The anatomy of pain
I dreaded my granddaughter’s dental appointment, perhaps more than she did, for her first tooth extraction. The earlier visits had been merely for checkups and cleaning. But this one was it; it required the use of instruments that by looks alone cannot be benign—needles and pliers.
It had been postponed so many times due to her school schedule and weekend activities, much to my own relief. But there were no more excuses now. I asked my husband to accompany us; there just was no telling how I myself might behave.
The pediatric dentist, no stranger now to Mona, welcomed us. Mona climbed up the dentist’s chair, showing not the slightest sign of anxiety, and made herself comfortable. She apparently hadn’t noticed the instruments, laid out behind the chair, all sterilized.
The dentist looked at her chart and, in his soft-spoken, reassuring way, explained what he would do to her, how and why. He dabbed the cotton tip of a stick, soaked in anesthetic, around one of her baby canines. She even volunteered to show him the molar next to it. It was moving, and she said it hurt.
He flashed me a look to suggest it, too, would have to go. I signaled okay. It was only then that I realized I had been holding my breath since entering the cubicle. The plan had been to pull out two canines, one on each side, but now the molar beside each also would have to go. I gasped for air.
The dentist asked her if her mouth was already feeling thick and, when she said yes, he told her to close her eyes. She asked why. He assured her, “You’ll feel better.” Reassured, she obeyed and admitted the unseen needle. I felt weak-kneed. Mona herself did not flinch.
Perhaps for my benefit, the doctor asked, “You feel pain, Mona?” She shook her head slightly. One tooth was laid on the white cloth, then another. It was over on one side, and she was told to bite on the gauze. “Now the other side,” the dentist announced.
That was it for me; I stepped out, purportedly to text my son, her dad, to report how brave she had been and also to update him: four teeth, not just two, were going.
Soon, it was all over. She came out, mouth shut tightly, biting down on gauze, holding out to me in triumph two baby canines and two baby molars lying defeated on the bottom of a small plastic bag quarter-filled with some clear solution, like tiny ivory fish just bought from an aquarium store.
I’m a confessed coward to pain; indeed, I fear pain more than death. And I believe no one can inflict more horrible pain than a dentist. That would be easier to understand if you knew that my first dental experience as a young girl were in the hands of dental students.
But it was watching Laurence Olivier torturing “Marathon Man” Dustin Hoffman in the dentist’s chair that had me convinced dentists were bad guys.
Later on, with my exposure to dentists who had all but eliminated dental pain with more effective anesthetics and more sophisticated instruments, my phobia may have eased somewhat, but it never left completely.
In any case, the moment I, in my 40s, entered my friend Lucy Bernardo’s clinic, I knew I had come to the right place. There for all to see was a sign meant for me: We welcome cowards!
Our pediatric dentist happens to share Lucy’s clinic. When she realized we were in the next cubicle, she came over to watch in amazement how brave Mona was, compared to her lola. She recalled to my husband how I was as a patient: “Your wife was already cowering in fear even before she opened her mouth!”
Our usual conversation would go like this: “Bakit, masakit na ba?”
“Hindi, pero alam ko malapit na!”
Alas, while painkillers now abound against the worst pain, even from cancer, there’s still no anesthesia for anticipated pain, which is obviously all in the mind, where live half of the monsters we fear. Oftentimes the pain in my mind, like the fear in my heart, is self-inflicted and as such is even harder to relieve or remove. But again, since I put it there, surely I have the key to free myself of it. Easier said than done.
At our age, of all times, we find ourselves living in such uncertain times when all kinds of fear invade the mind. Life has become cheap, and justice elusive. Murders are rampant but never solved. People we had valued as friends, who we thought shared our basic beliefs and principles, have been disappointing us lately.
Not a few of our contemporaries are seriously considering migrating; there are two couples who have already packed, ready to leave. They want to spend their last years in a more civilized and orderly place, where basic human rights and liberties as well as human dignity still abide.
All this breaks my heart. Like fear, it may only be in the mind, but the realities make them perfectly reasonable. If you look inside, my heart is still beating, but looking around the country today and seeing what we are doing to one another, I realize the pain is not going away any time soon.
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