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Atheists in Dentists’ Chairs

“The good thing about this job,” said my smooth-talking Venezuelan oral surgeon, “is that I am allowed to be honest and I always am. I do not lie and say it is not going to hurt, you will not feel a thing. This is probably going to hurt.”

“I figured as much,” I said, slightly slurring from the anesthetic.

“Are you good at praying?”

“I’m an atheist.”

He laughed loudly.

“Is that going to count against me?”

“No! No, never.”

“Just checking.”

“Are you always this sweet and funny, or is it just when you are scared?”

“You have a needle and a drill. I’m not about to piss you off. I’ll pray if you really want.”

“It is my duty to tell you this,” he said, “because I can tell you are very smart. This is important: when you have your wisdom teeth taken out, you do not actually lose any wisdom.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes,” he said. “You will still have wisdom. Do not go and get married.”

“I already did! Last month.”

“Hmm, but maybe it was wise. Your parents, they did not try to stop you, did they?”

“Actually . . . , ” I said, ” . . . I eloped.”*

He laughed loudly. “You’re blowing my mind.”

Later, as he was 15 minutes into digging an enormous, embedded monster of a wisdom tooth out of my skull, he paused and said, “You know, if you were a boy you’d be crying right now.”

*I was kidding. My parents didn’t try to stop me. Though they were alarmed.

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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95 Comments

  1. I don’t remember getting my wisdom teeth out, they knocked me out and I’m told that afterwards I gave my girlfriend directions on how to get back to my house from the office. And flipped off a few people.

    Coincidentally enough I was at the dentist yesterday as well, discussing the updated FDA guidelines on mercury fillings. My dentist is a very science based sort of guy, so we always have great discussions about new developments in science and skepticism. I’ve turned him on to both scienceblogs and the SGU!

  2. I informed my (mean) oral surgeon quite politely that if I could hear it, feel it, see it or smell it, I would be out of that chair so fast no one would see me go, and if he didn’t take all four teeth out at once that he would never, ever get me back in that chair. So, in went the IV, out went Lauren, and out came the teef. And I woke up drooling blood. With a freaking panda bear bandaid on my IV hole. Hooray.
    My biggest problem was that the painkiller they gave me made me throw up. So they tried to give me two other drugs to counter-act that. Um, no thanks. I’ll just stick with Tylenol.
    Oh, and loose stitches are weird.

    I have never been asked about god or prayer by any doctor or during any procedure, thankfully. I do know that my grandmother brought a priest in to pray over me when I was in the hospital with a broken arm, and my mother very unceremoniously showed them both to the door. Go, Mom!

  3. Mine took 40 minutes. Halfway through, the dentist had to inject more anaesthetic. He kept asking the nurse to go and fetch different hideous tools. It was medieval I’m telling you. I’m a boy and I wanted it to be acceptable to cry. Maybe a little Cry Room could be provided.
    Also, my friend had it done when he was young and it severed a nerve so that he can’t feel anything on his bottom lip. Apparently sometimes people have to stop him and say, “hey, you know there’s a noodle on your lip…”.

  4. I should get my wisdom teeth out. I had 5, but had one taken out due to a really nasty cavity. (They wanted to do a root canal. I looked at them funny and said, “On a wisdom tooth? Pull it.”) I will have to go under, as two of mine haven’t erupted, yet. *sigh*

  5. They knocked me out for my wisdom teeth too. The lower ones left this weird deformation on my gums.

    As for my dentist, he tries to avoid giving me a shot of painkiller if he can. I’ve come to agree with him. Having a couple of seconds of excruciating torture when he’s drilling out the deppest bit of a cavity is awful, but it beats a week of painful cheeks from where you accidentally bit them when they were still numb from the shot.

    Still freaks me out every time he does it though …

  6. @Phlebas25: Oh man, that’s the part that terrified me….they told me one tooth was close to the nerve and it could be damaged, and I was really, really scared about developing speech problems or just losing my ability to taste or something. In fact, I was so scared that I was relieved when the pain really started as the anesthetics wore off.

