Friday, May 6, 2011

Root Canals Are Not Hell

So, tooth #4 (that's upper right premolar/bicuspid to those of you in the know) has been on the Terrorist Watch List for several years. Had I gotten the stupid cavity filled when it was first spotted, it would have been a lot cheaper and less involved in the end. But it seems that whenever I have the mental focus and stamina to deal with the dentist, I lack the time and finances. If I have the time, I lack the focus and the finances. If I have the finances, I lack the time and the stamina. On any average day, I score 1 of 3 and count myself lucky to be doing so well.

But, at the last tooth cleaning and x-ray, the dentist pointed out that tooth #4 had gone over to the Dark Side. The cavity took up nearly 50% of the tooth, and if it wasn't already in contact with the nerve pulp, it would be any second now.

I've had one tooth with an infected nerve pulp. It was worse than any migraine I've ever had. Worse than the gall bladder attacks I suffered through. Worse than breaking my ankle or my elbow. It was so bad, all I could do was curl up around my jaw with an ice pack on the worst of it and pray for the sweet release of death. Instead, I got a dental appointment the following Monday, an immediate referral to an endodontist, and a root canal the following morning.

I like my endodontist. I'd like him even if he hadn't prescribed me Vicodin and then given me so much local anesthetic I wouldn't have noticed if he'd implanted antlers over my ears. Unfortunately, because of the stress of the infected tooth, the anxiety of Oh My Og, a ROOT CANAL, I don't actually remember much. Just him and his assistant being very sympathetic and patting me on the head, and a bit of explanation as to why root canals are not as bad as everyone thinks they are.

Bit of explanation:

First, they used to be as bad as everyone thinks they are. Apparently, dentists weren't great at making sure the patient was as numb as could be. Then, they didn't always get all the nerve fibers out, because those nerves get really, really tiny. Finally, the majority of root canals got infected and caused pain that could be measured on the Richter scale.

No longer!

First, it's now standard procedure to treat the pain and prevent the pain. Yay! On my first root canal, both my brand new regular dentist who'd never seen me before and my brand new endodontist who'd never seen me before, prescribed me enough Vicodin to see me through until the appointment. Otherwise, I think I may have removed my entire lower jaw on my own.

Then, the endodontist went to great lengths to make sure I was completely numb. Swabs of stuff that numb the top layer of skin so the shots don't hurt. Multiple shots in many places, distributing the anesthetic all over the place, and a metered syringe so the anesthetic itself didn't cause pain by creating a huge bubble of liquid pressing on other nerves.

Both times, there was one point I felt some pain. On the first root canal, I could feel some tugging with a bit of owchie pinching. One mention of "Mmmrmffrmm-rrmmff", and he stopped everything, added more anesthetic, waited for it to take hold, and off we went. The second time, apparently, my hard palate had not gotten the note about the anesthesia, so I got two, maybe three shots right in there. Those did hurt, however, understanding the gateway hypothesis of pain management (your brain can only concentrate on one big owie at a time), I dug my nail into my thumb, providing a pain I had control over, and the shots no longer bothered me.

Second! Dentists didn't use to clear out all the nerve fibers during root canals, leaving both very aggravated and angry nerves behind, and the potential for rampant infections in the canal itself. The nerve fibers themselves often have a diameter less than that of a human hair. My endodontist told me this was a real problem until some clever dentist noticed a neurosurgeon using one of those gee-whiz microscopes during a brain surgery. Well, if it helps during brain surgery, why couldn't it help during a root canal? Granted, not as sexy, but even more appreciated. With the technical assistance of excellent micro-vision granted, nerve fibers were hunted down and destroyed like some timely metaphor including an allusion to Osama bin Laden and his Pakistani compound.

Third! The terrible post root canal infections. Happened a lot. Apparently - and this is what my endodontist explained to me - unlike a wound being infected when bacteria is introduced at the time of trauma, what often happens with root nerves is they are traumatized by some other incident, become inflamed - that is, get red, hot, and bothered, and have more bloodflow going to them - and attract stray bacteria in the bloodstream which have managed to avoid the white blood cells. The immune system does not like to attack nerve fibers. Bad things happen. So, a bacterium which lands there is safe. And it has a party. And then bad things happen.

To prevent that, or cure it if that's what's going on, once the nerve root has been extracted and destroyed, the endodontist flushes the entire canal with a bleach solution. Intellectually, I'm a big fan of bleach. Kill the germs! Whiten the laundry! Eliminate the bad smells! Except, I really dislike the smell of bleach, and having that smell in my mouth was probably the most uncomfortable part of the whole procedure. Blech. Worth it though.

