As a novelist and a time traveler of sorts, I am enamored with the past. But as P.J. O’Rourke said, “When you think of the good old days think one word: Dentistry.”
When I was a child Dr. Lory, our family dentist, drilled out all my cavities (and I had many) without using any Novocain. No nitrous oxide, no anesthetic whatever. Not that it wasn’t invented, mind you. But for some reason he didn’t believe children felt pain, or maybe he was a sadist. Whatever the reason, having my teeth drilled without any numbing at such a tender age traumatized me. To this day the whine of the dentist’s electric drill nearly sends me through the roof – even if I’ve been shot up with enough local anesthetic to knock down a horse. I haven’t been to Dr. Lory in decades, the old bastard is probably dead by now.
This past Wednesday I went Dr. Haushildt to have a crown molded for tooth number three, which has been cracked for some time. This involved grinding the tooth down on all sides first, then making a mold. The operative word here is “grinding” which obviously means a “grinder” will be used. Hauschildt of course numbed me up before he started – it’s standard practice — but I wish I had been fully anesthetized, or at least given a wee dram of valium or propofol (which is not standard practice!)
The mere sound of the grinder terrified me, that piercing electric whine. It sounds just like the drill. My gum felt numb but I couldn’t be sure the numbness was deep and complete. I kept expecting him to touch a nerve and send me through the roof. And can’t they do something about the noise? My entire skull was vibrating, it sounded like a team of carpenters was working inside my head. Thank God my dentist was quick. Next came the mold, biting down into the gluey substance and then the fitting of the temporary cap with some sort of marine adhesive, 5200? Something that sticks even when wet. I go back in a couple of weeks to have the permanent cap installed, which should be no problem, as long as he doesn’t have to grind.
How far we’ve come since the 18th century! Back then surgeons did double duty as dentists; they could bleed you, dose you, amputate your shattered limb or pull your aching tooth with a toolkit containing a tourniquet, scalpel, a bone saw and a toothkey. There were no electric drills or grinders, no permanent fillings, no antibiotics, no anesthetics. OK, they did have rum. And they used clove oil and cinnamon oil to ease toothaches, which were very common. Most people’s teeth fell out or were pulled out over the years.
Clove and cinnamon oil are quite effective, for spices. You can get these aromatic oils in the health food store. They’re good to have in the first aid kit in case you get a toothache on a weekend or holiday, or if you’re setting out to sea or going backpacking in the wilderness. A drop of clove or cinnamon oil on a cotton ball applied to the gum stings a bit then becomes tingly and somewhat numb. As does your tongue, unless you can keep it out of the way. It’s not quite as deadening as a good shot of 2% xylocaine with epinephrine — but it does have antimicrobial properties and freshens your breath nicely. It will do in a pinch and you don’t need a dentist to administer it.
A few years ago when Bob and I were living in Hawaii, my remaining wisdom tooth was giving me grief and I decided to have it removed. Even in Paradise a tooth extraction is not much fun. For some reason the dentist could not get me numb with an inferior alveolar block. A little rum on the gum might have helped, but nobody uses that anymore. After a shot of something else (xyocaine or marcaine?) failed to do the trick (yes, I can feel that!) I told her just to pull the damn thing and be quick about it. She attached the pliers to my tooth and began to pull with all her might. I was wishing then for a big brute of a dentist, a bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime — not this little old woman wearing a muumuu and an orchid blossom in her hair.
“Am I hurting you?” she asked, peering at me with concern over her mask.
As her hand and pliers were still in my mouth all I could do was nod and say “Just get it over with! Pull the damn thing!” Which came out “La la blah wa blah la wa!” But I think she got the idea.
Another grunting yank and half the tooth came out. It took a few more tugs to get the rest of it, and then I went home and consoled myself with a Vicodin. Which I really didn’t need because the worst of it was over, but I took it anyway. It didn’t do much for me, I should’ve had the rum.
I thought back on this experience when writing the tooth pulling scene in my second historical novel, Surgeon’s Mate (Fireship Press; 2011). Here’s a brief excerpt:
I retrieved my surgical kit, inspecting it to make certain all the instruments were there. The toothkey, I noticed, showed a speck of corrosion though I had just polished it a few days ago.
It must come out easily, without undue pain. Preferably in one piece. It wouldn’t be good if I had to go digging with the scalpel and tenaculum. Our freedom depended on a successful extraction.
“Some spirits, sir? To dull the nerves?”
He shook his head. “That’s been seen to. I’ve enough of Guyon’s brandy on board to numb a mule, yet it hasn’t helped a bit. You may proceed, sir.”
I rolled up my sleeves and his guards moved in for a closer look.
The lugger’s medicine chest held little of value. I found some oil of cinnamon and soaked a cotton pledget with it. This would not only cleanse the gum but would shrink the swelling and dull the sensation. It also sweetened the fould stench coming from the oozing pus. While the cinnamon did its work, I prepared a tincture of hyssop to follow the extraction, to sooth the empty socket and reduce any bleeding. The men watched with morbid curiosity. Next, I readied my instruments, picking each one up and holding it to the light for inspection, more for dramatic effect than anything else. A thick roll of gauze doused with a few drops of cinnamon oil to keep his mouth from clamping down, should he reflexively try to bite me. Now I was ready…