  7. Fortunately, I had only one wisdom tooth (I iz dumb). The dentist gave me a pill that was supposed to knock me out, but sadly it didn’t work and I remember the whole experience. Especially powerful is the recollection that during the procedure I felt that being forced to listen to the easy-listening music playing in the dentist’s office was way worse than the operation itself.

  8. @Alexander Louis: Us small-jawed hominids envy you.

    Mine are nearly all gone. I had to get two removed last time because one was impacted under the other, causing the top one to crack and start up a nasty infection.

    Strangely, this was not as painful as when the first one had to be removed. I was on Vicodin for the majority of the week afterwards. This is a drug which makes me insanely more of a goofball than usual. My wife (then girlfriend) had to find ways to keep me from doing something stupid, just because I was not in my right mind.

    This last procedure, she kept my pills and dolled them out to me like I was in rehab.

  9. They gassed me when they took my wisdom teeth out. All four were impacted, and as I understand it, the oral surgeon basically shattered them and picked the fragments out. I started to wake up on the last one, and remember hearing a loud “pop” before they put me back under. My brother took me home, and on the way stopped to fill the Rx for the narcotics. I remember the pharmacist asking me to please stop drooling blood onto his counter.

    I went to an O-chem lab the next morning and the TA asked me if I’d been in a bar fight because of the swelling and bruising on my face.

    Gotta love the dental surgery…

  10. I’m probably getting my wisdom teeth out next Thursday (the last 3), and they are likely going to knock my ass out. But one is impacted, another was infected and is probably going to be a hard pull, and thankfully the last is completely erupted and should be easy.

  11. Also … I hope they give me something better than vicodin. Or at least a stronger dose. That’s what I was given the other week when one of my wisdom teeth became VERY VERY infected (my entire face was swollen and I couldn’t really open my mouth…it was awful, and I have a high tolerance for pain).

    It did nothing for the pain. It made me a little goofy the first day, but after that, I must have gotten a tolerance, because I kept taking them and NOTHING!

    I am actually afraid of being knocked out, because I wonder if I will actually get knocked out. It takes a LOOOT to knock my ass out — I was having serious issues sleeping once, and my friend gave me two somas (muscle relaxers), a xanax, and I had two glasses of wine. I still had issues sleeping.

    So knowing me, I won’t knock out and I’ll remember it all.

  12. Due to an overcrowded mouth, I had to have all my second pre-molars out when I was 11 (yes I cried) which has had the bonus that my wisdom teeth all came through absolutely fine with plenty of room, so I’m unlikely to ever need to have any of them out. Sounds like I’m lucky.

    (And they say us Brits have bad teeth….)

  13. I had a relatively easy time with my wisdom teeth. They were starting to come through (I only had 3) so I made an appointment to have all three pulled at once.

    They did give me too much gas, walked out of the room, I proceeded to hyperventilate and be convinced I was going to die. The assistant came back in though and realized I couldn’t breathe or talk or move, and adjusted it.

    I was awake but pain free while they pulled them (no pain but felt weird), went home, took pain pills, and went to bed.

    And was perfectly fine the next day.

    I’m so glad I don’t have the horror story that everyone else always seems to have! :)

  14. In high school, we lived just a block from the dentist. I had a bridge and a couple of crowns put in my junior year. Anytime he was going to stick a needle in my mouth, he’d check to make sure I’d walked over. Then he’d stick the laughing gas under my nose, and just let me buzzout until it was time to get out of the chair!

  15. @Phlebas25: :) Impersonator!!

    @marilove: Apparently there were 2 different clinics and my dentist was an asshole anyway (which is why I needed sedation — getting better little by little, but he fucked me up for a long time with that phobia). I asked him to send me to the clinic that does sedation and he was like “you won’t need that” and made the referral to the other one where they gave me the gas (which was NOT good — worse, actually). I was too young to effectively protest and under the thumb of my parents dental plan.

