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A Story That Ends in a Smile

After a horrendous dental experience spanning two continents, she finally achieved the crowning glory--a beautiful new cap on a front tooth.

March 02, 1998|KERRY MADDEN-LUNSFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Kerry Madden-Lunsford is the author of "Offsides" (William Morrow Co., 1996)

When a dentist keeps his surgical mask on and talks to the ceiling while advising you, you begin to suspect that maybe you don't have his full attention. It didn't take long for me to surmise that my dental debacle (lack of a front tooth and a misaligned crown) was merely a kink in this particular dentist's Monday morning schedule.

"How did this happen?" he inquired.

"I bit into a very soft bagel in London and out it popped."

He stared at my X-rays briefly. "Hmmm. Well, it looks like you could have an infection, which could have caused your tooth to break inside the crown. Maybe you need to go to a specialist for a root canal." He said all this without removing his mask.

"But I had a root canal on this tooth when I was 11. It was knocked out when I was 8 and the root died at age 11."

He said something else, but I couldn't understand him through the surgical mask.

"But can't you put it back on straight, at least temporarily, so it fits in my mouth?" I persisted.

"No. I'm not sure if I can put it back on at all. I don't know what that dentist did in London, but this crown is ruined," he mumbled, looking out the window.

"But what should I do?"

As he garbled more incomprehensible words, I lost it. "Would you please take that surgical mask off? I can't understand a word you're saying."

He yanked it down and replied, "I said I could give you a bridge."

"What would that entail?"

"Shaving the two teeth on either side to hang a bridge."

Now there's a thought. The idea of him whittling away the good front teeth I had left to hitch even more fake ones made the tears rise, but I refused to give into them. "But won't people be able to tell?" I asked.

"Only dentists. Not regular people. I could give you another crown, but it might fall off again. Maybe an implant, but that's expensive, and it might not take to the bone. It would also take up to six months."

*

There was a tense silence in the room. The only reason I'd replaced this crown in the first place was because a fine black line had been showing at the gum line on the previous one (for years) and, call it vanity, I wanted a clean white crown that didn't look fake. Finally, I said, "Doctor, I paid you $300 for this crown 18 months ago on the school district's dental plan. Why did it come off?"

"Your tooth is brittle. It just broke."

"What would you do in my situation?"

"I don't know," he said, glancing out the window. Again.

I turned to the assistant. "What would you do?"

"Maybe a bridge," she said with a shrug. "They don't look too bad. Yeah. Get a bridge."

The dentist added, "But any route you take is irreversible, so you have to decide. Right now, I have other patients, so just call when you know what you want to do."

Irreversible. I let my tongue play over the empty socket, hand clamped over my mouth. What was I going to do? My greatest horror was having the thing pop out in public again and being forced to gum apologies as I escaped.

"Wait." I pleaded, "If you were me sitting in this chair, what would you do?"

He and his assistant exchanged glances, and he replied, "I don't know. I never thought about it."

"You're a dentist and you've never thought about it? But this is a front tooth."

"Yeah, I know." He looked at his watch and at the ceiling again.

"Get a bridge," the assistant insisted. "It looks almost the same."

Almost. I'd had enough of these two. They didn't give a damn. They wanted me to get out of their office and quit messing up their Monday schedule. Before I left, he managed to shove the crown back on, only this time it was hanging by a thread, literally.

*

I fled the office and called my husband, Kiffen, wailing. "I hate that dentist, and I hate all the team dentists who carved away at this tooth for years. I'm furious with my football coach father for knocking it out in the first place. I'm a freak. I look like a boxer."

Kiffen said, "Call your cousin, the dentist. Call him now. It doesn't matter what it costs. This is your front tooth."

My cousin is president of the Washington, D.C., Dental Society. Yet, I couldn't call him because I was afraid I would burst into tears over the phone with a relative I only see at weddings and funerals, so I e-mailed him instead, detailing the nightmare.

His response, which explained my options quite clearly, made me think that maybe I wouldn't be destined to go through life looking like someone who'd just stepped out of Appalachia, circa 1930.

He advised me to go to one of his colleagues in the Valley, Dr. Myron "Mike" Bromberg, and without hesitation, I did. After examining me, he said, "Jesus, what did that guy in London do to you? What did your Los Angeles dentist do to you?"

"Is there any hope at all?" I asked.

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