I was working a few days ago and pulled a tooth. Mind you, it’s not something I do with any regularity. However, it was a very sweet little lady who was too weak and ill to get to the dentist and had other issues. That lower incisor was loose, and constantly in the way. Furthermore, it was painful.
I had seen her for something else in the emergency department. I took care of her other issues and was about to discharge her. I said to her family, “make sure she gets to see a dentist.”
“We’ll have to see if our dentist makes house calls,” they replied.
Hmm. I thought to myself. I can do a dental block. I have some instruments.
“Would you like me to take it out?”
“Yes! We would.” And after plenty of local anesthetic, I was able to wiggle that tooth out with a hemostat. I know it hurt. And as I often point out, I’m not a dentist and make no claims to their expertise. But it just seemed like the thing to do.
As I held it before her, I joked “do you want to take it and make a necklace?”
But I looked at it first. It was yellowed and had some decay. It was 80 years old.
This tooth was probably celebrated when she was a child! Before it came, she was a snaggle-toothed child, laughing and smiling as all of us do. It probably hurt on the way in as it burst through her gingiva, shiny white and new. I imagine that she showed it off to family and friends.
It was with her through school and work, through marriage and motherhood. It was present at every meal. With her in every day of joy or sorrow, every restless or restful night. It was witness and participant in kisses with her husband and pecks on the cheek with her children.
We lose skin; we replace bone. And yet a tooth is a bit of artifact. It has stories and history, and even DNA.
I turned and dropped the tooth into the dirty needle box, with the needles and syringes I had used. A bit of a human, gone.
She went home, one less problem to trouble her I hope.
I, a physician-turned-dentist-turned robber of antiquities.
Every day, every single day with other humans is a miracle and a wonder if only we pay attention and pause to reflect.
Edwin Leap is an emergency physician who blogs at edwinleap.com and is the author of the Practice Test and Life in Emergistan.
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