  16. I was put under when they got all four of mine out. My best friend, who had hippy hair and a beard at the time was there when I woke up. I thought it was Jesus.

    I wasn’t an atheist yet.

  17. Nyhaa nyhaa. I had all four wisdom teeth pulled when I was 18. The oral surgeon student (my parent’s were public school teachers and our insurance didn’t cover dental. There dental school would provide dental care for free if you let the trainees work on you.) stuck a probe under each tooth and flipped it out without a problem. I got a bottle of Tylenol 3 and never need to take any of them.

  18. I had two wisdom teeth out last year. Very uneventful. During the consult, they warned me about potential complications, post-op pain, etc. Had me arrange for someone to drive me home, just in case. As it turned out, the extractions took less time than the consult. They gave me a prescription for Vicodin but I didn’t bother filling it. Stuff doesn’t work on me anyway. I made sure I had plenty of Tylenol on hand, though. Within a day or two I was fine.

    Of course, I still have two left that’ll need to be pulled at some point, so I still have that as an opportunity for a wisdom tooth horror story.

  19. @phlebas: ‘fraid so. I’m your evil doppelganger. I’m the yang to your yin. The 23(!) after you, before me, are all creationists existing in the Wasteland (gettit?!) of Illogic.
    Actually, I regard you as a clone of myself too, which makes this all a little bit Blade Runner. What do you dream about? (Or maybe I’d rather not know…)

  20. Yep, had all 4 yanked out at once. They put me under and I remember waking up in a happy morphine splendor with a face like a bloated chipmunk. It was a happy 45 minutes and then I was completely miserable. Spent a week of puffy faced recovery in front of the TV sucking on cotton and living off liquid food. Hated it.

    Hang in there Rebecca, hope you feel better soon!

  21. I didn’t take this as a story of wisdom tooth removal-and-wit, but rather a funny story of the doctor-patient power dynamic which rarely is such a smooth back-and-forth (since I would wager either patients are intimated by doctors, or some doctors can just be giant wang-jerks).

    I have a similar story, not of wisdom teeth, but of hip surgery. Rather than use up a buncha space, I just wrote the story on my own blog, and you can find the story here because it’s a little long for this tread. So click if you like. If not, I won’t be offended (I’ll just sob into my cat)

    Normally, I’d be totally pimping my blog, but this is honestly a desire to share stories, and not wanting to impose at the same time.

    Sometimes, I hate how Canadian I am.

  22. @Kimbo Jones: Ugh, that sucks!

    I should probably ask to be knocked out, and not get gased, because I tend to react weirdly to meds and stuff. Shit that should knock me out doesn’t, heh.

    I LOOOOVE my new dentist, so if you’re ever in Phoenix and need an awesome dentist, let me know. I went in the other week in SEVERE pain, never having been to that office before in my life, and I felt instantly at ease. I went in again to check up on things and come up with a plan, and he was so great. Also, totally cute.

    I am almost looking forward to the six cavities and deep cleaning over two visits!

  23. @Steve: “I had two wisdom teeth out last year. Very uneventful. ”

    I had one wisdom tooth out earlier this year. Had a blast exchanging _Marathon Man_ and _Little Shop of Horrors_ quotes while the Novocaine was kicking in. (I love my dentist.) I was out ten minutes later.

    Dr Bob had a few reservations about me riding my bike home until I explained that every day is a bad day to have a bike accident, and at least this way my face wouldn’t hurt so much. He conceded the point.


    I read recently, wish I remember where, that men and women do not experience pain differently nor do they react to the pain they do experience differently. Men and women are both stoic and milquetoasts in roughly equal numbers.

