Bracing Myself

Today, I got my braces off. The total amount of time I’ve worn braces in my life amounts to about 6 1/2 years.

Plenty of kids get braces.  It’s almost a right of passage.  Your baby teeth fall out, you accrue $20-$100 depending on the Tooth Fairy’s generosity (and her inability to determine the fair market value of teeth), and the new chompers come in crooked.  But not to worry!  Someone is going to jam metal in your mouth (and maybe even outside your mouth if you were sentenced to wear headgear and be a social pariah) and give you a nice smile at the end.  People who have perfect smiles are 78% more likely to have rich, fulfilling lives according to a stat I just made up.

While nice smiles are all well and good, orthodontics can also correct real medical issues.  That’s why I needed them.

But back on September 10, 1997, I didn’t know that.  Other things I didn’t know: my hair would fall out; my Magic: The Gathering cards would never gain value; and Third Eye Blind is not a good band.  On September 10, 1997, I was a plucky kid who was ready to get my braces on because that’s what kids do.  They get the braces, they get the straight teeth, then they get the money, then they get the power, then they get the women.

Photo Apr 01, 9 31 46 AM

My orthodontist at the time was Dr. Bougas, pronounced, “Boug-hass”.  But to a 13-year-old kid, it was funny to call him “Dr. Bogus” because I’m sure he had never been subject to that mispronunciation in his life.  I was hitting comic gold.

I assume there must be a medical code of ethics where you’re supposed to inform the patient as quickly as possible that that their lower jaw is still growing and the braces have been put on too early.  I have complete certainty that Dr. Bougas was 100% ethical, and that these things just happen.  But somewhere in the back of my mind, I’ll always wonder…”Did you really want to lob petty insults at the person handling your medical care?”  To put it another way: Were I in his position, I would have said, “That’ll teach the little bastard.”  We can all be grateful I did not go into the medical profession.

On February 2, 2000 the braces come off.  There are retainers and plastic mouthguards, but neither can fend off the inevitable.   My lower jaw is still growing, the teeth are still moving, 2 1/2 years down the drain.

Photo Apr 01, 9 29 44 AM

We cut ahead to August 23, 2004.  I’m now a college student, and as you can see by the picture below, a college student who has discovered a potent combination of fast food and sadness (also, I swear to God I am not high in the photo).  But the jaw has finished growing, the underbite is in full effect, and now it’s time to correct the bite.  The key is surgery.  The braces go on, the surgery happens, the braces stay on, and voila!  Straight teeth (I may have glossed over the amount of technical precision and medical knowledge involved in this process).

Photo Apr 01, 9 30 10 AM

My orthodontist is now Dr. Mary Lynn Crews.  Allow me to take a moment to say that Dr. Crews is one of the nicest people I have ever met.  There are plenty of friendly doctors, but Dr. Crews is like sunshine in human form.  If more people were like Dr. Crews, the world would be a better place.  I honestly believe that.  Also, more people would have great smiles.

So we have a gameplan: braces go on, surgery happens, braces come off, life is better.  And it will all work out because while oral surgery is expensive, my family has medical insurance.  As all know, medical insurers have never dicked over anyone.  They are above reproach.

As we start coming to the oral surgery, we finally meet with the oral surgeon (Dr. Crews provided the referral).  For this story, he shall go nameless, but it seems like all is well.  He approves of Dr. Crews’ work, and surgery is a go…until it isn’t.

The insurance company said they were going to pay for it and then they said, “Yeah, we’re not going to pay for it.  We said we would, but now we’re not, because we’re insurance, and we hate you.  Thanks for paying for your braces.  Again.  Money well spent.”

The braces stay on to do what they can, but it’s futile.  They can only do so much, and they come off on January 3, 2007.  And this is where I get the warning.  Yes, it’s possible that the lack of surgery may not have any long term repercussions.  However, it’s also possible that later in life it may cause serious medical problems.

