Say “ah”

You might want to put down the drinks while you’re reading this one….  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Three weeks ago, an old porcelain filling broke and fell out into my hand.  They put on a temporary crown and yesterday morning I was getting the permanent one “installed”.

Now, to say that I hate the dentist is inaccurate.  I actually like my dentist a lot.  He’s very nice and competent.  But I hate dental procedures.  I have a strong gag reflex and I’m not a fan of the whole “holding-your-mouth-open-for-hours-on-end-so-they-can-poke-you-with-sharp-sticks” thing. When I am really stressed, I have dreams that my teeth are falling out while I speak.  On top of that there’s that flaw-intensifying mirror right over your face, so yeah I’m not a fan of dental things.

But today was to be quick – three easy steps:  1) Take off temporary crown. 2) Glue on permanent one. 3) Thank dentist and head to work.

Somewhere between step 2 and 3 my day took a left turn.

He had placed the new crown on and instructed me to bite down on one of those cotton rolls for 3 minutes.  Then he was going to scrap off the extra cement and we’d be done.  So I sat and read a trashy magazine for 3 minutes.  I felt drool pooling in my mouth, but my stomach turned at the idea of swallowing cement. I chose to let all the saliva get soaked up by the cotton.  The tooth/crown was the very back tooth on the top.

The hygienist came over and said, “Open up” – with her fingers all set to grab the cotton.

I opened up and….that drool soaked cotton roll, which was sitting right at the back of my jaw slid to the right and popped straight down my throat.

Cotton Roll right into my throat, where one talks and breathes.

I JUMPED out of the dental chair gagging and choking and trying to cough it up.  The sounds I was making are hard to replicate in words.  Imagine a momma bird flapping around to hack up food for her little birds, but with less feathers, fewer worms, more flapping, and more panic.  Suffice it to say, you’re probably lucky you weren’t one of the other patients within earshot of my hacking and choking.

I don’t know what the hygienist did but soon the dentist was at my side, trying to calm me down while looking for an appropriate tool to shove down my throat.

“You can breathe, you are breathing, it’s cotton, the air will get through” is what he kept saying.

I kept trying to signal for someone to whack me on the back or something.  And I may have slapped the dentist somewhere in there.  He got me to sit down and he tried to look down my throat, but the urge to not tilt my head back was too great and I jumped back up and tried to cough and dislodge it from my throat.

And at about that point, the dentist yelled, “Call 911.”

So, if you’ve never had a dentist yell “Call 911” during your dental appointment, let me tell you, I don’t recommend it.  In fact, try very hard to NOT get into a situation where that phrase is ever necessary.

Thankfully the call was cancelled because just about that time my will to live (or gravity) helped to push the cotton down and my throat was cleared.

About a million years after the whole cotton ordeal started (or roughly 1.5 minutes, take your pick),  I yelled out, “I swallowed it. Oh my God. I can breathe.”

I fell back on the dental chair and took some deep breaths and wiped away some tears.  And I’m pretty sure the whole office (staff and patients) heaved a big sigh.  Of course I think they might have all wet their pants before that – but we were all breathing again which was the important part, especially for me.

As I was sitting there collecting my thoughts (which mostly consisted of “I almost died in the middle of the dentist office”), the dentist and I weren’t sure whether to laugh or be horrified.

“You weren’t even numb, I could imagine if your mouth was numb….but this….”

“I know – but there was a lot of spit. Oh my God.”

“Hm, I think you should probably go to the ER anyway.”

“Excuse me?”

He proceeded to tell me about two directions down your throat – the stomach or the lungs and said something about lung abscesses three months down the road.  My brain started screaming as I was still trying to clear the nasty feeling in my throat.

I very calmly asked if I could call my husband, and if the dentist could please check the crown. We seemed to have forgotten it in the whole ordeal.

With my new tooth cleaned off, a sample cotton roll in my purse (for doctors’ information), and assurances that the dentist’s insurance would pay for the ER visit, I waited for my husband.  He showed up quickly but a little confused and worried.  He called my primary doctor, but got dumped to voicemail.

“Well, you aren’t going to develop a lung abscess in the next three hours…”

“Are you suggesting I go to WORK?”

“No, no, I’m just trying to figure out what to do.”

“The ER, now!”

The intake desk guy didn’t seem to understand what I had told him, because when the triage nurse called me up, she asked, “So you are here because you’re having throat pain?”

