3 Lessons I Learned Having a Dental Emergency in the Time of COVID-19

A painful toothache struck at the worst possible time, but the traumatic ordeal actually taught me a few things.

Brian Rowe
Apr 12, 2020 · 7 min read

Staying at home these past few weeks turned out to be more difficult than I thought it would be.

I mean, I’m used to staying at home. I teach at a local college a few days a week, but the rest of the time I’m at home writing. By mid-March I was prepared to hunker down for a few weeks or months, however long it took, to practice social distancing and keep myself safe.

I just hoped there wouldn’t be any emergencies. I’ve had problems with my teeth off and on for about fifteen years, and since January I’d had some sensitivity with one tooth every time I ate something super hot or cold. I figured it was something I’d have to deal with eventually but certainly not now. Not during a national pandemic.

Well, wouldn’t you know it — on Saturday, March 21, a few days into settling into the new normal, my tooth started aching uncontrollably.

I thought a good night’s sleep would do the trick. Nope, I ended up even worse the next day and realized I had a major problem. I had to see the dentist and fast. But was my dentist even open right now? Could I get an appointment?

My worry and anxiety led me to my first lesson.

It’s OK to be Afraid Right Now

We’re all trying to be strong. We’re all doing our best to put on a happy face and stay productive and eat right and get the amount of sleep we need.

But fear is striking us in all kinds of different ways, and it’s OK to be afraid, especially when we’re faced with an unthinkable dilemma like a debilitating toothache. We all want to stay well and healthy, but life rarely goes as planned, and we all have to be prepared for that.

I wasn’t prepared to have a toothache, but it happened, and I had to deal with it. My questions were: could anyone help me? Would I have to wait until April or even May to see my dentist? What if there was something that needed to be fixed soon? What if I had an infection? Would I have to go to urgent care or an emergency room? Could they even treat toothaches?

So many questions swirled through my brain. I would have been scared regardless of the state of the world, but now I had intense tooth pain and a growing fear that I shouldn’t be in close proximity with people outside my household. Was I actually going to need to sit in a dentist’s chair and have my teeth worked on?

I was afraid of catching the virus. I wanted to stay at home. But there’s something about horrific pain vibrating throughout your mouth for hours on end that makes you face your fears and do what you need to do.

I was able to get a hold of my dentist, but he was only seeing patients on an emergency basis.

“This is definitely an emergency!” I told him, and he got me in the next morning. His office was bare like I’d never seen it before. His assistant checked my temperature and asked me to wash my hands. Finally, I took a seat in the dental chair, and he examined my teeth. He took X-rays. Performed about seven tests. After about a half-hour, he shook his head. My teeth looked perfectly normal.

Since everything checked out okay, and my pain was still at an all-time high, he assumed the worst — I probably needed a root canal, and so he gave me a referral to an endodontist who specialized in root canals across town.

Great. Wonderful. Here I thought maybe I just needed to replace a filling or something, and this nightmare was going from bad to worse! And in the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak, oh my God. I couldn’t believe it.

I managed to get an appointment with the endodontist that coming Thursday, so I stayed at home in agony for a couple of days trying my best to stay productive with my writing and focus on anything but the pain. I took so much Advil you wouldn’t believe it.

Thursday morning finally arrived and, like with my dentist, I was the only patient in the building. Everybody wore masks and I again was asked to wash my hands. The endodontist performed a test on me that pressed something ice-cold against the tooth in question, and the pain was so intense I doubled over in the chair. “Yep, that tooth needs a root canal,” he said. “I might be able to squeeze you in now, does that work?”

The procedure would cost $1500, and I don’t have dental insurance, so I let myself cry internally for a few seconds before I told him to get it done. I couldn’t wait another day, another week. I needed the pain to go away.

So he numbed me up really well and took me into a back room to perform the procedure. It was uncomfortable but only took an hour, thankfully, and not two to three hours like I originally thought.

This experience of having the root canal led me to my second lesson.

Medical Procedures Are the Same During COVID-19

I was already terrified to get a root canal, and I was unbelievably terrified about the prospect of getting one done during a pandemic. Would the procedure take three times as long? Would the endodontist have to take occasional breaks so he wasn’t too close to my mouth for too long?

I had so much concern about what was happening, but thankfully I’d been through one root canal before and found within a few minutes nothing about the procedure had changed.

I still got the same mouthpiece. I still got the thin sheet of rubber — a dental dam, it’s called — that covered most of my face except for the hole cut into the rubber above my infected tooth. There were two people in the room for the hour-long procedure, just like last time, too.

It turned out I’d been worried about the procedure for nothing, really. It didn’t change at all in the time of COVID-19, except for maybe more washing of hands and masks covering their faces that were worn a bit tighter.

A couple of friends have told me they’re afraid of having something like a dental emergency right now, but I’m happy to report that if you’re in dire need of a dentist, their services are available, and the procedures remain the same, and you can get in fast. At least in the Reno, Nevada area.

I was told after the root canal there was one more procedure that needed to be completed.

Handing over my credit card was one of them, of course, but I was also told that within four weeks I would have to replace the temporary filling the endodontist had put on my tooth with a permanent filling, as well as a crown.

I was annoyed that there was more to be done, but as soon as they said if I don’t take care of the final step the tooth could become infected again and I might have to return for another root canal, I called my dentist pronto.

One of his assistants picked up the phone. I told her what needed to be done within four weeks, but she said a filling and/or a crown wasn’t considered an emergency procedure and that I would have to wait until normal business hours resumed at the dentist’s office in May or June.

“But this is an emergency!” I said, just like I’d said to the dentist on my first phone call the weekend before. “If I don’t get this done by mid-April, my tooth can be re-infected!” She said there was nothing she could do but that she would pass my message along to the dentist.

I didn’t wait. I called the dentist directly a few minutes later, and he said he could get me in the following week to take care of the permanent filling. He said the labs were currently closed during COVID-19 and so I couldn’t get a crown fitted just yet, but he could at least buy me some time by putting in the permanent filling, thankfully.

So the following week I went to see the dentist, and he got me right in. The procedure of replacing the temporary filling with the permanent filling took all of twenty minutes. I didn’t even have to be numbed up. I was in and out before I could notice, and I remember just thanking the man, over and over. I could not stop saying, “Thank you.”

Because there was one more lesson I’d learned throughout all of this.

Health Care Workers are Heroes

All these inspiring people are putting their lives on the line every day to get care to their patients who need it. They’re not backing into a corner afraid of potentially catching this virus. They’re putting themselves in harm’s way to do what’s necessary.

I was so afraid these past few weeks, and what I should have realized was that I had nothing to be scared of — it was my dentist and the endodontist and their assistants who had way more to be afraid of. During this experience, I only interacted with a few select people, after all, while they’re interacting with one patient after another at least five days a week.

They’re seeing tons of people, and the dental workers are getting up close to patient after patient. They’re wearing masks and they’re taking all the necessary precautions, but there aren’t any guarantees they’ll be safe every time a new patient comes through their door.

So the major lesson I learned from this experience is how people like my dentist, along with all other healthcare workers, are outright heroes right now. These people saved me from infection and potentially something worse, and they did so during a pandemic.

They’re heroes of the highest order, absolutely, and they get my utmost respect!

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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