During the past few years (not coincidentally, starting around my 40th birthday), I’ve noticed that certain parts of my body have stopped cooperating with me as well as they used to.
Books, menus and my computer screen are a jangled blur without my drugstore reading glasses. If I work out vigorously and don’t stretch first, my back and legs scream at me for at least a week afterward. And I am terrified to stop coloring my hair because I just know it’s all gray under the blonde.
Most recently, I was informed that my teeth are going to hell, despite my best efforts. OK, it’s not that bad… parts of my gums are receding. I think the condition is partially a result of genetics and not all my fault, because my mom has the same problem. But there are a few areas of my lower gum that are in pretty bad shape.
I’ve been conscientious about my dental health all my life — twice a year cleanings since I was a small child and dutiful care at home. Honestly, I’m too vain to walk around with a yuck mouth. If anything, I brush too often and too hard. And I will cop to only sporadic flossing.
Anyhoo, at one of my last appointments, my dentist told me I needed to see a periodontist at some point in the near future to correct the worst recession. It’s called gum reconstruction surgery, or something like that.
Woo-freakin-hoo. Because my dentist has taken really good care of me and my family and knows what he’s talking about, I thought I ought to at least entertain the idea.
And then I found out that the surgery is elective and not covered by insurance.
When I decided to go to work for myself last year, I was heartened to discover that I could, in fact, afford individual health and dental coverage.
Unfortunately, that coverage is preventative and disaster only, meaning that it does not include all the bells and whistles I was accustomed to under an employer-sponsored plan. (Don’t get me started on the ACA … I am reserving judgement for now and sticking with what I’ve got until December 2014. But I digress.)
I knew I needed to get this gum situation corrected, but I did not want to take out a loan to get ‘er dun. A friend recently told me about her positive (and affordable) experience with the UofL Dental School, which reminded me I had another option besides pay out the ass or skip it altogether.
So I had my dentist refer me to the periodontal department at the school. I had been there for a tour once before — my last corporate job was doing PR for the UofL medical school, and the med school and dental school are like brother and sister. If I chose to get my care there, I knew I would be worked on by residents and fellows, supervised by faculty. I also knew it would be on the cheap. I was OK with both.
During my consultation, the resident told me about a clinical research trial the school is conducting. Turns out my gums are the perfect candidates for a study on different types of root coverage. Not to get too technical, but there are a couple ways to do it, and the docs are trying to prove that each way works just as well as the other.
The best part? Total cost for surgery and eight weeks of followup care: $150.
I KNOW, RIGHT?
I figured that being part of a research study was the safest way to go because it ought to mean the doctors would be extra careful with me. They would want to ensure the results are viable, right? They screw me up, then they screw up the study.
So I figured, what the hell. I needed to get the work done, and this was only way I could afford to do it.
On Halloween (because Frankenstein Face seemed appropriate), I went in to have my gums reconstructed.
My main doctor — I’ll call him Dr. Z — had a thick Slavic accent and an eager disposition. He was way too damned excited about sawing on my gums, but I set my apprehension aside when I noticed how very nice and professional he was, as well. He prepped me, took pictures and then had the lead doctor (his teacher) give me the once over.
I will spare you the gory details (the MANY shots of Novocain, the blood and the two rounds of sutures), but three hours later, I had a brand spankin’ new section of my lower gum.
The technique uses an allograft instead of my own tissue (Google it, people), which was fine by me. I would much prefer to have cells grown in a lab attached to me than for the doctor to peel a layer of skin off the roof of my mouth. It hurt enough without that step, thankyouverymuch.
My jaw has been sore and a little swollen the past few days, but that would have happened if I had gone to a private doctor, too. All in all, I am pleased with my care and looking forward to my first followup visit later this week. I’m not totally thrilled that I have to keep the stitches in for eight weeks, but whatcha gonna do? It's too late to turn back now.
The only indication that I was being treated by students came when the assistant to the procedure left about halfway through, and a new one stepped in. The first assistant was very attentive, making sure Dr. Z had what he needed and that I was comfortable.
This second assistant … I mean, God help us all if she ends up in private practice. She was a total dingbat. She stared off into space most of the time, causing the doc to get very annoyed whenever he needed an instrument from her. I literally had to tap her hand each time I needed the suction thingy. Left it up to her, I would have choked on my own spit.
By the end, the doc and I both had enough of her. He admonished her, and she apologized. Hopefully she learned something. I survived just fine with no damage done, but her lack of focus was a good reminder that you get what you pay for.
Anyway, me being the nerd that I am, I think it’s pretty cool that I’m part of university-level research. Not that anyone who reads the study will know that, but still. I was never very good at science in school, so being a lab rat is the only meaningful contribution I will ever make in that arena. It’s a bonus that my teeth will be better for the experience.
But I am hopeful that nothing else will fall apart on this ol’ body anytime soon, and I won't need surgery — clinical trial or otherwise — for a good, long while!
About Amy Higgs
A former newspaper columnist, Amy takes her random, slice-of-life stories to the web. After 10 years, she's still just saying.