    I do well with pain. At its worst I just get grumpy and sometimes angry. I did once threaten the testicles of an ER doc if he touched my broken nose again for no particularly good reason. Even after the stitches and the bandage he just wouldn’t leave it alone! I know doctors do better if they are not overly sensitive to their patient’s pain, but this guy was clearly an overachiever.

  24. @MiddleMan: Hey, man, I don’t make the definitions. I just report ’em.
    I checked Dictionary.com just out of curiosity and all the definitions were pretty weird and insulting. I never minded being called a nerd until just now when I found out I am “a stupid, irritating, ineffectual, or unattractive person.” Ouch.

  25. That was hilarious, always great to have a little humor when someone is going to yank things out of your mouth.

    I have no wisdom teeth and never have. Pretty common in my family. I say we’re more evolved.

  26. My dentist is an absolute babe. Unfortunately the negative effect of this is that I have a strong urge to act all macho around her and not show any sign of pain. I believe this is known technically as Male Pattern Stupidity.

  27. @catgirl:

    I like to think of this as an evolutionary problem in a narrative-academic paper that I suddenly decided I shall write: Nerds vs. Geeks: The Morphology of the Technologically-induced Virgin.

    Nerds have been around for a while. In the 50’s-70’s, Nerds were so named because they were book smart: semi-experts in technology, math, or some kind of science. They were easily identified by visual and olfactory cues. By the 80’s, the nerd began a different kind of isolation: instead of the seclusion of the library and laboratory, the nerd found a comfortable home in his parent’s comfortable home…playing Nintendo and C64. He continues this trend to this day, and though it’s slightly more difficult to pick up on the visual cues (by simple virtue that they often cover up their flabby, pasty-white bodies with anime-inspired trenchcoats), the olfactory cues are so obvious as to make the observer think they are Wolver-fucking-ine, getting a complex bouquet of Axe body spray, Red Bull breath, and Pizza-Pockets.

    The nerd, long isolated in his hovels and tenements, has forgotten how social interactions work. He therefore tries his best to relate all communications to WoW raids, Call of Duty ‘noobs’ (a term he invented purely for his own use and has no meaning outside his culture), and the differences between Star Trek, Firefly, and Battlestar Galactica, and people should just stop ragging on Star Gate SG1, noobfags.

    The Nerd, it should be noted, is a huge fan of 4chan, ebaums world, and pornography. More so than most.

    The Geek, however, emerged in the direct lineage of the Nerd. Frustrated with the lack of fresh air, ‘R/L’ friends, and vaginas, the geek decided to venture out over the distant hill, where soccer was being played. There, he learned what normal people talk about, and don’t think that Star Trek is a regular conversation piece, and need only be brought up along with other people from their home turf. The Geek has, through sheer force of will, managed to turn off the L-gene (‘L’ for looser-fag) and has managed to exist perfectly well within polite society.

    The Geek does not find 4Chan’s antics very funny at all.

    The Geek reads Cracked.com, the Onion, and Bad Astronomy. Like the Nerd, the Geek also like Firefly et. all, but is also not above Die Hard, because he finds that the Nerd’s nitpicking over how scientifically bullshit it is, to be distasteful. After all, It’s Bruce-Goddamn-Willis, and Bruce Willis, if asked, will make you Bruce Willis-Chicken, and that, the Geek knows, is fucking rad.

    The Dork is stuck. The dork does not know which way to go. He is more uncomfortable in social situations than the Geek, but is bothered by the Nerd’s incessant anger to black people, and his mother, who, after all, DID do the Nerd’s laundry. The Dork is frightened by normal people, yet, longs to be one. He does not know how to proceed. He is more comfortable drinking Vodka-lemonade coolers than he is single-malt scotch, but he is trying, and needs the support of his Geek cousins. By the same token, he also loves to spend 4 hours playing Civilization 4, because it’s really true, and that it makes sense that civilizations really do evolve in such a way, and that the Japanese probably would be more aggressive than the Indians.

