ralph robert moore
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Copyright © 2015 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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Return to lately 2015.
your body is a hotel
march 1, 2015
Like almost everything that becomes significant, it started from something routine. I went to my dentist for my periodic check-up. The hygienist cleaned my teeth, at the end of which I always feel compelled to say, running my tongue over my tombstones, Wow, they feel really clean! Because it can't be fun for her to scrape someone else's teeth for half an hour, so I feel it's only polite to offer some positive feedback. And it always ends with her saying, Let me see if the doctor is free. And I can hear him laughing with another patient in another cubicle, or sometimes, talking to a patient in low tones down the hall, explaining a necessary procedure, and it's all about sockets and possibilities.
So anyway, the dentist comes in, he makes a point of washing his hands in the cubicle's steel basin before acknowledging me, kind of backstage stuff, and we do that weird handshake where he's standing and I'm lying on my back with my feet in the air. He's got that little circular dentist mirror he floats around the back of my teeth while the hygienist interjects comments like, I wanted you to check the occlusal at number fifteen. And after he finishes inspecting my mouth this sunny late morning, he straightens up and says, I see a small white patch on the underside of your tongue. He's not meeting my eyes.
Which can't be good, right?
"What would that suggest to you?"
"Well, it could be a number of things. You should definitely get it checked out. We'll give you the number of a specialist right here in town you can set an appointment with, so he can take a look at it. Make a determination."
"Are you thinking…"
"Well, it wasn't there during my last examination, so that's some cause for concern."
So I guess it's up to me.
"Are you saying it might be cancer?"
And if you're going to shout a word out in a crowd milling around eating popcorn, "cancer" will get more attention than "fire".
He stood up taller in his white dentist's jacket. "It could be. You should get it checked out. Sooner rather than later."
Usually, my periodic exams go a lot better. I meet Mary back out in the waiting room, tell her everything's okay. Or , at the worst, they have to redo a filling. But cancer? I waited until we were back in our sunshot car, my eyeglasses hot to the touch on the dashboard, alone.
I called the specialist, made an appointment.
About a week away.
That week was not a happy one. Sure, we had fun, and we laughed together, but behind every breath was the idea that I might have cancer. The dentist had said the other patients he had sent to the specialist with similar symptoms had turned out not to have cancer, and even if it were cancer, at this early stage it's easily treatable, but still.
Your body is a hotel, that's the way life works, and no one wants one of the guests checking in to be cancer.
When we moved to this relatively small town twenty-four years ago there were only two restaurants, neither of them that good, and only one supermarket. We had to drive into Dallas to get just about anything. Now we've got dozens of restaurants, over a hundred specialty shops, and actually some really top notch medical care. None of this was due to any prescient talents on our part-- we just lucked out.
So I felt a great deal of confidence in the oral surgeon specialist I would be seeing. He not only sat on quite a few peer boards, he was president of one or two of them, and in addition to being a dentist, he also had a medical degree.
But I was nervous sitting in the brown and white waiting room. And Mary was nervous. If I have cancer, what happens? How does that change our lives? How does that change our future?
I was called in. Mary wanted to come with me, and they had no problem with that. The specialist introduced himself, friendly and intelligent, shook my hand, and asked me to open my mouth.
He looked around inside. I mean, really looked around inside. Pulling my cheeks back, maneuvering his small mirror everywhere inside. Held the tip of my tongue with a folded-over white cotton gauze, looked under it for quite a while. "Okay."
I'm nervous. I look over at Mary, sitting to one side in the room. She's nervous.
He picks up a mirror, hands it to me. Picks up a small flashlight, puts it in my other hand.
"Let me show you something."
"Do you see that whiteness at the back of your mouth? On the left side?"
I maneuvered the mirror, slanted the flashlight. Didn't see anything, then saw everything.
"And see it here on the right side?"
Again, maneuvering, slanting. "Yes."
"And here's under your tongue."
Once again. "I do see that."
I hand him back the mirror, flashlight. Holding my breath.
"What you have is called Lichen Plantus. I'm going to write it down for you."
"Is it malignant?"
"No. It's not cancer. It's actually a fairly common infection. It's called 'lichen' because the pattern of how it manifests resembles lichen. I see a lot of it. Nobody is really sure what causes it."