After all this is done, the endodontist seals the canal with a substance called gutta percha. Most excellent name, isn't it? Gutta Percha. Gutta Percha. Gutta Percha is the inelastic latex-like sap from a tropical tree, and it's been in commercial use since 1842. When warm, it's ductile and malleable, and when it cools down, it doesn't become brittle like unvulcanized rubber does. That's your botanical/chemistry lesson for today. These days, the demand is so high, that a chemically identical, artificial form of gutta percha is manufactured so we don't kill all the trees.

Once the root canal is filled,  a cotton plug is put in, and a temporary filling is added. One then gets to follow up with one's regular dentist for a crown. The cotton is there to let them know when they've drilled down far enough.

I will say, for a procedure that involved nerve endings so notoriously sensitive it made for a horrifying torture scene in Marathon Man, the current reality is far more pleasant. Of course, being someone who gets anxious about any dental adventures, I took half a Valium before going and was significantly more mellow than I would have been otherwise. Even so, the procedure took only about an hour, the Sith tooth can no longer harm me, and I was so well anesthetized that even half my nose was numb when I left. Lunch at Chili's was interesting, because while I could get food into my mouth, using a straw was adventurous. My server brought me extra napkins and didn't even ask.

I did not get full feeling back in my face until eight hours after the procedure. So, I amused myself by poking different parts of my face or trying to smile at the mirror and determining which muscles were still affected. I had a lovely time chatting with the endodontist and his assistant. He even showed me pictures from a couple of his textbooks when I mentioned the trouble I was having with what may be Sjogren's syndrome. We agreed that the picture of the parotid gland tumor was really, really gross. I scored points for knowing that Lou Gehrig's disease was ALS, not myasthenia gravis.

I'm not saying I'd like a weekly root canal. After all, I'd run out of roots before the year was out. However, I am learning that procedures whose very mention could make me crawl up in a chair and break out in a cold sweat are not actually the Hell on Earth they used to be. In fact, considering the alternative (ice pack, praying for the sweet release of death), I'll take the root canal just about any day.

So, Dr. Bruce Smith of Escondido, thank you to you and your wonderful staff. The Dark Side was defeated. I have one less ticking time bomb in my mouth, and while I may still break into a cold sweat, I know it's more of a conditioned, cultural reflex than anything to do with reality.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Dear God, this is Raven. Try not to piss her off.

This was originally posted on my favorite message board nearly a year ago. Raven, the cat who adopted me in college, had chronic kidney failure. She lived nearly two years after her diagnosis, when the average was six months. She was about the toughest living thing I've ever met, and I was privileged to be part of her life. Here is the eulogy I wrote for her:

Dear God, this is Raven. Try not to piss her off.

On a grey and rainy morning in January 1992, a small black cat wandered into my life. She came through the open apartment door, jumped up on a stool beside the table I was scrubbing, and announced herself. Last Friday, I held her and cried on her and thanked her for being my friend while the vet gave her an overdose of barbiturates. She was eighteen and a half years old.

I could easily write 10,000 words about my kitty. She wasn't actually black. She was a very dark tortoiseshell, and as many cat owners have learned, those lovely markings come with a special attitude.

Raven hated all other animals. At best, she could tolerate their presence in the room, but if they came within two yards of her, she hissed and spat. Closer, and she would attack. When I had roommates with pets, I kept a water pistol to chase Raven away from the other cats. Small as she was, she won nearly every fight she started, and she started a lot of them.

But she liked me, preferred me even. Given her choice, she would always join me at bedtime and sleep curled up next to my head or with her paw over my wrist. As I survived bouts of depression, with nightmares, loneliness, and feelings of utter and absolute failure, Raven stood as guardian and healer. I would wake in the middle of the night from a bad dream and find her awake, standing watch over me, purring. If I cried, she left what she was doing and came to me, and purred and nuzzled me until I could bear going on.

She was no pushover. I could play with her, but if I teased her, I found out (as Calvin and Hobbes once put it), that she was pointy on five of her six ends. The only person who could ever manhandle her was my younger brother. When I was home from college for the summer, I put him in charge of bathing her, after I'd found him holding her by all four paws and running her under the faucet, while she purred contentedly.

She loved men, the smellier the better. If my brother came in from mowing the lawn in July, she went into the throes of ecstasy over his armpits. She made sweet love to a friend's down vest when he was over for a visit. He said he'd seen less explicit porn.

