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The Importance of Teeth

            About two months ago I went to see an oral surgeon, sent by my regular dentist, to see what my options might be in treating my Lichen Planus (an autoimmune disorder that impacts the tissues of my mouth, causing gum recession and bone loss and resulting in loose teeth). I had expected my old dentist to have a plan to help me, because he’d said he had one, but then he retired, without telling me his plan, and his replacement suddenly wanted me to go to an outside expert for advice, without saying what that advice might be.

            I had no idea what to expect at the appointment, but my new dentist had praised the oral surgeon for his ability to deal with autoimmune patients like me, and she seemed to believe that he’d have better treatment options than what she could think of herself, or what my previous dentist had left behind in his notes. She made it sound like there could be a way to slow the tooth loss, and to treat the Lichen Planus more effectively than the oral pathologist had been able to manage for years now.

“Who me, skeptical?”

            So when I walked into the oral surgeon’s exam room, after a full x-ray of my mouth, and he immediately began his spiel about how he would remove all of my upper teeth and replace them with an implant that would be anchored into my cheek bones, because I don’t have enough bone for regular implants, and he doesn’t think bone grafts are stable enough, and a partial implant would be a waste of time and money, and the whole thing would cost $40,000, and none of it would be covered by my health insurance.

            I had no idea what to say, or do. I couldn’t talk to anyone in the aftermath. Even talking to my Mom just turned into hysterical crying. Mom called the dentist for an explanation of what the oral surgeon was proposing, and the dentist said that my situation was much worse than my now retired, dentist had told me, though he had noted it down in my chart. The dentist said that she would consult with the oral surgeon, and with the oral pathologist, and get back to me with an explanation of the options available.

            She didn’t call back though, and I didn’t have the courage to call her myself. I didn’t want to be on the phone with a relative stranger, crying and feeling helpless and inarticulate, especially when I couldn’t even figure out why it was all so overwhelming. I just couldn’t think at all.

“I know the feeling.”

            My therapist wasn’t really concerned. She said I should just get a denture instead, because it would cost less and be just as good. I was wearing my face mask at the time so she couldn’t see the look of horror on my face at the idea of dentures. She also expected me to be able to call the dentist and talk through the options, even though I kept trying to tell her that I couldn’t do it; that I couldn’t even pick up the phone, let alone dial the phone number or, god forbid, talk.

            But then Mom got the news that she’d have to have hip surgery (first on one hip and then, three months or so later, on the other), and I found out about two possible diagnoses that might explain my various medical issues, and I got distracted with going for more tests and making appointments with new doctors, and Mom and my therapist got excited about the possibility of my finally getting a diagnosis, and the whole question of my teeth was forgotten. Except that I kept looking in the mirror at the two precariously loose teeth, close to the front of my mouth, that could become infected or even fall out at any time, leaving me feeling like a hobo, unable to go out in public or show my face on Zoom, and with no plan for what to do.

“I make missing teeth look cute.”

I wrote down my questions for the dentist, and a long list of questions for myself about why I was getting so stuck, but then I put my notebook aside, because not only couldn’t I think of any answers, I couldn’t even stand to look at the questions.

            But now I’m getting closer to my next regularly scheduled appointment with the dentist, and I know I need to prepare myself, but it’s still too freaking hard.

            I know that the money issue overwhelms me. I feel selfish even considering this zygomatic (cheek bone-anchored) implant, which would require a student loan-sized debt, on top of my existing debt, instead of accepting the idea of a denture. I don’t even know if there is a way to borrow the money for such a thing.

            And I’m angry that this is happening, given how much effort I’ve put into taking care of my teeth, and how much effort I’ve put into trying to deal with the medical issues that caused all of this, and I am angry that my health insurance doesn’t cover dental issues even when they are directly caused by medical issues. And I am so angry that my previous dentist, who was my dentist for more than twenty years, didn’t prepare me for this in some way; didn’t even tell me to put money aside, just in case. He just kept telling me to trust him, that he’d take care of things, and that we’d make a plan when the time came. But when he announced his upcoming retirement, and I asked him about that plan, he didn’t make time for me, just sent me on to his replacement.

            And I’m angry that basics like dental care, hearing aids, and even glasses, aren’t covered by health insurance. They’ll cover the eye exam, but not the glasses that are prescribed. They’ll cover the audiologist, but not the hearing aids. And they’ll pay for my visits to the oral pathologist to treat the Lichen Planus, but they won’t cover the damage the Lichen Planus does to my teeth, or more accurately, to my gums and bone, which hold my teeth in place.

            I’m afraid of how a denture or an implant will change the way I look, or eat, or talk, or sing. And I’m afraid of being in even more debt. I’ve already paid off two masters’ degrees in writing, and I’m about halfway through paying for my third, very expensive, master’s degree in social work. And I’m afraid of losing the two loosest teeth, the ones that are visible in the front of my mouth, before I figure out what to do.

            I don’t know how to make a decision while I’m still feeling too humiliated to even ask the dentist the most basic questions.

            I guess the humiliation is at the core of all of this, as usual. But knowing that doesn’t change how overwhelming it feels. I feel guilty and worthless and small and unimportant, again and again. But it’s possible that being able to write all of this down is a sign that I’m getting somewhere. I hope.

“I believe in you, Mommy.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?