Photo Apr 01, 9 30 33 AM

In 2011, I’m at the gym.  I’m on the arc trainer, doing my morning work out, and I feel a strain in the side of my neck.  It’s weird because I don’t lift weights or do anything that would cause that kind of strain.  The only thing I could do would be talking with my crooked underbite that turns out to be pulling on a rope of muscle.  Now the “repercussion” is happening, and while it’s not intense or incredibly painful, I fear it’s a harbinger of those serious medical problems.

Since I have no plans to cease talking (I quite enjoy it and everything I say is deep and insightful), the braces need to happen.  We need to take this to the end of the line.  I have new insurance.  And this time I have a plan (cue action movie score).  I figure that the problem last time was that the oral surgeon wasn’t involved from the beginning, so that when the insurance came around to double check, he was somewhat indifferent.  I had only met with him once, so there was no real reason or even much independent evidence to back up my case.  This is conjecture, but I believe he was the weak link.

Now I go to Dr. Bankston because he’s on my insurance plan.  He’s also super nice (not as nice as Dr. Crews, but few are; again—sunshine in human form), and after doing his own measurements, he concurs that surgery is medically necessary and not purely cosmetic.

But there’s a twist because with insurance companies there’s always a twist.  They’re like the M. Night Shyamalan of businesses.  In order to show how serious I am about getting the surgery, I need to put the braces on before the surgery is approved.  That’s like saying, “I’m going to jump off this building and then you’ll see how serious I am about that net.”  But I need to jump, and unlike the last two times, I’m putting my own money on the table.  My parents are still contributing to the monthly payments, but now I’m paying for it too.

For those who were lucky enough to never need braces: don’t share this fact with anyone.  No one wants to hear it.  However, you may be wondering, “What’s it like to get braces?  What fun did I miss out on?”

First, I am surprised at both the advancements and stagnations in the field of orthodontics.  For example, before I even got my braces on, I was offered a choice between metal ones which were less likely to break and more likely to work faster, and clear plastic brackets, which weren’t as good but were also slightly less noticeable.

I chose good, old-fashioned metal because there’s no hiding you’re an adult with braces.  No one is going to do a double-take when there’s a metal wire across your teeth.  There’s also no forgetting you have braces.  Every time you show up in that office, you’re well aware you’re the only patient in the room who doesn’t need a slip explaining why you were absent from social studies.

You’re also aware of how much time has passed and how far technology has come in only 15 years.  Dr. Crews took over the office from Dr. Bougas, so I’d been going to the same building since 1997.  There were no major renovations.  The office never felt dated even though it didn’t really change.  But where 13-year-old me had to wait patiently and observe the world, 27-year-old me could use a tiny computer to quickly access the Internet.  It didn’t make me feel old as much as it made me remember that we live in the future, and perhaps we should be slightly more patient when waiting for webpages to load.

With this kind of remarkable advancement in technology, surely orthodontics had followed suit.  How had we only come as far as plastic brackets (Invisaline wouldn’t have worked for me)?  We now had lasers to fix people’s eyes; where were the lasers to fix our teeth?  I live in the 21st century, and I demand laser teeth.  Unfortunately, laser teeth technology is still a pipe dream (in only my pipes and only my dreams), so we’re back to the old ways.  The metal ways.

But before I can get to the metal, I have to explain “spacers”.  If you ever had braces, you probably know about spacers, which are the most painful part of the procedure (assuming you don’t have surgery).  Here’s the thinking behind spacers: “Your teeth are fucked up, but we need to fuck them up a little more in order to fix them.”  (I know orthodontists don’t talk like this; orthodontists should talk like this; cursing makes you coooool) Tiny bits of plastics are jammed between your teeth to make space for the metal bands that will encircle those teeth.  You won’t be able to eat anything for about five days because it will be incredibly painful.  Welcome to braces!

Once they’re done with the spacers, the braces go on.  The third and final go-round for me began on April 11, 2012.  Metal bands are placed around the back teeth (this time, the orthodontic procedure began after I’d had my wisdom teeth removed by Dr. Bankston), brackets are cemented on to the teeth, and then they’re all connected with a wire that will be tightened in order to move the teeth closer together.  I find it fascinating to think that some engineering and medical genius figured out that this would straighten people’s teeth.  I also applaud the enterprising patients who overcame their horror at having this done to them.