“No, I’m having throat pain because I was at the dentist and I swallowed a cotton roll.”  And I held up the sample one the dentist had given me.

cotton roll

And that was the first of several identical looks I got at the ER – the look that is both horrified and humored all at the same time.  Like you want to giggle but you don’t want to offend the person and at the same time you want to run and cancel your next dental appointment asap.

As they were getting me to an ER room, I was frantically trying to get an email to my students from my cellphone. Steve was helping but the connection to my webmail was slow and at one point it almost sent my class the following:  “Class cancelled. In ER. Not going to make it.”  After about 10 mins it finally let me add “to class” and I hit send.

After vitals and such, they took me for an X-ray and Steve left for work.  He couldn’t cancel his classes and we both figured this was going to take no time at all.  Ha.

In the X-ray room, I had to explain to the two technicians why they were photographing my insides.  Again with the horror and humor and comments of “I hate going to the dentist.”  Meanwhile, I hugged the X-ray machine and wondering if these pictures would show the awesome weight loss (20.5 pounds so far) I’ve achieved with Weight Watchers this year.

Back in my ER cubicle, I read a book and checked Facebook as I waited for a doctor and my X-ray results.  Had posted the following with a check in at the local hospital: You know those days when you go to the dentist for a crown and then the cotton roll in your mouth gets wet with saliva and then slides and lodges in your throat and you think you will choke to death at the dentist and then as they are calling 911 the cotton slides all the way down and the dentist says you should go to the ER to be sure it’s on it’s way to your stomach and not your lungs? Yeah well that’s the kind of day I’m having. 

The comments and jokes from friends were pouring in.  Including an offer to rewrite the lyrics to “Cotton-Eyed Joe” to make “Cotton-Lunged Jenn”.  A runner friend asked if I was going to still be able to run. A friend who writes amazing comic books sent me a message asking what the bleep was going on and did I now have any superpowers.  I suggested a new sidekick: Cottonmouth Girl.  She can shoot cotton balls out of her mouth and tangle up criminals in them.

Meanwhile our church’s children’s director had seen FB and was texting me asking if I was okay.  As I was responding to him, a friend who also works in children’s ministries with me was rolled by on a gurney.

“Maureen???  What are you doing here?”

“I fell off my bike taking the kids up to school.  You?”

“I swallowed a cotton ball at the dentist.”

“Oh my goodness!”

So I amended my text to include that now two people from church were in the ER and someone probably needed to pray over us.

As I sat there, I fretted that this was the day I chose to wear my brand new skinny pants (2 sizes smaller than usual) and was upset that only the hospital staff would see them and thus not be impressed.  Just in time, my friend, Lea, showed up to sit with me and did the appropriate oohs and ahs over my weight loss. Then she took my picture for FB.

er shotShe was soon joined by Darren, our children’s director, who came to check on Maureen and me.  They both laughed so hard at my story that a man sitting with another ER patient overheard us and came over to our cubicle.

“Excuse me, I couldn’t help but overhear.  Did you swallow a cotton ball at the dentist?”

“Yep – it looks like this.”  I held up the comparison sample.

“I work emergency medicine all the time.  Never heard of this – quite incredible.”

“Thank you.”  Cause really – what else do you say to that?

Finally the doctor showed up and I had to explain all over again.  He seemed amused but not troubled because I was breathing okay.  There was a lengthy description of how breathing works and the low odds that I won the “stupid things in my lungs” lottery.  But he still had to check the x-rays, which he assured me wouldn’t be helpful because cotton probably wouldn’t show up on x-rays.  Of course.

This consultation did not earn me a discharge – but I got moved to another area so more urgent patients could use my bed.

Darren eventually had to go check on Maureen again and then head back to work.  Lea was about to leave when a nurse came in and asked for my information.

“Okay we need a CT scan.”

“I had X-rays though.”

“I have orders for a CT scan. Let’s go.”

As I lay on the scanner bed, I tried to not think about all the episodes of House where the patient would code or seize while in the scanner while Chase and others were discussing their sex lives.  I just stared at the ceiling and wondered if Lea was right that they’d have to put something down my throat to fish it out, “like a sword swallower”, she said.

When I returned, my cell phone was totally dead.  Lea saved the rest of my day by running out to my car to get my briefcase and phone charger.  She left me surrounded by my laptop and various cords as I surfed the hospital’s free wi-fi.

