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Why Needing A Root Canal Made Me A Better Doctor


I historically seek out the positive sides of most unfortunate situations, but when I found out I needed a root canal on my right upper incisor, the only positive sentiment that I could muster was that there are many people dealing with far worse than this.

My tooth saga began 30 years ago playing hide and go seek in the dark in the basement of the house I grew up in.  Unable to see more than a few inches in front of me as I was following my friend Jamie at a run, he pulled up short and my mouth ran into the back of his head.

My mouth and in particular, the base of my right incisor, bled a lot and hurt a lot.  But despite the pain, I endured it and kept the injury to myself for fear that I may have to pay a visit to my sadistic childhood dentist.  I swear to this day that guy reveled in the pain he inflicted on us.  I never even knew that dentists routinely numbed your mouth to drill cavities until I heard it from my friends in college because my never even offered it!

Anyway, other than a slight discoloration of my tooth, everything pretty much went back to normal within a week’s time.  Given my fear of dentists born of childhood dental trauma and lack of really giving my teeth a second thought, preoccupied with so much throughout my college and veterinary education, I did not see a dentist for nearly 5 years into my veterinary career.  Miraculously, things were not that bad only needing a good cleaning, but my dentist did comment on my discolored tooth and recommended radiographs.

Essentially, she discovered that the tooth root was dead, but it was not causing any issues with pain nor causing resorption of the surrounding bone.  She advised we watch it and repeat x-rays every other year.

About 12 months ago, 5 years into watching the tooth, a routine x-ray showed the clear beginnings of bone resorption around the tooth root, which meant that the tooth was now a problem.  My dentist gave me a referral to an endodontist to get a root canal to solve the issue ASAP.  She warned of serious pain and consequences should I procrastinate.

Naturally, I procrastinated, and one day 11 months later, I woke up with a pain so bad in the roof of my mouth that I felt it in my eye ball.  Of course, it occurred on a Sunday, so I swallowed enough Advil to enable me to still eat and function for the day, and I called the endodontist begging them to get me in ASAP for a root canal.

Three weeks post root canal, I feel great, and aside from the cost of the procedure ($1200) and the fact that I had to deal with some pretty bad pain, I now have a hands on perspective of what bone resorption feels like and can now relate it to my canine and feline patients that often suffer far worse.

It is often a struggle to get owners to take dental health seriously enough to follow through on our recommendations for routine dentistry.  Subsequently, all too commonly, as things get so bad that the owner can no longer stand within 5 feet of the pet’s breath without gagging and they book the dental, I often see pets with 10 – 14 resorptive lesions…and there I was ready to gouge my eye out from just ONE!

When I make my post-operative call to the owners and report to them the magnitude of the periodontal disease, they are often confounded that things were so bad, reflecting that the pet was eating fine and did not show pain.  Then when they come in for the 2 week post op re-check, they report to me that their pet seems to have a new lease on life since the dental!  I commonly hear, “I know he was laying around a lot, but I thought he was just getting old.”

You may ask, why are the signs of dental disease in dogs and cats so subtle as to escape the attention of the owner?  It is because animals by nature attempt to not show outward signs of weakness and pain; because above all else, they know they need to power through and eat, drink, and sleep.  Unlike me who wallowed in self-pity because my ONE bad tooth hurt so badly, dogs and cats do not have the self-pity gene.

So, how did this all make me a better doctor?  My success rate in my recommendation of dentistry has gone up dramatically since my tooth saga, as no owner is spared the story of my root canal when I recommend dentistry.  I even smile broadly so that they can see my discolored tooth, once a source of self-consciousness, now a proud symbol of being a champion for animal dental health!

Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital in West Melbourne, FL, Chief Editor of the Veterinary Advice and Information Website, Web-DVM, and founder/CEO of Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care.

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