When you get your braces on, you’re given a list of foods you can’t eat.  This list greatly upset me when I was 13, but over the years, I learned it was more like guidelines.  For instance, the list says that toasted bagels are forbidden.  I assume this landed on the list because some idiot kid bit into a burnt-to-a-crisp, stale-as-hell everything bagel and broke all his brackets and got seeds stuck inside his bands.  Potato chips are also not allowed, and again, I’m sure somewhere down the line some patient messed up his orthodontics, blamed a bag of Doritos, and on the list it went.

After having braces for over six years, I will now tell you the foods that you really should not eat:

  • Popcorn: Popcorn is dangerous because if one kernel slips behind your metal band, you’re going to be in a lot of pain, and there’s no way to get it out until the orthodontist can take off the band.
  • Chewing Gum: Technically not a food, but you can’t have it.  Chewing gum will get wrapped around your braces.
  • Starbursts, Now and Laters, Taffy: They’re chewy enough to possibly pull off a bracket.  However, gummi snacks like Sour Patch Kids are not.  This demands a scientific study regarding candy elasticity.

And then there are foods you’d just be dumb to eat like uncut apples and corn-on-the-cob.  You can do it, and then you can employ this bad-boy for the next half-hour:

cleaner

It’s a tiny pipe cleaner and you’ll need it no matter what.  Oddly enough, I don’t remember ever needing one until my third time with braces.  But whether you’re eating bread, chicken, fish, or pretty much anything, you need the pipe cleaner and/or some serious tongue maneuvering/skillful suction.  It’s not anywhere close to as sexy as it sounds and it didn’t sound that sexy to begin with.  Yeah, it’s kind of gross.  Read on to hear about my surgery!

Photo Apr 01, 9 31 09 AM

15 days before surgery

Dr. Bankston does his due diligence, takes tons of photos and x-rays, submits them to the insurance company, they sign off, and we’re a go for April 19, 2013.  To this point, I had never had surgery.  I had never broken a bone or needed stitches.  While I would agree that I’m very lucky, I would also point out that one’s risk of injury significantly decreases when you stay indoors and sit on a couch or at a computer (safety first, kids!).  Now I would be getting stitches and a broken bone as an incision would be made high on my upper gums (you can’t even see the scar today) and my upper jaw would be moved forward.

Following the surgery, I had to stay in the hospital overnight with a bag of ice around my face, and then I spent about ten days recovering by staying bed, popping an occasional painkiller, eating pudding, and watching movies.  How I ever made it through this ordeal, I’ll never know.

Then I had to wear a splint for about a month on my upper teeth, which prevented me from eating anything but soft foods, which gets very old, very quickly.  I have come to despise oatmeal.  However, pudding is still great.  I lost ten pounds on the pudding diet! (I eventually gained it back)

Photo Apr 01, 9 31 15 AM

Post-surgery and post-splint

When the splint did come off, my time with Dr. Bankston came to a close, and I was incredibly grateful for his terrific work (it also helped that he and Dr. Crews had worked together in the past, so there was almost no miscommunication or friction when it came to coordinating their work).  The only strange thing about Dr. Bankston was that all the assistants seemed to refer to the patients as “sweetie”.  It’s like when you go to Chick-fil-A and they say “My pleasure,” when you say, “Thank you.”  It’s clearly a policy, but when an assistant who can’t be more than five years older than me calls me “sweetie” like she’s my grandmother, it’s weird.  Not off-putting; just weird.

We then continued with the uneventful procedure of finishing up the orthodontics, and here I am with straight teeth, the ability to keep talking, and a newfound, lifelong fear of being punched in the mouth.

If you read all of this, thanks!  It probably wasn’t the most entertaining read, but getting braces was a big part of my life, and I felt I need to document and share it.  It was also my way of saying thanks to my parents who financially and emotionally supported me, and also to the practice of Dr. Mary Lynn Crews.  Not only is Dr. Crews great, but so is everyone who works at her practice.  If you or anyone you know ever needs orthodontics, go see her.  It will be one of the best decisions you’ve ever made.

And while I’m not big on selfies, I figure this is one worth sharing:

no-braces

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014 personal

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