Chapter Seventeen: Granny Gums
Like most (if not all) little girls, I believed in the tooth fairy. I imagined her with a pink, sparkly dress and glittery, butterfly wings. In my mind, she pranced into my room with her magic wand to slip her manicured hand under my pillow for that precious exchange of tooth and money. Rather than smiling at my pearly white tooth, her eyes widened in horror at the rotted tooth that was etched with yellow or even black. Though I do not remember the rotted baby teeth that fell out in my childhood years, my Father had told me that my chronic kidney failure had caused major dental deficiencies from lack of major nutrients (such as calcium) being processed through the kidneys. My Dad shook his head sadly and said: “Yeah, your teeth were so bad when you were a baby that they were black at one point.”
Growing up, I never gave my ugly teeth a second thought. Sure, there was a rough and bumpy texture on the surface of my always-tiny teeth along with a tinted yellowish sheen that gave the misconception that I started smoking up cigarettes when I was a little girl with pigtails. Yes, it was the truth that the supposed replacement adult teeth that grew in just resembled my baby teeth that had fallen out. Nope, I did not care about my toothy appearance because I knew that I was the diligent dental poster girl who brushed my teeth twice a day with mint-flavored toothpaste and peppermint-flavored mouthwash. Yet, no matter all the dental maintenance I did, my teeth did not improve in texture, color, or size.
As I approached the end of my second year of university and into my third year, I began to experience a whole new problem with my teeth that befuddled me. I was having problems chewing on food. When I tried to bite in and savor what I could of college food, I ended up chewing on my own thick, pink, and puffed up and out gums. When this first began to happen, a light, tinkling warning bell sounded off in my head. Chewing on my gums rather than chewing on and savoring the sweet, salty, and tangy flavors of food was a harsh and unbelievable blow to the foodie lover in me. Eventually, a chorus of loud, warning bells went off in unison when I started to spit up blood that oozed out from my gums whenever I brushed my teeth. I cracked a half smile in the mirror to see my teeth and nearly dropped my toothbrush. Where were my teeth? All I saw were my pink gums.
I sighed as I eyeballed the pink gums rather than white teeth. I said sarcastically to my reflection. “Great. Time to head to my beloved doctor again.”
In the whitened and small cubby-hole of a doctor’s office with pamphlets and posters surrounding me, my nephrologist’s fuzzy moustache was turned downward. His sigh seemed to mimic mine. My Dad looked bored in the office, as I braced myself for what my chronic kidney failure or the side effect from whatever medication was about to bring on.
“It is the blood pressure medication, Procardia XL, as well as the immuno drugs like Prograf and Cellcept that are causing your gums to enlarge and take over your teeth.”
I processed the news slowly in my mind. “Okay, so now what?”
My Dad piped in both hopefully and unrealistically: “Can we decrease the dosage or ween her off any of the medications at all?”
My nephrologist shook his head: “Nope. That would rock the boat with keeping these kidneys up and running. You have to get surgery.”
I gulped. “Surgery? Like….uhh…gum surgery? What is my dentist supposed to do? Slice off my gums?” I chuckled half-heartedly and my nephrologist gave me a look that said that my joke was truth.
Shit, I thought.
The more I digested that I had actually have this gum procedure done, the more I conjured images of a monumental gum extraction that left me with nothing but my tongue hanging out and a mourning that I would never taste or enjoy food ever again. My dentist referred me to his dental surgeon friend who gazed at me with curiosity and a sparkle in his eyes at the newest challenge that could puff up his ego and beef up his dental background. He explained to me that he would numb my mouth with novacaine and then shave my fat and baby pink gums down with a knife.
“Nothing to knock me out?” I practically pleaded.
He shook his head. “Oh, no, there is no need for any laughing gas. Just novacaine. The procedure is really simple, quick, and you really will be back to eating and chewing normally in only a matter of a couple of days.”
I heard “eating” and my eyes and face lit up. Trying to eat food was becoming more and more of an obstacle and nightmare. I now tasted my own fleshy gums rather than food in its all its magical and unique essences. As the days moved forward to the impending gum surgery day, I found myself pathetically excited about this surgery and mentally chanting: “This gum surgery will be a piece of cake compared to my transplants. Besides, this is all for the good of food again….ahhh….my friend, food.” I dreamed wistfully of a hearty steak dinner where I could really sink my teeth into that beef and savor mashed potatoes and biscuits alongside. I could not wait until I had the procedure done and over with so I could actually taste, savor, and chew on food. I was also fascinated, intrigued, and could not help but wonder if anyone had ever undergone this gum slicing surgical procedure. Lucky me if I was the only one in this walking and waking world to have my gums lose its weight and fat in such a short time!