    The Dork is happy to read Cracked.com on occasion, but is more comfortable with Funny-or-Die, because you don’t have to think.

    It should also be noted that hardcore sports fans, who can prattle on about sports statistics and team loyalty and don’t be a fair-weather-fan because eventually the Leafs will win the cup again….is also a nerd. He hates nerds, because he is a nerd.

  28. Marilove: If your problems with anaesthesia are that bad, I’d recommend staying awake for the surgery and going with the locals. It’s a very weird sensation, because the procedure is, um, a little more violent than you expect from surgery, but it’s honestly not that bad to sit through.

    When I got my wisdoms out, the surgeon told me that the procedure is easier when the patient is under local anaesthesia than if they’re out cold. I’m guessing it’s because the patient can control involuntary movements and avoid interrupting the surgeon if they’re awake. Similarly, if you have a high tolerance for general anaesthesia, you could end up waking half-way through or something and start moving, which would again interrupt the surgeon or cause him to make a mistake.

    And, yeah, when the dude is cutting into your jaw to rip out and infected tooth, you want to do everything you can to minimise mistakes.

  29. @Some Canadian Skeptic:

    But this still leaves the question: WTF am I?

    I like lolcats, Star Trek:TNG, D&D, Runescape but not many other games (I can hear all you WoWers laughing at me), Legos, reading textbooks for fun, and xkcd. I rarely try to hide this from other people, and actually enjoy talking about it if other people are interested. However, I have lots of sex, good hygiene, and not much knowledge about computers and other technology beyond what is mandatory of young people. So, am I a dork, geek, or nerd?

  30. All this talk of teeth has reminded me of a study I got to be a part of some *cough* 40 *cough* years ago. The Great Tooth Fairy Project collected baby teeth to test the levels of stronium-90. I can remember helping my parents put my teeth into special envelopes to send. All I knew at the time, was that someone was ‘doing science’ with my teeth. Exciting, and no Tooth Fairy in our house. Wasn’t long before there wasn’t a santa or easter bunny either.

  31. Has anyone else had the experience of having the nerve of your tooth “zapped” by static-electricity arcing off the dental instrument?

    Those little static-electric sparks you get when you touch a metal doorknob have about 20,000 volts going through them.

    When it hit the nerve of my tooth, it practically knocked me out of the chair.

    The dentist chuckled and grounded himself by grabbing the handle of the exam light. Why do they always chuckle?

    -Sean

  32. I still have my wisdom teeth.

    THEY’RE MINE and no grubby dentist will take them and sell them on the black market to some witch doctor lady to wear around her neck!

    *clutches at the air angrily and looks around suspiciously*

    Yeeess….

  33. Your dentist seemed pretty cool about it.

    The story made me think of this time I got my eyes examined and near the end of the test my the doctor asks “So, have you found Jesus yet?”
    and I was all “….Um, no.” and so he gushed on for a very awkward ten minutes about how great the lord is… I was very polite and sort of nodded while thinking “Wow, I’m never getting glasses here again!”

  34. I have absolutely nothing to add but the fact that I do not have nearly as many balls as you. I’ve been going to an uber-wacko-fundie dentist for years and never had the courage to tell the guy with the drills that I think he’s full of crap.

  35. They put me out to pull mine. I woke up at one point and heard the oral surgeon say something like “he is coming around, give him some more.” And I was out for some unknown time until they were done. I had real deep roots on mine and I had a hole all the way into my sinuses for a while. I could not form a vacuum in my mouth to drink from a straw and every time I sneezed I felt the air pressure in my mouth. But the holes healed up in a few weeks.

  36. Ugh. The dentist tried to take out one of mine when I was only numbed with novocaine and had a terrible time with it. I can still remember him grasping the tooth over and over again with the tool and feeling it slide off the tooth and go “click!” over and over.

