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Health & Medicine

A Real Knockout

How my son helped teach me a crash course in emergency dentistry.

One Sunday evening not long ago, my wife and I were sitting at the bar at Gloria’s on Greenville, waiting for a table. An old college friend we hadn’t seen in years was with us. Margaritas arrived. My phone buzzed. I looked down to see the caller ID picture of our 18-year-old son, a shot taken maybe four years earlier of him shirtless, driving a boat for the first time, on Lake Cypress Springs, a huge smile on his face. I answered the call, expecting to hear his voice. Instead, a friend of his said: “Mr. Rogers, Burke’s been in an accident.”

A speeding car. Tires squealing on asphalt. Glass shattering and metal twisting. Would he walk again? Or, maybe, if he couldn’t even call me himself—

These were the thoughts that ricocheted through my head as I stepped away from the bar and went outside to better hear the call and, possibly, throw up.

Relief washed over me, though, as I listened to my son’s friend describe what had actually happened. The boys had been playing pickup basketball. Burke and another kid leapt to grab the ball. The other kid’s head slammed into Burke’s face and sent his front tooth flying. I later talked to a dad who was playing in the game. He said it was the weirdest thing, the way Burke’s tooth skittered across the wood floor and came to rest right at his feet. Burke’s friend told me that there was a lot of blood. They’d debated calling an ambulance before deciding to call me.

So off I went, because dads are best when blood is involved and because, frankly, I’m the best husband ever. I left my wife to her margarita and delicious chips, and I sped across town. Luckily, the dad at whose feet my son’s tooth had landed knew a pediatric dentist, Ronald Garza, who had a nearby office. By the time I got to the gym, I’d already spoken to him. Garza, as it turned out, used to play in that very same pickup game.   

What I found was not pretty. My son, at 6-foot-2, is now taller than I am. He is infallible and unflinching and bulletproof. But here he was, holding back tears, clearly in pain, seemingly smaller than he was when I’d last seen him. He pressed a bag of ice to his mouth. Someone handed me another small zip-lock plastic bag, this one containing a couple ice cubes, a little water, and the tooth.

You really have no idea how long a human tooth is until it is no longer attached to its owner. The crown, the part you see under normal, non-pickup-basketball conditions, is like the tip of an iceberg. The rest of the thing, the root, lies below the gum and anchors the tooth in the jawbone. Seeing the entirety of my son’s front tooth, I thought of a bear claw. Maybe if we couldn’t save it, I could wear his tooth on a necklace like Leo DiCaprio in The Revenant. I would need to update his caller ID picture on my phone, of course. His gold-tooth grin would charm me every time he called. I was just happy the kid was alive.

Garza met us in front of his office on White Rock Trail, apparently happy to have a Sunday night dental emergency to attend to. “Oh, good, perfect,” he said, as he took the bagged tooth from me. “Putting it in ice and water is great. Milk is best, but if you don’t have milk, you can use water. Even spit is fine.” I’d learn later that, absent a plastic bag, putting the tooth between your cheek and gum will help keep it viable.

Garza walked us into his empty office, and Burke climbed into an exam chair. Whatever music service Garza subscribed to, he definitely had it tuned to the best station: all ’80s, all emergency procedure. U2 played “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” while Garza injected lidocaine into Burke’s gum.

The tooth in the bag, that was No. 9, the upper left central incisor. But now I got my first look at its neighbor, No. 8. It was pushed back into his mouth at a 45-degree angle. Oh, and it had some of the other kid’s hair still somehow snagged on it like a mess of fine-filament fishing line caught up on a branch.

I have kissed honey lips

Felt the healing in the fingertips

It burned like fire

Garza grabbed the tooth with his rubber-gloved fingers and pulled it forward, back into alignment. Getting it there required a surprising amount of force. I manfully avoided screaming and covering my eyes.

I have a recurring dream wherein my teeth become loose and begin dropping out of my mouth almost as if they’re tired and never want to chew again. Totally normal dream, I’m sure. Don’t want to google what it means. But watching Garza work, I could tell, was going to haunt my sleep.

Thankfully, he gave me a task, which distracted me from the hellish oral mess that used to be my beautiful son’s mouth. I got to use what is technically referred to in the dental industry as “the suction thingy” while Garza irrigated the gaping hole where No. 9 once sat.

“How you doing, buddy?” he asked my son. I think he was talking to Burke. Maybe he was assuring us both. “You’re doing great. Perfect.” He slowly pushed No. 9 back into place, explaining as he worked that we had everything going in our favor. The tooth had been handled properly. No one had tried to wipe clean the root, which is delicate and shouldn’t be touched. We’d gotten Burke to Garza less than an hour after the accident. After that window, time is not on the tooth’s side.

Garza told me something I found surprising. Children’s Medical Center Dallas has the only emergency department in North Texas staffed with doctors trained in the specialty of pediatric emergency dentistry. With the clock ticking, if you were to take your kid to another emergency department, a doctor there could still implant an avulsed tooth. But other emergency departments often refer patients to Children’s for this sort of thing.

The last step in the process entailed gluing a metal splint across Burke’s front teeth to stabilize them. For this I got to use a cool blue light that cured a resin Garza used to attach the splint to the teeth. By this point, I’d settled into my role as dental assistant and was considering a career change as I jammed to The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo.”

Well, actually, there was one last step after the last step. As I thanked the good doctor profusely—for giving up part of his Sunday night to fix my son’s teeth, for playing really solid music in his office—Garza told us that Burke would next need to see an endodontist. A few weeks later, after his teeth had firmed up a bit, off he went for a double root canal. I probably learned this in grade school, but I’d forgotten it. The center of the tooth contains living tissue called pulp. With the nerves and blood supply severed, the pulp would decay, which could lead to infection. So it has to be drilled out and replaced with filler (probably a polymer containing the nanobots that the NSA uses to listen to our conversations, but that is pure speculation on my part).

Six months later, I can report that “Moving in Stereo” did not come out in the ’80s, which is surprising. It actually came out in 1978. The Cars really were ahead of their time.

I can also report that my son’s teeth, thanks to Garza’s excellent work, are still firmly in his head. He has a mouth guard that I insist he must use if he engages in any activity more strenuous than watching Netflix, but aside from that, it’s all good. In fact, his two dead front teeth now have no sensitivity to cold, which makes it easier for him to eat ice cream. How long this happy state of affairs will last is anyone’s guess. Garza told me he might keep his teeth all his life—or they could fall out a year from now.

There’s a lesson here for all of us. Enjoy your teeth and your children every day, for who knows what tomorrow will bring?

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