The day finally came. I was most worried about the aftermath of the procedure because my multiple past surgeries harshly taught me that the worst was the recovery period, but this surgical procedure was unlike anything I had experienced before. Instead, the procedure wound up being all about the present timeframe with causing sharp and nearly unbearable pain because of the plain fact that I was not sent to a dreamless sleep thanks to heaven-sent anesthesia. In this surgery, I was just about wide-awake when the novacaine came at me in the form of a sharp and long needle that the surgeon stabbed into my gums. Just when I thought that I could not tolerate the piercing pain from the needle that brought tears to my eyes and nearly a scream from my mouth, my mouth went numb. I thought: “Okay, numb is good. I like numb.” But, then I saw the silver, glinting knife coming at my mouth. I tried to breathe normally with a comforting thought: “There is no way I am going to feel that knife at is coming at my numb mouth.”
I most certainly did feel the knife pressed against and slicing away my fleshy and fat gums, and then some more of him hemming and hawing away. I wanted to tell the oral surgeon to stop and shoot me up with some more novacaine or just stuff my face into the laughing gas mask right then and there, but it was too late. Blood rushed out from my mouth and was quickly captured by white paper that the oral surgeon hurried to compress against the gory mess. When he removed the paper, the icy cold air abruptly hit my exposed and scarlet-colored gums. I was certain that I would pass out from the dizziness of the whole experience and particularly of seeing quite too much of my very own blood, but my mind kept going as he continued his task of cutting and carving down and out that. I kept thinking that I should have been knocked out or given some laughing gas so I could find the whole experience hysterically hilarious. After a few more slices, it was over, but it had felt gruesomely longer than it had lasted.
Afterwards, I was stunned and literally speechless from the whole experience. I could barely mutter, mumble, or move with white and soft gauzes propped up against my gums that had been in hiding for so long. When I saw my Dad, tears were rolling down my face and I struggled to say coherently through my stuffed-gauzed mouth: “That was horrible. Food better be worth this pain.” For the next couple of days, I was on liquidated meals of warm, salt water and then some more warm, salt water. I was staying at home, nursing my tender gums and still dreaming hungrily of a steak dinner.
Shockingly, the aftermath was not as painful as I imagined and compared to the actual procedure itself. Because I adored the tantalizing tastes of food and lengthy and deep conversations with loved ones, the most challenging part was keeping my mouth shut and letting it heal. I was not in the mood to inhale some cookies and chips and talk until I had no more saliva left in me, but the knowledge that I could not do what I loved and wanted all because of Procardia XL, Prograf, and Cellcept, and this surgery was what made me simmer and drown in anger. Merely four days later, I reacted in a rebellious and daredevil way in response to my anger by eating and talking when I was truthfully not too hungry or in a talkative mood at all. Although there was physical pain, it was more than tolerable and it came in bursts that abruptly arrived and departed. When the pain came, I was forced to deal with it rather than pop in some painkillers because the painkillers could possibly do a dangerous dance with my other immunosuppressant medications. I was annoyed that I had to deal with the pain and reality rather than let painkillers knock me out or push me in some surreal world.
The week went by and my gums slowly healed into a faded and tinted light blue and purple instead of a pretty pink color. I gawked at my gums that now exposed my tiny and bumpy white and pale yellow teeth. The oral surgeon gave a satisfied nod when I returned to make certain that everything was progressing smoothly and that I was on the road to recovery and eventually munching happily on food. My Father and I turned to my nephrologist again with a fresh fear of what to do if my gums grew back again, and my nephrologist said that we would deal with this if and when the time came along. That time most thankfully never came. Less than two years later, I was taken off Procardia XL and my gums did not fatten out since then because my body became accustomed and saw my Prograf and Cellcept as best friends to my kidneys.
Ever since my gums lost weight, I proudly stretch my mouth into a winning and bright smile to show off my less than flawless teeth with all bumps and cracks. I was and will never be the girl with the sparkling and perfect white-washed teeth, and I am okay with this.
At least a year or more later, I was given a surprising slap of reality when my nephrologist said to me with a pen poised above his prescription pad: “You are looking good with those teeth, but did you want me to write out a prescription for you to go to the dentist to smooth or bond down the teeth?”
I flashbacked to the carving and cutting of my gums and immediately spat out: “No, way!”
The bright smile leapt back on my face and I shook my head confidently that I was just fine with my teeth, smile, and the way I looked. For me, surgery was always a last resort until absolutely mandatory, and my physical appearance meant almost nothing to me compared to my physical health.
My neprhologist said: “Are you sure?”
I nodded enthusiastically. For the first time, I believed in myself. For so long, I battled and fought with the demons of who I was and how I looked and appeared to others. Really, all that mattered is how I felt and thought about myself. I had reached a point of peaceful contentment and comfort in my own skin. I concluded that it was more important for my teeth to be used for what they have to be used for rather than some superficial beauty queen image that just was and is not me. When I see my bumpy and textured teeth, I am reminded of the side effect from yet another concoction of my medications and that perfection is non-existent. I was more than happy with who I was and I could not care less what others thought or said about me. Yet another major lesson learned all thanks to my chronic kidney failure and side effects from the medications that initially brought out my granny gums and imperfect teeth.