I know that Mary, sitting tense in her chair, might not be able to fully follow the conversation, because of the aphasia she has following her stroke back in 2002, so I twist around in the dental chair and give her a thumbs up. Her worried face lights up.
"So how do you treat it?"
"I can prescribe an ointment you can rub over the outbreaks with a Q-tip, but we really should do a biopsy of one of the outbreaks, just to be sure."
"You do have two bumps inside your cheek, here and here. I'm certain they're just build-ups caused by blocked glands in the cheeks, but again, for safety's sake, it'd be better if we surgically remove them as well, and biopsy them."
So back out front, by the receptionist's desk, I set up an appointment to have three oral surgeries performed in my mouth. All three procedures will take about thirty minutes. I can have general anesthesia if I want, where you're knocked out, but I opt instead for local anesthesia, where I'll be awake but the surgical sites will be numbed. Safer.
I don't know about you, but I'm not a big fan of people cutting into my body. Especially inside my mouth, because it's so close to the brain, which is a large part of 'me', and especially when it's three different sites.
But, you know.
We had to wait a week for the next available slot for the surgery. Like a lot of doctors, he performs his surgeries in the mornings, when he's at his freshest. Makes sense.
The approaching date weighed on my mind. I won't pretend otherwise. It was one of those things where you wake up in the morning, feeling pretty good, thinking about coffee, then you remember, Oh my God, that's right! I'm going to get cut up in x number of days.
The surgery was scheduled for 10:30. We didn't eat that morning. At the time, I thought after the surgery we'd swing by Jack in the Box to get some Sourdough Jack sandwiches, some Monster Tacos, and some Seasoned Curly Fries, which we'd eat in our bed afterwards, something to look forward to. Honestly, I don't know what I was thinking at the time, or why I naively believed I'd actually be able to eat anything after all that cutting. Maybe I was just trying to minimize what was about to happen.
Only one other person in the fair-sized waiting room, a middle-aged woman reading a magazine. Or staring at it. I assumed a wife waiting for her husband to be led out by his wrists following his surgery.
I'll admit, I was nervous going to the oral surgeon's office that day. Mainly over the pain I knew was coming, but also over just the sheer unknownness of what was about to happen. So nervous, in fact, that when I had to initial down this checklist of statements I was required to acknowledge, There may be a resultant infection following my surgeries, my surgeries may not resolve my problem, etc., my right hand was so cramped that the inked initials I made, wavy and spiky, looked nothing like my real initials.
Eventually the door leading to the inner corridors opened, a head popped out, and I was called back.
"Turn right, into that room."
I got up onto the typical dentist chair, the padded type that leans way, way back so that you're staring up at the ceiling, trying to think happy thoughts.
She wrapped a blood pressure cuff around my arm. My readings were a bit high.
"The doctor will be here in a few minutes, then we'll begin, okay?"
No windows in this room.
The black cuff slowly inflated again, tightening around my arm, a beep went off, and the large monitor to my right measured my pressure. The cuff deflated.
Voices outside the windowless room. The doctor came in, along with his female assistant. "So did you look Lichen Plantus up on the Internet?"
"I did!" God, I hate small talk before surgery. Or maybe I don't. Maybe it does help relax me, because I have to pretend to be relaxed, and that can make you a little more relaxed, just like pretending to be happy can make you a little more happy.
He asked me to open my mouth and refamiliarized himself with the sites he'd be cutting into. "Are you ready for this?"
"Okay. I'm going to use a topical first, then a local, then once that sets up, we'll start. Hand me the two you've prepped, then two more." That last remark was directed towards his assistant.
He pulled my lower lip down on the left side. Received from her two long Q-tips with a cotton pad only on one end. Maneuvered the first pad between my lower left gum line and cheek, then the second one an inch away. Received two more long Q-tips. Placed them around the same area. I had four sticks rising out of my mouth. Strong medicinal taste along my gum. I swallowed, and the taste and its numbing effect slid down the back of my tongue, down my throat. It did not feel good. Harsh.
More long Q-tips being positioned in two other areas of my mouth, so that I wound up with twelve long Q-tips projecting from my mouth, each long stick indicating the slant he'd use with the syringe inserting a local anesthetic into my gums.
