Years ago I experienced a sudden physical transformation. It was a hot summer weekend. We were dining on cold chicken, slaw, and potato salad — Summer fare, when I felt a sharp pain in my mouth and a swelling under my left jaw. A hard extrusion the size of a tennis ball had formed under the skin. I poked Larry. He looked at me, his eyebrows raised, eyes wide, while I pointed to my jaw. He dropped his fork, “Wait here; I’m going to see if the doctor on the third floor is in.” The doctor from what I knew was an intern, but as the saying goes, “Any port in a storm.” Whatever had seized me was too horrific to quibble over. I began to tremble and clutch myself looking for pockets of comfort.
The young doctor peered at me and held a hypodermic ready. He treated me for the shakes, told Larry he had no diagnosis and suggested a visit to the hospital in the morning. I threw the leftovers in the garbage imagining without proof that one of the dishes might have been the offending culprit, although in our family disposing of food was considered a sin.
That night I went to bed, my thoughts on Larry’s continuing quest for a possible promotion that could take us out of New York and to God-knows-where. I touched my jaw. It throbbed, was swollen and by no means ready for any sort of long distance move.
In the morning when young and soon-to-be mothers congregated on the benches provided by the building, an excuse for lack of a private porch, news about my ordeal overshadowed the gossip about Burton and Taylor. The gaping and occasional prying to know more made me feel like a freak in a side show. However well-meaning they may have been, their curiosity heightened the throbbing in my taut jaw and I went back upstairs, forgoing the luxury of early soothing sunshine. A neighbor suggested an oral surgeon and that seemed like the first practical idea. I asked my dentist to recommend someone and I left Becky in the care of a generous neighbor. The dentist x-rayed the area, poked and prodded trying to find the elusive calcium deposit that blocked the salivary canal. If I hurt when I went in, I came out like a patient in days of yore, prior to the advent of modern medicine.
At this juncture in my struggle with the blockage, Larry received a promotion and with it compensation if we moved to St. Louis. I agreed to move for the additional income although I had little need to sightsee the steel arch or the venerable shores of the Mississippi cluttered with smokestacks and factories. Part of the incentive for moving there had to do with the outstanding medical reputation of the city’s medical center, which could possibly have a doctor with the know-how to relieve me of the constant anxiety that at any moment I would swell again. Company old timers suggested an appointment with a Dr. Y, and not long after we arrived Larry and I set up an appointment.
Larry took the day off and we both arrived early to wait for the “Bit man” to keep his appointment. Finally, after what seemed like an interminable wait, we were ushered in by a secretary. I was surprised to see a less than imposing doctor behind the desk and a young man a few feet apart whom I assumed might be a resident. With a perfunctory handshake, he greeted Larry, who handed him the x-ray I had brought along. He glanced at it, felt the offending jaw and asked us to be seated. The pleasant young man waited while Dr. Y folded his hands on his chest and tilted back in his chair. Clearing his throat, his voice flat and unemotional, he explained that there was a calcium deposit to deal with and he would perform surgery under the jaw and extract the stone. He said I needed to know that with the tangle of nerves in that area, there was the possibility that I might be left with a droopy lip. I gasped and Larry held my arm.
Of course. Do nothing. Apply hot compresses and hope it will come out on its own. I looked at the resident and imagined he was trying to convey the latter choice although he had said nothing except his soft brown eyes seemed to convey that message.
I moved closer to Larry, unable to make the choice without consideration what could ultimately leave me disfigured. After a few moments. Dr. Y stood, came out from behind his desk and said calmly, “If you were one of my farm patients, it would be all over by now.” It took a long moment for the implications of what this doctor had just said. I took a deep breath, spoke to myself, then kept quiet. I knew where the power resided and swallowed the unprofessional. Had I just been hit by a tractor trailer? We left for the elevator. Where was his sense of justice? Where was his professional integrity to do no harm? To treat everyone equally? I wiped my eyes, but Larry had a more colorful way of berating the unprofessional comment.
In the ensuing months I tried warm water, massage, and sucking on a lemon, hoping to bypass surgery since the tiniest feeling of a needle prick under the tongue kept me on edge. To keep from getting bored, I registered to substitute in a small Clayton School. It kept my mind and jaw apart. Larry waited for another transfer which could mean a move to an administrative position. I settled into the school almost full time.
One day, shortly after lunch, snow flurries cascaded down gently — a rare weather occurrence in St. Louis, more prone to tornadoes than sledding. So when I got a phone call from Larry telling me that the company had decided to place him in Miami, the best place to avoid blizzards, I was more delighted than discouraged at the thought of another move.
By the time we settled into our new home in Miami, I had come to a decision that I would venture to the Jackson Memorial Hospital and open another chapter in this long, unpleasant experience. The pain had gotten no worse, but what had grown unbearable was the unnerving sensation of waiting, the unsettling messages of activity I would occasionally receive from that area. Living with that was becoming unbearable; I had to give doctors another try.
The hospital was a stark building with an empty lobby, save for a few stone-faced individuals who looked tired on their feet from greeting patients all day. I soldiered on, reminding myself of the relief I would gain if I could be free of this uncertainty.
As it turned out, Dr. H was pleasant, a good listener who attended to my lengthy story. I feared perhaps I had rambled on too long, but he smiled and understood. When I stopped, he reassured me that it was possible to take care of this and it was nothing so alarming that it couldn’t be handled from inside the mouth by making a slit in the salivary gland under the tongue — he’d make an opening just large enough for the calcium deposit to come out without needing to disturb anything else. “Just large enough for the Rock of Gibraltar to pass through,” he told me.
I agreed; and then and there I received a small amount of anesthetic, enough to calm me down. I laid in a reclining, antiseptic bed while Dr. H, in no time, had my mouth open as he and his assistants made the slit under my tongue without my even being aware that it had been done.
The next thing I knew, he held up what looked like a fuzzy stone. To me it seemed the size of the Hope Diamond, and relief came immediately when I knew the ordeal was over.
In my hazy state, half-anesthetized by the drugs and half by my own sense of relief, I asked to keep the relic and he apologized, saying it had to go to the clinic. It wasn’t until hours later that I realized the full extent of how free I now was from the stone, from the unending anxiety it had caused me. Such a small thing, yet so profound.