliers and every bit of flesh burning.

  10. When I was in college and dirt poor I once had 5 done at one sitting with no pain killer, but that was because my dentist offered to do it for a little less money that way. Interestingly, he was an immigrant and not of US origin. We got through it with no problems and I appreciated his trying to make it as cost effective as possible.

    A couple years later though he had to do a serious bit or oral surgery on me and I had no doubt whatsover that I was going with the numb me from the neck up approach. That would have been a real challenge which I wasn’t the least bit interested in taking. There was a real nice hole in my gum when he was done too, I’d have cried like a baby on that one.

  11. I’ve had stitches put in a couple times without anesthetic by Navy medics (and including stitching myself up more than once), but there ain’t no way I’d let the dentist drill without Novocain.

    But then again, I was Navy, we always thought jarheads were a bit touched in the head.

    Of course, they’re better than the Air Force guys who need two days convalescent leave and PTSD compensation for a dental cleaning… ;)

  12. Ahh… perhaps my childhood dentist had worked with Marines… that explains it all!

    I thought he’d gotten his dental training from the Spanish Inquisition!

  13. I had my wisdom teeth pulled in May. It went like this.

    “So, feel anything yet…” [Picture on the far wall blurs] “…OK, you’re done. Here’s a prescription for vicodin.”

    I took two doses and switched to Advil. Unlike a Marine, I had no desire to feel someone hacking away at the bones in my mouth. Like a Marine, I could handle the soreness with little more than a couple of Advil.

    OTOH, I also got a couple filling two weeks ago. Both were right next to the spaces formerly occupied by wisdom teeth. Most painful trip to the dentist ever. Was it the drill?

    No. That suction hose they stick in your mouth so you don’t drool on yourself or the dentist made my teeth so cold, even the numbed ones felt it.

    And then I managed to eat a good part of my right cheek before the novocain wore off.

    Yes, Marines are tough. I’ll take their word for it. I want drugs when they stick pointy things in my mouth and start yanking on teeth. Thanks.

  14. Here in the UK we have fluoride, a well known communist mind control agent, in the water so the only teeth i had removed is through having too many of them.

    Mind you my dental hygienist tried to water-board me the last time i went and i paid for the privilege.

  15. I’m old enough to remember the era of no anesthetics, this for a single digit age group. Then novocaine came along but it cost $5 a shot, the cavity was only $15. My parents were blue collar back when an RN wan’t a college grad.

    My first experience of not getting asked if I wanted novocaine was in the Army. After the filling I mentioned that there seemed to be a tooth point in the side of the gum. Out comes the mirror and light, then the X-Ray. Wait for development, then X-Ray upper gum and other side. Seems I had all four Wisdom teeth growing in horizontally.

    Then the nice Dentist mentions that policy is that for this procedure, each has to be done seperately (I figured out why after the first) and there is three days recuperation after the appointment day. He perfered to schedule on my first duty day. Nice man gave me 4 10 day no cost leaves.

  16. The U.S.Army routinely has their dentists pull the wisdom teeth of new privates after they’ve passed basic. When they sent me 25 years ago I had 5 of them. The dentist gave me a shot of novacaine waited for a bit and poked me in the gums with a dental pick (aaagh!) to see if it was working yet. It wasn’t. So he repeated that exact procedure 9 times. (aaagh! x 9) After the third time I reasoned to him that it might be possible that novacaine doesn’t work on me.Each subsequent time I was less reasonable and more salty. By the 9th time I’m pretty sure I was speaking in tongues. (or the continuous cursing version of it) Then he informs me (communicated to me from on high in the VOICE OF AUTHORITY) that he believes I may be immune to and that he will now try something else. Only the presence of witnesses stopped me from violent assault. Since I’ve been out of the service I’ve found a wonderful dentist who uses nitrous oxide. I highly reccomend it.

  17. I never realized that I was such a bad ass. A few years I had a couple cavities filled in Ecuador. The dentist didn’t even ask if I wanted anesthetics, she just started drilling.

    It was a rough experience, but unlike these wussy Marines, my shirt wasn’t soaked with sweat when I was done (maybe because I assumed, rightly or wrongly, that she knew what she was doing).

  18. Meh. A few years back, I had a traditional (i.e., with scalpels, clamps, and forceps) vasectomy with no anesthesia whatsoever. Why? I’m not entirely sure, but it seemed like the thing to do.

    Also, the urologists and all of the nurses were women. That was slightly more off-putting than the procedure itself. Can’t imagine why.

  19. Doug, #6: It sounds as though you should have followed the old joke about the patient who had a firm grip on his dentist’s testicles: “Now, this isn’t going to hurt either one of us, is it, Doctor?” If you had done that, I feel that your dentist would have been more than happy to give you the local.

  20. I didn’t know I was so bad@ss and I’m just a girl (giggle).

    When I was a kid my dentist didn’t use Novocaine during fillings unless a child squirmed too much. (Hmm, perhaps my dentist was a former Marine.) I was smart enough to realize that if the drill could go through my teeth, it could also go through other important parts of my head and that was sufficient motivation to keep still.