And then I waited.  And waited.  And waited.

I surfed on FB and kept adding updates.  The TV in the room was set on the Food Network, which only served to remind me that the only thing I had had to eat since 8 am was a piece of cotton.  And for some reason I kept burping.  For the record, cotton does not have a bad aftertaste.  I contemplated whether it would absorb all the high cholesterol I apparently have.

Around this time I realized that I had to pee. The cup of chai before the dentist appointment was now pressing on my bladder.  The next time a nurse walked in, I asked where the restroom was.

“Oh, you need to go?  Do we have a sample from you?”

“Excuse me?”

“A urine sample.  We might need it.”

“Um no.”

“Okay well let me get you a cup.”

I carried my briefcase and purse and clean catch cup down the hall to the restroom and pondered whether they could test for cotton in my pee.  Or whether they were going to have to operate and therefore they needed to check if my bladder was up for the challenge.  And then I had to explain to the other nurse why I was now handing her a cup of pee when she was assuming I was going to be discharged at any moment.

I went back to waiting and FB surfing and two streams of panic started to overtake my brain.

First there was the “are they going to have to dig around in my lungs?” panic.  And all associated fears such as – will Steve make it back in time to hold my hand – did I tell my kids I love them when I dropped them off at school – what will they sing at my funeral – will Steve remarry soon – how soon is too soon.  Yeah my brain works that way.  Especially when all I’ve had to eat all day is a cotton ball.

Then I started to look at the clock and panic about getting my kids from school and getting to the parent-teacher conferences.  My phone was now mostly charged but the cell signal was weak.  I was limited to FB and email and some texting via wi-fi. Friends offered to help and Steve was done and able to leave work early.

Finally a pulmonologist came to examine me and ask questions which set the first stream of panic into a complete ocean of fear.

“Okay so how old are you?”   “Any kids?  How old?”   “Are you pregnant?”  “Do you have regular mammograms?”

He looked at me and finally said, “I’m asking these questions because the CT scan showed some grainy sections on your left breast.  And those are things we don’t tend to see in breasts at your age.”

“Oh – I know.  There are several fibrous areas that my doctors are watching carefully but they are not a problem.”

“Okay.  CT scans are not the best way to examine breasts. But I was concerned.  But you must remember that I do not examine breasts on a daily basis.”

And with that comment, I almost bit my tongue in half to stop from laughing.  I swallowed a cotton ball and now the lung doctor was telling me my boobs were the problem.  Who goes to the hospital with a cotton ball in their throat and gets diagnosed with breast cancer?

He did finally get back to the matter at hand and tell me that things looked fine and I should follow up with him next week and I would be discharged finally.  It was nearly 3 pm and I had gotten there at 9 am.  It was definitely time to go.

I called to assure the dentist office (“Um hi, this is Jennifer – your most memorable patient from this morning.”) and assure my mom (“I’m fine I’m fine.”)  Stopped at church to pick something up and had the whole staff gathered to shake their heads at me and ask if they should cancel their upcoming dental appointments. Then I got the kids from my friends’ house.

My daughter wanted to know why I was at the dentist all day. When I explained to her and her brother what had happened, my 9 year old son got excited in the way only a 9 year old boy can.

“Mom – can I put on rubber gloves and cut up your poop to check for the cotton ball??”

We shelved that idea and raced to meet Steve at school. My son’s teacher was in tears of laughter when she saw me.  Apparently some of my friends had alerted her that I might not make it to the conference.  In fact a friend had told the whole story to the entire 3rd grade staff.

After the conference I ran into that friend and she suggested that next time I go to the dentist, I bring an unused tampon to bite on instead – it has a string to grab!  (Note – GENIUS idea.  Someone get on this immediately.  Dental tampons!)

Later we were leaving my son’s karate practice and I was complaining that I still had not eaten and it was now 6 pm.  My son piped up to ask me, “How many Weight Watchers points are cotton balls anyway?”

Needless to say, I am fine.  As fine as one can be after swallowing cotton.  I have tried really hard to suppress the memories of when I was choking and chosen to laugh.  But, I’m not at all sure that I’m ready to schedule my next dental cleaning.

My recommendation – next time you go to the dentist, bring along some super absorbent tampons with extra long strings and explain what happened to me.