Oral Surgery Teaches Me a Lesson About Wholeness
We are all part of something bigger than our individual selves.
A little over a month ago my dental hygienist pointed out to me a dark spot that had shown up on the edge of the X-ray she had just taken. She called in the dentist who recommended I have the spot reviewed by an oral surgeon as soon as an appointment could be had.
A few days later, there I was, having a much more complex X-ray taken, followed by a conversation with the surgeon:
“There’s no reason to think this is malignant; in fact, I’m virtually certain it’s a cyst. But it needs to come out.”
“Okay, what does that entail?”
“Well, I’ll detach your palate to open up a space to remove the growth.”
“Detach my palate?”
“You’ll be asleep. When you wake up, you’ll start to swell and have bruising, and the top of your mouth will feel like your worst pizza burn ever. And you’ll have stitches between most of your upper teeth.”
“What about the hole left behind?”
“I’ll fill that with donor bone.”
“Yes, from the bone bank.”
I had gone from a routine teeth cleaning a few days earlier to learning I had a growth in my head that needed to be removed and the hole left behind needing to be filled with donor bone from the bone bank. That’s a lot to wrap one’s mind around. I will say, the surgeon did a great job of answering my questions in a simple and straightforward way. I left her office with the surgery scheduled for her first available opening, about three weeks later.
I’m writing two weeks after the surgery, having just returned from my post-op appointment in which the surgeon pronounced me well on my way to recovery. The “pizza burn” has pretty much healed. The stitches have dissolved. The swelling in my face that blackened my left eye and caused it to swell shut is gone. And, most importantly, the pathology report came back as the surgeon predicted, a benign cyst, a nasopalatine cyst to be precise.
She did tell me that mine was odd in how it grew and for its size, the largest she has seen in her career.
A large cyst means a large hole was created. At the post-op visit today, I asked her how exactly the hole was filled. I had been picturing that somehow the donor bone would be shaped to fill the hole (bone is hard after all, right?), and that in some clever manner this shape would be squeezed into my face while my palate was detached.
“No,” she said, “the donor bone is actually granulated. It’s like sand, which makes it easy to put in the cavity. Over time, it will solidify and merge with your bone.”
I was fascinated by this, imagining her filling the hole with a sand-like material, maybe using a funnel, like I do to fill the pepper mill. She showed me an X-ray she took after the surgery was completed and while I was still unconscious.
“There, that round spot is where I put the granulated bone. You can kind of see how it looks a little different than the area around it.”
“Can you tell me more about the donor bone, where it came from, that sort of thing?”
“Well, there are people who donate their bodies to science. Among the different ways these bodies are used include harvesting bones. What we used in your surgery came from what we call the bone bank.”
I found this supremely interesting but didn’t know what else to say. I mentioned that I had this vague recollection of talking to her after the surgery, asking her if I could find out who the donor was so I could thank this person’s family (and maybe know whose bone was at that moment starting to merge with my face).
She laughed, “Yes, you did ask about that. We really have no way of knowing.”
And with that, there was really no more to say other than pleasantries. I thanked her for her good work and left the office, a place close enough to where I live that I could easily walk home.
Outside, it was overcast with a bit of drizzle, a pretty stereotypical fall day in Seattle. One foot in front of the other, looking down at the sidewalk, I was still thinking about the donor. I pictured a person making arrangements to have their body donated to science. I wasn’t sure how this happened, if there was some governmental office one goes to in order to make this arrangement or something more simple, like how I’m listed as an organ donor on my driver’s license.
I also started thinking about this as an act of kindness, kindness being a topic to which I’ve devoted a great deal of my life. In the early 90’s I offered what is likely the first online kindness class, and I’ve only expanded my offerings from there. I keep an archive of what I’ve created, all available for free, at https://kindliving.net.
Several years ago, responding to requests from several of my kindness students scattered throughout the world, I created a class I called “Anonymous Kindness.” Scheduled over ten weeks, each Sunday night I posted an “assignment,” a suggestion for a kindness act that the participants would complete anonymously over the next week. A couple of days later I would send them a message designed to stoke their thoughts and enthusiasm, what I called a message of inspiration. And I ended each week by providing them a summary message, one reflecting on my thoughts about that week’s assignment and their responses to it, which by then they were to have posted to our class website.
It was a wonderful experience for me and, I think, for most of the several dozen participants.
An early assignment had to do with completing at least one and ideally several small acts of kindness. I suggested that opportunities to complete these often come upon us spontaneously, like allowing a driver to merge in front of us, returning grocery store carts to the store, cleaning up paper towels in a public restroom, that sort of thing.
Now, as I was walking home from the oral surgeon’s office, I thought about how simple, how small, of an act it was for me to have checked a box on my driver’s license form to become an organ donor. I wondered again about the donor of the granulated bone in my face. How simple, how small, of an act was it for them to have done something that started a chain of events that led to their bone becoming part of my face, part of me?
It was both small and magnificently huge.
This is the point that I made in my reflection message the week of the “small kindness act” assignment, that we actually will not know how big of an impact our small acts might have. Waving a driver to go in front of you could change their whole demeanor. They may feel more apt to be kind, thoughtful, to someone they see. And then on and on. One small act leads to many small acts that together change the world.
That’s The Butterfly Effect applied to human action.
A smile, which just a few days earlier I couldn’t manage because of the swelling, came over me. I touched my tender cheek, the space above where the granulated bone was placed, and imagined the donor. At one point this person was alive and went for a walk, the bone in them aiding in their movement. Now that bone was in me.
Whose bone is it, I wondered.
It’s theirs, it’s mine. It’s… it’s, and then an epiphany, it’s ours.
It’s our bone.
And if it’s our bone, then everything is ours, meaning everything is to share. It’s interconnectedness. It’s wholeness. It’s oneness.
Turning onto my block, I had a little chuckle, given I like to play with words. A pun had dawned on me, one that also carried for me profound meaning. The oral surgeon had filled the hole in my face, which had led to me experiencing interconnection and oneness.
Filling the whole.