Saturday, March 06, 2010

March 6, 2010 - Going to a Different Place

Yesterday I spent three hours in the dentist’s chair – or, more specifically, the endodontist’s chair. It was the third session I’ve had in the past week or so, with one more coming on Monday.

I’m having a root canal done on a molar that’s developed an abscess. The tooth’s had a crown on it for years, so the doctor’s had to drill a hole down through the top of the crown and leave it open all week, to relieve pressure on the abscess and allow it to drain.

Dr. Donald Fahringer, the endodontist, is fabulous. He’s obviously highly skilled at his craft, and he’s very understanding of his patients. Each session begins with 4 (count ‘em), 4 shots of novocaine – slam, bam, one after the other. No messing around. None of this, “I’ll give you a little spritz of novocaine, and you raise your hand if it starts hurting.”

While it’s thankfully been a pain-free experience, it’s by no means been a comfortable experience. Sitting with your mouth held open for hours by a stainless-steel torture instrument topped with a latex dental dam, while somebody slowly rasps away at the inside of your tooth with tiny files, then peers inside your mouth with a microscope before rasping some more, ain’t exactly my idea of entertainment.

Fortunately, I’ve had a little experience with this sort of thing. Yes, I’ve had root canals before – but, it’s been many years, and none seemed to be as extensive a project as this one. The recent experiences that seem most relevant are my two bone-marrow biopsies - one in December, 2005 and the other in July, 2007.

On both those occasions, I instinctively knew I had to take myself to a different place – to be present, as I needed to, when the doctor needed to ask a question or to instruct me to turn a certain way, but otherwise I drifted off to a different plane.

During the bone-marrow biopsies, I randomly chose an object across the room to serve as a focal point, and focused my eyes on it, as I somehow burrowed down deep within my own consciousness. I can’t tell you how I did it, exactly, but I did it. I was there, but not there.

This time – with Dr. Fahringer’s permission – I brought my iPod into the chair, set it to pick songs randomly, and stuck the earbuds in as soon as he got started. I could hear and feel him doing things inside my mouth, unpleasant things, but I felt detached from the experience. I could just about hear his voice, over the music, when he asked me to turn my head toward him or open wider, but then, once I’d complied, I settled back into my own private la-la-land.

It’s one of the little lessons the cancer experience has taught me – not to mention the experiences I’ve had with contemplative prayer. Pain is real, discomfort is real, but up to a certain point, we have the power to influence the way those negative forces affect us.

All we have to do is go to a different place.

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