Laughing Gas and The Dentist: A Horror Story
Getting her to go to the dentist was like pulling teeth.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986) I'm a Dentist Song
Our family has a way of finding the bizarre ways of living through the most mundane daily events. Take the dentist for example. A member of my family (who shall not be named, because I promised), had a horrifying experience at the dentist today. Personally, I am trying to decide if I can categorize today's experience as humorous or horrifying, or possibly both. Today's little horror story is also a tale of triumph and tragedy, so it ought to be a good one for you to read, and not just skim. Though I think that more than a few of you will think I'm a bad mother for sharing this story at all.
The story begins two days ago, when we arrive at a new dental office at our new city for a long overdue dental checkup. The person in the dentist's chair is growing up fast and unfortunately has several teeth growing in on top of each other. With so many teeth and not enough mouth, my anonymous family member was long overdue for an extraction. Extraction is just a fancy term for pulling teeth, and my anonymous friend needs to have 5 teeth pulled.
Having five teeth pulled is...well...let's just say I'm glad it's not me that needs this procedure. We all knew it was inevitable, but the reality of having that many teeth pulled would be daunting, even for a mature adult. I am personally quite anxious when I go to the dentist. My teeth are pretty healthy and strong, fortunately, but just writing about it conjures up the unpleasant sounds and smells of being in a dentist's chair with a loud drill grinding away at the teeth in my mouth. And worse yet, the smell of pulverized teeth mixed with the stomach-sickening stench of Novocain...It makes me a little dizzy. But back to the hero of my story.
My story's hero was prepared for the extractions, and walked bravely into the dentist's office where they perform their work. She was really brave, and I was so proud of her. She sat calmly in the dentist's office without flinching. But she was nervous. Very nervous. Her body was stiff as a board and the dental assistant kept reminding her to breathe. She really doesn't like shots, and the dentist was going to need to give her several in order to numb the area of her mouth where the dentist was going to pull her baby teeth.
I try not to betray my anxiety when I take her to the dentist, but I get anxious myself when she goes in. She is very slow to react to Novocaine, and in the past has required extra shots of the anesthetic. One time the dentist started drilling on her tooth before she was completely numb and she screamed out in pain. I made sure to mention to the dentist, his office staff, and all of his assistants that she didn't react quickly to anesthetics and that they would need to closely monitor her. All out of her earshot, of course.
But this time, I kept my parent anxieties under control and she was a marvel of adolescent bravery. But the dental assistant who was prepping her for the dental extraction approached me and asked me if they could administer laughing gas, also known as nitrous oxide. She felt it would put the patient at ease and help her to relax.
I personally think laughing gas is great stuff. It makes you feel completely oblivious and turns an otherwise unpleasant experience into a trippy, almost out-of-body experience. It's the one time when it socially acceptable for even a nice tea-totaling Mormon girl to get high. In a carefully administered environment by licensed professionals, of course. But the hero of my story had no experience with nitrous oxide sedation, and she didn't know what to expect.
I took her hand in mine and asked her if she wanted to try some laughing gas. I told her I had used it several times at the dentist and that it would make her feel very relaxed and like she didn't care. She trustingly agreed, though she looked apprehensive. But she was pretty nervous already and I chalked it up to that.
The dental assistant brought over two large tanks of gas--one of oxygen and one of nitrous oxide--and rolled it beside the dental chair. She placed a bright yellow foam mask by her mouth and invited her to place it on her nose. The patient hesitated. For a long time. The dental assistant said, "Don't worry, we'll just start out with the oxygen and then add some of the laughing gas in a minute."
Reluctantly the patient placed the mask over her nose. "Now breathe in through your nose and keep your mouth closed," the dental assistant coaxed. Soon the patient's pupils were dilated and her tight grip on my hand relaxed. I noticed on the numeric gauge the dental assistant had the laughing gas at a 4. The patient clutched at the mask and started trying to rip it off of her nose. "I feel really funny" she said in a sedated voice that wasn't hers.
"Yes, that's normal" the assistant said, but then she also firmly reminded "don't take the mask off. YOU CAN'T REMOVE THE MASK LIKE THAT." Her voice had an edge of alarm to it that made me extremely nervous.
"Here, we'll just turn down the gas a little to make you more comfortable." Now the nitrous oxide was set to the 2 setting. The assistant turned to me and said "sometimes we have to adjust the settings to make sure they're comfortable."
Now suddenly the patient is sitting upright on the table and crying, wailing even. She seems deeply upset and distressed. The crying is loud and frightening. It reminds me of the way that my three year old wakes up, startled sometimes, after his afternoon nap. When he wakes up like this, he is dazed and inconsolable.
Now the dentist is walking into the room. He takes one look at the patient, throws his hands into the air in a gesture that says "I give up!" and remarks out loud to everyone in the room "I'm not working on her. She'll need to see a pediatric dentist." The patient continues to cry on the chair. Hot tears are spilling from her cheeks onto her clothes.
The assistant turns to patient on the dental chair and says "KEEP THE MASK ON, we need to keep it on for a few minutes until we get the gas out of your system." Now her voice is full of soothing tones and comforting words. "It's okay, baby. You're done now. No need to cry." The mask is off, and the patient continues in fits of uncontrollable sobbing.
The dentist stands next to the patient, and asks her why she is still crying. We're not going to do anything. You can stop crying now, he says. He seems distressed and a little exasperated. I can't blame him and I'm also a bit embarrassed.
The office staff is now ushering us quickly back into the waiting room. No need to disturb the other patients. They all really seem concerned and offer us a referral to a pediatric dentist in town. "They'll give her a nice cocktail full of drugs and she can be put to sleep. She won't feel a thing, and she'll be asleep before you know it. Of course, they'll have to give her a shot to put her down. And you should be prepared for the shaking. The kids get really shaky when they're recovering from the general anesthesia.
As we are leaving the building, all traces of bravado completely erased from my patient's demeanor, I ask her what happened back there. Why did you get so upset? I felt so terrible for her, but I needed to understand what had happened.
"When you told me that I was going to have laughing gas, I thought that I would feel light and care-free. But it didn't feel like that at all. I felt heavy and I couldn't move my hands. I couldn't feel my body and I felt my consciousness slipping away. It was really scary. Yeah, for a while I didn't care, except suddenly I WAS aware again. How much of the procedure did they do before I woke up?"
"You were out for less than five minutes, then you took another five to recover."
"Oh." There was a long pause.
"But I still don't understand why you got SOO upset."
She paused, thoughtfully. Then she looked at me. "When I was waking up, I suddenly remembered that dentist from Little Shop of Horrors. He was addicted to laughing gas, and he was really crazy.Then he overdosed on it and died. Then that guy with the plant came and chopped him up into little pieces and fed him to the plant."
"I see." I said, my stomach churning a bit. "That sounds really yucky."
"Yeah," she said.
Want to hear how the story ends? Read the harrowing conclusion in Laughing Gas and the Dentist Part Two: Sedation Dentistry at its Finest.