    Apparently, my wisdom teeth were rooted somewhere in the vicinity of my toes and are stronger than the Rock of Gibraltar. He got that one out (eventually) and promptly referred me to an oral surgeon.

    He told me later that if he had realized just how deeply and strongly rooted they were, he never would have tried…The oral surgeon had little trouble with the others…he was a real artist. He got the rest out with just novocaine and made it look easy. I had less pain and swelling afterwards with those three than I had with the first one.

    Funny thing is, I still have no fear at all of dentists…

  37. 1. Rebecca, hilarious dialog in the OP. If not real, then you should be a published writer on the side.

    2. I had four absolutely 90 degrees inclined wisdom teeth extracted all at the same time (I’ve got x-rays to prove it). The first hour or so afterwards was fine, great… floating along on residual general anesthesia and local pain killers. Then, it turned out, I do not respond well to the codeine pain medicine prescribed. I spent the next day or so puking (and bleeding from resorting to aspirin for pain control). Oh so fun. Then, a couple of months later, a good friend took off the morning to get his wisdom teeth removed and was having Wendy’s(tm) fast-food that evening…. Grr….

  38. @Alexander Louis: I probably could’ve done the same, but mine did not come in straight and I have other fun dental issues that require braces (and probably surgery) so they had to come out. Thankfully, mine were horribly impacted so the pain was particularly excruciating, though nothing I couldn’t handle without the aid of tylenol codeine.

  39. @catgirl: “But this still leaves the question: WTF am I?

    I like lolcats, Star Trek:TNG, D&D, Runescape but not many other games (I can hear all you WoWers laughing at me), Legos, reading textbooks for fun, and xkcd. I rarely try to hide this from other people, and actually enjoy talking about it if other people are interested. However, I have lots of sex, good hygiene, and not much knowledge about computers and other technology beyond what is mandatory of young people. So, am I a dork, geek, or nerd?

    First of all, by virtue of being a girl (assuming your nick is accurate that way) it’s almost impossible for you to be a nerd. So if you’re into geeky/nerdy things at all, you’ll still be more likely to be sociable. If only because no matter what you’re like, some non-awkward male is bound to show an interest in you at some point and hang out with you (and possibly ends up sleeping with you), whereas for guys, this is the exception, not the rule. Initiative is supposed to come from our side, and often doesn’t.

    I suppose, going by @Some Canadian Skeptic‘s definitions, it’s possible to start out as a nerd, move up into geek, and then eventually even lose the dork altogether. The opposite direction seems less likely.

  40. I had mine pulled while I was in the Army. I was awake for the whole procedure. The Doc said that he would do two on one side of my jaw and then he would do the other two at a later date. This was so I could eat whole foods while I healed on the one side of my mouth. Well after the extraction I was on pain killers but it still hurt like hell afterwords. In fact it hurt enough that I did not go back to get the other two pulled for almost six months. The price was right though. I can’t complaine.

  41. The best thing is to watch a musical movie on video projector glasses during long dental procedures: It distracts you and my dentist tells me that people doing this sit *very still* (while watching the movie), so the dentist can do the work more quickly.

    I recommend a musical or music video (I watch “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” typically) is that you’ll miss parts when the dentist is drilling — which can be very frustrating when dialog is important! And laughing at a funny movie isn’t good for the dental work. ;->

  42. @Rebecca

    One tip, worked for me: Clove Oil, just a drop or two, on cotton wool, in the socket, kills the pain.

    Traditional but works like magic. That and Panadeine Forte. Mersyndol Forte, even better. Oh, and a reefer, if you are up for it.

    I had all four out at once under anaesthetic. Triple rooted, and I bled and swelled up for a week due to my low platelets.

    Lived on soup through a straw and Cottee’s chocolate/caramel/strawberry milk puddings for the whole week.

    Wasn’t all bad though, thanks to a week off and the aids mentioned!

    Best wishes for a speedy and pain free recovery!

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