Raven was probably the toughest living creature I have ever known. She was six months old and pregnant when I adopted her. The most she ever weighed was nine pounds. I could not make her an indoor cat; she wouldn't tolerate it. Instead, she would go out and pick fights with whatever pissed her off, and I would patch her up. At least three times, she had to go to the vet for an abscessed wound. She survived her first months on the street, survived an early pregnancy, then being spayed, then her Fight Club injuries.

In January of 2009, the vet told me she had kidney failure, and most cats at her stage lasted about six months. I got to keep her for 15 months. It wasn't even the kidney failure that did it, though it played a role. I noticed about nine months ago that she was losing vision. She didn't really play or do her psycho-kitty-zoom-zooms anymore. She had arthritis in her hips, and it spread. She crept. She was sore. She disliked being handled. Two weeks ago, I finally realized that it was no fun for her being the cat anymore, and to keep her alive any longer would be selfishness on my part.

She was my pet for eighteen years. Usually, I felt more like her pet than anything else. She was not some mellow, lovey-dovey, velcro cat. She was a perpetually pissed-off bitch kitty, and I happened to be one of the few humans she trusted and loved. I have an image in my head of St. Peter desperately holding Raven at arm's length while she twists and claws. He grabs the PA and shouts "We need St. Francis up here, STAT!". Hell certainly wouldn't let her in. They know trouble when they see it, down there.

If anything, perhaps she's at the end of the Rainbow Bridge. She'd make a most excellent Valkyrie, and I'm sure she'd appreciate the day-long brawling and sweaty Viking men at Valhalla. Save one for me, baby cat. I miss you terribly.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Homo habilis robinicus - Part II

Woohoo! Yippee! Wowza! Frabjous Day! Calloo! Callay!

I have an officially complete closet! With doors and everything. And, there was only one very minor injury. I wouldn't even mention it, but it involved fire.

So, let me first brag upon my newbie problem-solving skills. Put me up against those New Caledonian crows! I'll take their lunch money!

I had to special order the doors, because the very silly people who planned and built my house made sure the closet doorway was a very strange size. Even with the special order, the doors were a total of four inches off the width of the doorway. But, they're bifold doors. A little space on either side, a little space in the middle, et voila!

Except, the rails the doors' runners are supposed to rest on are something like two and a half inches longer than each door. So, when I go to screw them into the upper doorway, there's an inch overlap.

I closed my eyes and prayed that the patron saint of building materials would smite the sodden idjits who did this to me. Then I went and found a hacksaw. And I hacked off an inch plus a fraction for safety. I would say all by myself, but after five minutes of shrieking noise from the hack saw (which I could only pull through the cut, not push), my father came to check on me and make sure I wasn't killing small animals.

He's very tactful in that he never states his suspicions. He just raises his eyebrows and gives me a hopeful look that I'll fill him in. Which I did. So he helped. He even found a couple of pliers to bend the end back and forth to break it off instead of making me saw through the entire thing. Yay!

So I returned upstairs and found another problem. Though I'd pre-drilled the holes for the screws to hold the rail in place, I couldn't screw the screws in all the way. I went looking for an honest to goodness power screwdriver, since my Dremel has only minor torque, but while I found the screwdriver, there were no bits for it.

So, I used the Dremel to drill further and found the stud and drilled into it.

Hmmm. More smoke. And drywall dust falling on me. And, just because I was wearing glasses and not standing directly underneath it was no reason for me not to get stuff in my eyes. The burning ember which fell hit my left arm, just above the inside of the elbow, and I did an impromptu funky chicken dance. Even though it hit and was immediately knocked off, the ember left a second degree burn the size of a pinhead.

So, that's the official injury. You actually can't tell it apart from any freckles, moles, or pimples at a distance of more than twelve inches or so, but it is an actual construction injury.

And . . . rails went up. The bottom pieces went in, though I had to screw the plate through carpet, which felt very silly until I realized that it was much better than screwing through the floor. It turned out I'd put the two top pegs - one springy peg and one springy peg with a wheel - in the wrong spots. So I had to swap them on both doors.

And they work! Oh, there was a little adjustment here and there. Nothing a capable woman like myself couldn't manage. The doors open and close without falling off. I have all this room in front of my closet and I can't see my clothes! Plus, the bedroom wall on that side looks significantly bigger and is practically begging for some pictures!