    Shockingly, to this day I prefer to get simple fillings without Novocaine. This tends to freak out some people–especially dentists. Beside being less than thrilled about the needle, for me, most of the time there is only pain toward the end of the procedure. When the drilling stops, so does all the pain and my mouth feels perfectly normal. I don’t even get a sweaty back. Root canals and giving birth on the other hand…

  21. After my daughter was born, I was defending my wife’s choice of an epidural by saying, “After all, nobody brags about getting their dental work done with no anesthetic, right?”

    I stand correctly.

  22. I am decidedly not badass. I want every drug the dentist has in stock. I’ll take drugs for a tooth cleaning. I’ll dope up before playing Operation(tm) for crying out loud.

    I can just about manage to cut my toenails without sedation, but it’s a close thing.

  23. My case wasn’t as extreme as fellow-ohioan’s, but after four failed attempts to get novocaine to take in my jaw, the Navy dentist gave up and just drilled and filled my four cavities without anaesthetic. I didn’t sweat any more than normal, but when I got up I looked at the armrests of the chair, and as I suspected, I could see the imprints of my hands there.

    Or maybe there were just a lot of us gripping like that. Maybe the dentist was a sadist injecting us with saline solution instead of painkillers.

  24. Johnny #24: Well, IF I’d been a bit bigger than I was back in elementary school when all that drilling was going on, I just might have attempted that solution. Of course, things could have been worse…my family doctor’s name at the time was Butcher.

  25. Novocaine immunity must not be all that rare.

    I got 4 small gumline filling on my front teeth when i was a teenager; the dentist didn’t believe me when i told him the novocaine wasn’t doing anything. In many years of life since, I haven’t ever been as mentally wrecked as I was driving home after that appointment. Only one dentist of the few i’ve talked to since would even consider that novocaine could be ineffective.

    Years later when I had all my remaining teeth pulled out in 2 days in an unheated log cabin, the dentist used lidocaine and considerable skill, and I didn’t feel much of anything until later. Massive bruises and possibly a sprained jaw from corkscrewing tooth roots, but at the time it was easy.

    Good dentists *earn* their fancy cars and boats, i you ask me.

  26. Eh, fillings aren’t that painful. I used to do them without novocaine because the amount it took made me feel sick for the rest of the day and I prefer a little pain over a day of feeling crappy. Didn’t cause me to sweat or anything, I just twitched my foot.

  27. A good friend of mine has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic disease that affect the production of collagen. Among other things, it affects the processing of novocaine, which is only effective if injected in a certain way. Of course, this isn’t the normal way dentists do it.

  28. Not dental, but similar. I was in the hospital for an inflamed tonsil. I wasn’t in pain, so I told the nurse I refused the painkillers that the doc ordered for me. Then, he hurt me bad. Pair of pliers to the tonsil to squeeze out the pus. I was screaming for the pain meds.

    I will never, ever, again refuse pain medication, even if I don’t think I need it.

  29. I always think about Jack Nicholson’s early acting job in the original “Little Shop of Horrors”, when he’s in the dentist’s waiting room reading the magazine “PAIN”, then yelling at the dentist “Don’t Stop NOOOOWWW!”.

  30. bananasfk@17:

    Fluoride is added to municipal water here, but a surprising number of households in the U.S., at least on the east coast, still have private wells which would lack fluoride. In North Carolina, where I live, ~50% of houses have septic systems, and that usually means a well, too. My wife and I buy “nursery water,” bottled water with added fluoride, for the kids.

    The positive side is that the well water tastes great. The negative is that when the electricity goes out, there’s no water pressure and we can’t flush the toilet.

    Our host appears to live out in the countryside, so I wouldn’t be surpised if he is drinking from a fluoride-deficient well, too.

  31. My husband is pretty much immune to all of the ‘caines, to the point where he was injected up to the legal limit on several of them during one long session back in 2000 and still feeling it. When you combine that with a misaligned jaw that doesn’t open wide enough for dental tastes, a dental visit was enough to spur a borderline panic attack.

    And then I heard about “sedation dentistry.”* So now he’s getting regular, awake checkups— and if they have to do major work, they give him sleeping pills so he’s semi-conscious.

    This causes my dad a bit of bemusement— he’s from the era where numbing agents weren’t really available. I think what really convinced him was the explanation of “He didn’t get checkups for years because they hurt— and now his teeth are clean and healthy. Are you complaining?”

    *”We cater to cowards” is their slogan. Seriously.

  32. banasfk @17

    The West Midlands is the only area of the UK with added fluoride in the water. I presume you live there.

  33. If you’re dentist should really have started that ancedote with, “Now this is no BS,…” like a sea story.

  34. I do pain research, and even though we pay the nearly-broke university kids $50 to show up and endure a little pain, the reason people get their friends to do it is to put them through pain too, and see whose tolerance was higher, and to print out the MRI of their brain.

    So I’m a big fan of competitive pain endurance :)

  35. Sleep dentistry is a godsend in the case of a child who has a developmental disability, and isn’t going to quietly sit still for shots and drilling. It’s not just a matter of no-painkiller = measure of personal worth.

%d bloggers like this: