Braces: A Pandemic Story

Dear Willow:

This is about my teeth, but it’s also a pandemic story.

I am rounding into the home stretch of having braces for the third time in my life, and of course my teeth will at last be straight while we are in the midst of a global pandemic in which we must cover our mouths for the foreseeable future.

Three times! you say. Surely you jest!

I do not jest. I believe the medical term for my teeth when I was kid is “jacked up.” I had a condition where the roots on my baby teeth did not resorb, which meant I had to have all of them pulled, five or six at a time. A small mouth (thanks mom and dad) also meant pulling a couple of permanent teeth to boot. Add in a skateboard accident that bashed my two front teeth and caused the permanent ones to come in with one sideways and the other one sticking out, and we’re talking serious orthodontia.

The first time I had braces was fourth grade, only on the two wayward front teeth and then anchors on the molars in the back. This was necessary to prepare my teeth for the eventual full complement of braces to come. That same year, I also missed about 30 days of school with strep throat, until I had my tonsils out on Halloween. Pretty sure I also had a bout of impetigo in the spring.

It was a good year.

The second round of braces was from eighth grade into senior year of high school – the full range of instrumentation: head gear, rubber bands, you name it. Upon finishing that up, my orthodontist installed a fixed retainer on the bottoms to keep them in place. Ten-plus years later I had a dentist who told me I didn’t need that anymore and took it out. Fifteen years after that, the bottoms looked like a row of headstones in a south Louisiana cemetery thrown askew by the shifting earth underneath.

They didn’t bother me too much because they were rarely visible, but when one of my two front teeth started the journey back to its previous sideways state, I decided to take action.

I was prepared to pay for the Invisalign treatment myself, but in a kind of gesture towards poetic justice, they became my mother’s gift for my 50th birthday. She and my father had already invested quite a bit in the first two rounds. It seemed fitting that we go for the trifecta. My orthodontist as a kid was a neighbor, and my dad swore that, between me and my brother, we’d paid for the new sunroom on the back of the house. I bet every parent in Northbrook thought that.

Reflecting back makes me incredibly grateful that I had access to the dental care I needed, with parents who could pay for it, living at a time when paying for such things didn’t seem like a luxury. With my baby teeth not falling out and my crowded mouth, lack of care would’ve been ultimately debilitating, leaving me with teeth that could not properly meet. So yes, thanks mom and dad.

I was on the fence about doing the Invisalign until my dentist showed me the simulation of what was going to happen. For sure the end product was alluring, but more important was seeing the process. Invisalign is a series of trays (I’m on 15 of 16) that move your teeth bit by bit. The simulation showed how the teeth were going to shift over time until they reached their final form. Having had braces for years in high school, I was skeptical that what was wrong with my teeth could be made right over 6 months’ time, but the simulation made me believe.

I’m close enough to the end, that I can see that it was no lie. It’s happened pretty much as predicted.

This has me thinking about how we could use more step-by-step simulations for seemingly intractable problems, like…I don’t know, a pandemic?

I think one of the hurdles we have to overcome is a collective sense held among many that doing what we have to do to crush this thing is too hard and therefore isn’t worth it. But if we had a reasonable simulation – where we could see the steps mapped it out and what the world would look like post-pandemic, how the temporary pain would release us to a better future – maybe we could get more buy-in?

It’s like on the Property Brothers when you get the animation for how the house is going to look before you start, so you can remember that when they pull down some drywall and find a family of possums living inside the walls. It’s that image of the shining end result that keeps you motivated in the face of an unexpected setback.

It’s also possible, that as painful as dealing with COVID may be, we may discover something important and lasting in the process.

One of beneficial byproducts of having braces again has been stepping up my oral hygiene. It was already pretty good – at least according to my dental hygienist – but because you have to take out the trays to eat and then put them in right after you’re done, I’ve been required to step up my game: flossing, waterpicking, and brushing in the morning, after every meal, and night. Everything in my mouth is literally healthier because of the process of straightening my teeth.

I’d like to think our country will emerge from this painful time battered, having suffered great loss, but also course-corrected toward greater health – physical, emotional, societal. We’re not there yet – not even close – but I have hope. At any rate, I want to believe.

In another couple weeks, I’ll be done with braces for the third time. Hopefully, my teeth will at least look good over Zoom.


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