But, that's another project for another day.

Why this project? Why today? Because I got my mom her own "closet organization system" (I can't seem to say that without putting it in quotations. I'm not sure why) for Christmas. And I want to install it for her. But there's no way she'll let me do it if I still have my closet doors uninstalled. Also, I'm avoiding writing.

By the way, what do I do with all the leftover parts I didn't need?

Homo habilis robinicus - Part I

I have long wanted to be one of those capable people who could assess a situation, ask for a Phillips screwdriver, a bucket of propwash, and a left-handed Fallopian tube, set to work, and put everything to rights.  I have wanted this ability not just to impress my fellow humans ("Look, guys! Opposable thumbs work!") but because a practical ability - any practical ability stood a 100% chance of making my life better.

Except, I keep forgetting: this is me we're talking about.

The project at hand is one that has been waiting for completion for at least one calendar year. You see, not quite a year and a half ago, I moved in with my parents - primarily to help take care of my dad, whose health is fragile, and secondarily to get caught up economically. I do have a bedroom to call my own, but the hundred square foot room has certain drawbacks. The first of which is that it's only one hundred square feet.

So I painted it green. Doesn't change the size, but it's certainly a nice departure from "cheap apartment white" and the icky floral border at the top of the wall. I also put a new doorknob on my bedroom door - quite swank if I do say so myself. Satin brushed nickel in something of a art nouveau design. Emboldened by my success - there had been no trips to the ER, no leftover parts, and no police stopping by the house to make sure everything was okay - I considered another project.

The closet!

It had stood there, a tiny, pathetic space, with the same sad plank shelf and wooden dowel hanging rod it had started life with some 25 years ago. Sad. Very sad. It was also stuffed to the gills, I couldn't find anything I needed, and the doors were yucky. I hated the doors. They had to die.

So, from my yearly tax refund, I bought a name brand "closet organizing system". I took down the yucky doors and carried them to their doom like a cheerfully rampaging Viking. I took a hammer and beat the bejeezus out of the plank shelf and knocked it out. The hanging rod took but a moment longer. Hmmm, demolition is fun, I thought. Who knew? Well, guys in the construction industry know, and I'll just bet they've been keeping it secret. Get paid to break stuff with hammers? Oh, yeah. If I were in on it, I'd keep it a secret.

I should have taken pictures of the whole process, but there are three problems:
  1. I never remember.
  2. I'm always by myself doing this stuff.
  3. I never realize just how cool what I'm doing is until it's too late.
So, no pics, but in the course of two days, I installed the name brand "closet organizing system", and joy of joys, rapture of rapture, all my stuff fit into it.

Except, now, I had no closet doors.

It took me a few more weeks, but I did buy actual closet doors. The louvered bifold kind that I so much prefer. I even bought cute little brushed satin almost art nouveau style round handles to go on them. I even painted the doors with a shade of white that matched the green the rest of the room had become. I went so far as to bring the doors up to my room and prop them beside the closet.

Where they stayed for an entire year. A year that saw the arrival of a new puppy, the purchase of a new mattress, and the death of an old kitty. They stayed in that spot for so long, when I finally moved them today, they pulled up little spots of paint from the wall where they made contact. I guess I should be glad that I saved my green paint.

So . . . doors placed across the bed. What next?

And here's where I begin to run into issues. There were, by the way, plenty of issues with the room painting and the installation of the "closet organization system". It's just, that was long enough ago, that the details have blurred to a pleasant background memory of "I solved problems! I am handy!".

First, being one of the adult poster children for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder - Predominantly Inattentive, my life can be summed up in two phrases: "What was that?" and "Let's go!". During the "Let's Go" phase, little practicalities like planning, gathering supplies, and plotting out the order of events tend to go out the window.

Second, I no longer live by myself or even in a house where I can do stuff like start a home improvement project with no one noticing. This house is small. The framing is wimpy, the insulation is nonexistent, and my father - stone deaf under most social circumstances - can hear me scratch my ankle when he's downstairs and my bedroom door is closed.

But, Dad was out for lunch, so start I could. And what better place to start than to put the way cool satin brushed art nouveau style nickel handles on the doors. Even though the instructions for the doors said that was something like (checking bag) Step 6. Of course, the instructions also said that there were pre-drilled holes for the handles, but those hadn't survived the painting even if they had existed, and the handles the manufacturer sent were extraordinarily gacky.

So, the doors are lying across my bed. They are covered in dust and dust bunnies. Hmmm.