After all those sticks were placed, his large face, looming right above my eyes, glanced beyond my vision field. "Let me have the first set-up."
She passed him something.
"Okay, Rob, you're going to feel a little pressure."
Slanted steel tip of the syringe being pushed into my pink gum at one spot. "And a little more pressure." Tip sinking in an inch away. "And here." And so on, and so forth, for what seemed like about five long minutes, newly-loaded syringes exchanged out of my vision field for emptied syringes until that part of the preparation was done.
"Now we're just going to let you sit here for a while until the locals take effect, and then we'll start."
I was left alone in the windowless room.
Time, which cannot do anything else, passed. The black cuff of the blood pressure monitor tightened around my arm again, a ping at its tightest grip, and I glanced again at the monitor to see what the new reading was. Still pretty high.
Finally the doctor came back. "Starting to feel numb?"
He was handed something below my field of vision. Positioned it inside my mouth, by my lower left gum. "Did you feel that?"
"Not really?" I mean, I did, a little, but it wasn't painful.
"Okay!" The instrument still in my mouth, his elbow slowly moved backwards. I felt nothing.
"I'll take them now."
I could see this new instrument was a small pair of scissors. Like you'd use to trim a moustache. Fuck. His elbow moved back and forth for quite a bit. "Doing okay?"
His white latexed fingers directly above my lips. Slicked with blood. My blood.
A pair of metal tweezers. Going inside my mouth, pinching, carrying something out. Transporting it to the assistant.
And that's got to be the weirdest thing. Someone sewing with thread inside your mouth. I mean, come on.
"Hanging in there?"
One down, two more biopsies to go. He pulled my upper lip out, put a tiny scalpel inside my mouth, this time underneath my upper gum, in front. "Did you feel that?"
By the time I rejoined Mary in the waiting room, I had cotton gauze jammed up all around my mouth between cheek and gum on both sides, my lips protruding, making it difficult to speak. Mary and I kissed, sort of.
The post-op instructions were to wait a couple of hours, then have something like ice cream. Except, we didn't have any ice cream. Pull the wads of cotton gauze out of my mouth every half hour, and replace them with fresh gauze, which had to be dampened first with cold water. (His assistant: "Be sure to wet them, so they don't stick to the wounds. That can create problems when it's time to replace them. Use cold water instead of warm water, because warm water might make the blood continue to flow. Keep replacing the pads until they're no longer pink.")
I drove us straight home.
Once home, we got back in bed. Turned on the TV, selected a show from our DVR list. I couldn't possibly eat anything until these cotton pads were out of my mouth, so we just watched the show, speeding through the commercials, until the half hour was up. I removed all the pads. Some pink, but not a lot. I swallowed my penicillin and pain pills. Pushed new cotton pads in.
Another half hour.
Pulled out all the pads. The first two sets were almost white. My hopes going up. But the pads from the third surgical site, pulled out, were dark red, saturated, like a Tampax during a heavy flow. Sorry, but that's what I thought.
I made an executive decision. Maybe the moisture in the gauze was causing the cuts to continue to bleed. So I decided to stop using the gauze. See what happens. After about another hour, I spit into my palm. Some pink, but not a lot.
I had a lukewarm bowl of cream of mushroom soup. Dear reader, it was fucking delicious. Took me about half an hour to spoon up and swallow, though.
That evening, around seven, I had a bowl of French onion soup. Again, Ooh-la-la!
The next morning, while the local station talked about weather, I spit in my palm. Clear.
I had two eggs over easy. That's it. No ham or steak or bacon or pork chop or sausage. Not even any toast or hash browns. The eggs were incredible.
I decided to stop taking the pain pills. The pain really wasn't that bad. I always end up with extra pain pills I eventually throw out. Still had to take the penicillin for another four days, to prevent an infection.
For dinner, I had a baked potato mixed with butter, salt, black pepper, and the minced whites of green onions, topped with sour cream and the minced greens from the onions. Heaven!
Again, it took about half an hour to gingerly eat the potato. But that's okay.
Someday, a week or two from now, I will eat a Jack in the Box Sourdough Jack, a Monster Taco, and Curly Seasoned Fries.
It will happen.
And it will be delicious.