Get a cloth - NO, a microfiber cloth - to clean them off. Hmm, the tracks are dirty too. Never mind that they're at least three hours from being handled, clean them too. Handles? Handles . . . where are the handles? Oh, my gosh, I found them in a logical place - in the closet on one of the shelves. My goodness, that "closet organization system" really is paying off!

What now?

Hmm. The screws that attach the handles are not pointy. Therefore, I cannot screw them directly into the door. I need to drill a hole for each screw. This means electrical hand tools! Muahahahahaha.

Trip downstairs to the garage to find my Dremel box that my brother gave me for Christmas several years after I swooned and drooled over one. I've used it perhaps six or seven times, but each use makes me a better human being. I am even able to locate the correct bit for drilling a proper hole. I am even able to remember how to loosen and tighten the chuck so that I can install the correct drill bit. I even remember that it's a chuck! I am Superior Handy Woman!

I stare at the doors. Hmmm. "Let's go!" screams my brain, but some weak semblance of a frontal lobe cautions me that just drilling holes into the door might be a bad idea. Perhaps . . . perhaps I should determine where the holes will go before I drill them.


I even, would you believe, use a measuring tape to determine the center of the midboard where the handles will go and mark it in pencil on both sides. I am a GODDESS!

I coordinate myself, the Dremel, the door, the marking, and begin to drill a hole for the handle screw. Hmmm. Not difficult at all. I just have to make sure that I go straight down at a 90 degree angle. The paint does not chip on entry, the wood carves away very easily. Aaaaand . . . what is that white puffy stuff coming out?

It's not paint. I'm already through the paint. It's not sawdust, as sawdust wouldn't float through the air in such a manner. Sure does smell nice though, and there's more of it. In fact it reminds me of throwing hickory chips on the barbe- uh, I think it's smoke.

Should my door be smoking while I'm drilling a hole in it? I'm pretty sure not, but I don't remember ever seeing this covered in This Old House. I blow the smoke away twice, figuring, hey, I'm almost through. Clearly, the friction of the bit carving through the wood has provided enough friction to cause a teensy eensy amount of combustion within the drill hole. Aaaaand now there's more smoke.

Hmmm. Friction . . . and by blowing away the smoke, I just provided it with more air. Really, all it needs to go "FWOOMF!" is a spark. But before I can worry further, I have drilled all the way through the wood. Woohoo! I turn the door over to inspect.

Hmmm, the wood on this side did chip a little when the drill bit emerged. I'm pretty sure they did cover that on This Old House but I can't remember what the fix was. Oh, and the hole is charred, and there's a bunch of burnt sawdust on my bed. Hmmm.

The worst part of this is, the "Let's Go!" part of my brain is doing a Beavis and Butthead chuckle and saying "That was cool! Fire! Heh! Let's do it again!" And I shrug and think "sure, why not." So I drill the hole on the other door. Yep. There's still smoke. It still smells like a really good barbecue fire, and the far side of the wood where the bit emerges is a bit crispy.

However! I did not officially set anything on fire. Smoldering does not count. So, I win this round.

I even got the handles screwed into place, and they look very nice.

Then Dad got home.

It's not that he thinks I'm incompetent or dangerous. I mean, he might, but he's never said it out loud. It's just that my projects have a tendency to make him nervous. Especially when I start making trips downstairs at eleven o'clock at night for Ziplocs, garbage bags, and thick gloves. Also, again, while stone deaf in social circumstances, he has preternaturally sharp hearing when he's trying to nap - which is what he's currently doing. I'm astonished he hasn't come up and asked me to stop typing so loudly.

So, I must pause, at least until the father is up and about again, and I can't stand it! I am in full "Let's Go!" mode. Sitting at the computer typing sometimes satisfied the "Let's Go!" part of my brain, but really, there are power tools available, and I have a year old project to finish. Typing barely holds a candle to that.

One thing I could do is repaint the patches the doors took off when I moved them. I could also paint the top of the closet doorway green, as it's still "cheap apartment white", because I could never figure out how to get the aluminum rail for the gacky doors off. It fell off on its own several months ago.

But . . . if I paint (which, admittedly, is usually a quiet activity), it will take time for the paint to dry before I could put the tracks for the doors up. Hours. Maybe even a day or more! Then what will I do?!

I supposed I could hang some pictures. It would involve wielding a hammer. It's not a power tool, but it gives me an excuse to use the stud finder and make my usual bad joke about it.

Decisions, decision, decisions.