There’s a GoFundMe campaign to save my teeth. Here is the story of how my smile got to be as it is today.
I Got to Look Like a Robot and No One Could Say Anything About It
Of all the metal apparatus that orthodontists have installed in my mouth, I’d have to say the headgear was my favorite, because it turned any seven-year-old into a robot. The first girl that I ever thought was pretty was a girl who donned headgear. I’d sigh and think of that girl–the girl with the robot face who I was way too shy to talk to: she looked so cool. I’d spend long hours thinking about what color the pad at the back of the neck would be if I had headgear. After lots of careful consideration and deep reflection, I settled on a denim-blue colored vinyl: the exact same headgear pad color the girl had. Weeks later I couldn’t believe my luck when, at the end of a visit, the orthodontist sheepishly walks back into the room, as if he was giving bad news, holding a tray lined up with headgear styles: the denim blue model laying smack in the middle.
Even equipped with this new common bond with the robot girl, I did not possess the courage to ever talk to her: In retrospect I realize that perhaps it would have helped her feel less uncomfortable. In any case it certainly didn’t stop me from being happy, because I got to be a robot all day long and no one could say anything about it! I finished needing the headgear by the first checkup: I had worn it every waking moment of the day. I remember almost feeling sad…
The Jaw Expander is About as Fun as It Sounds
Previous to the headgear was my first cyborg implant–the ‘orthodontic jaw expander’–a stainless steel bridge that spanned straight across the roof of my mouth and anchored my molars. Every few weeks the orthodontist would turn a screw to expand my jaw a little at a time. It made speaking very difficult, so I didn’t talk much for the year or so when it was in. This may help to explain the intense shyness during headgear phase. After the jaw expander and the headgear came the retainer, and then the braces. However the braces never finished their job: at about age fifteen, I was moved into a new home that was unable to provide for further work. Eventually the arch wires on the braces broke. Now that I think about it, using needlenose pliers to remove the broken wire could qualify as my first time metalworking. All that remained were the glued-on metal squares. Most of them fell off on their own, the remaining tenacious few were eventually taken off professionally. Unfortunately a lot of my dental work regressed afterwards, since the process was halted prematurely.
But all this was back in the during the Carter administration—time passed, I ‘grew up’, worked a bunch of entry-level jobs—then I got into bikes.
The Bicycle Chopper for my Mouth-Choppers
As an adult I’ve never had access to dental insurance, so I have been limited to normal cleanings, with the occasional root planing and deep scaling. However my adventures are not without their highlights: once I made a chopper, dubbed USB Holy Molar, which was auctioned off to get my wisdom teeth out. We raised $800: enough to cover the costs of the extraction at Tufts Medical school. While it took a lot of time, I was happy to help students learn, and was grateful for relief of the intense pain I had endured.
I feel obligated to mention a low point: chipping my front tooth on the ground during Operation Blunt Facial Trauma. I’ve filed the experience in the ‘never-do-that-again’ folder.
Josh, Patrick, and the Rolling Slumbermachine
A couple of years ago my friend Joshua Beckmann asked for some help welding a lightweight steel cart for a dental anesthesiologist. Dental anesthesiologists often travel to dental offices, and need to carry their sensitive life-sustaining equipment up and down stairs and ramps in any kind of New England weather. While Josh continued to progress in TIG prowess after my class, he asked I could handle the .022″ thick chromoly we spec’ed. I must admit I found it challenging, but we got the job done.
After powder coating and adding the rest of the hardware to the frame it was ready to go. Everything fit perfectly: However when Patrick tried to put the cart in his van, he realized he had forgotten about some protruding equipment that caused the cart not to fit. “I was so embarrassed I thought about just getting another van, rather than to face going back in to tell Josh I had made such a foolish mistake.” Josh got in touch with me again so the three of us could meet and scheme up the plan to modify the cart. A few days later I met Patrick McCarty.
Patrick is a guy who’s hard to dislike. He’s always smiling and always lighthearted; save perhaps during the embarrassment of the cart mis-measurement–I wasn’t there so I can only speculate. In any case, we decided the best course of action was to lower the cart by removing a section in the middle and welding it back together. I felt like no one could have been more aptly experienced, between being accustomed to welding very thin wall, added to my hacksaw-fu from making so many choppers. The pipe cutter was our tool of choice to use to cut the tubular legs perfectly straight. Poetically enough we had to modify the pipe cutter in the same way we had to do to the cart: in order to clear the other legs, the handle needed to be shortened in the same manner. After the tool mod, work was easy for a while, as we cut things down to proper size and prepped for welding. We then braced everything with small angle iron and clamps to delicately tack it back together. It welded without incident. After powder coating and assembly it was as good as new. Patrick, Josh, and I were all very happy.
I hadn’t realized that during our first visit Patrick had sized me up for helping me out with my teeth—he could tell they needed some serious help. For me this is a fact I have lived with all my life. And since I had become accustomed to bad news from most dentists, I was not optimistic. But that was the moment of the tides turning.
Patrick told me he’d like to have me come to his office in Taunton. Unfortunately I haven’t owned a car since 1999, so I politely declined saying there’s no way I can get there. He texts back “We’ll come and get you!” I told him I’ve been living without savings ever since I devoted more working time being an artist. He told me not to worry about it. Over the next eighteen months I was picked up in Somerville from Taunton no less than five afternoon visits. Each leg was a forty-five minute drive. It adds up to some seriously selfless generosity!
During these visits sometimes specialists would help, sometimes his staff. I got X-rays, molds, etc. It didn’t take long to realize that Patrick and the people who work with him really know their trade, but what was most prevalent was everyone’s genuine and successful drive to help people. Patrick even cleaned my teeth a couple of times: he tells me it’s nice for him because he doesn’t get to do it that often, mostly he does it for family.
Patrick had a friend and colleague of his, Dr. Vega, did a very tricky extraction in less time than it took for our brief introduction. I thanked him as best as my Novocaine-filled lips could muster as he shook my hand. And then he was gone–like the Lone Ranger, but instead of leaving a silver bullet…
Patrick introduced me to Doctor Alikhani, an endodontist who performed some serious assessments, as well as a root-canal in exchange for art, logo design, and website work. It’s ironic to smile though a root canal, I know. But imagine having my smile and hear genuinely hopeful news from someone who really knows her trade. When I told her how unaccustomed I was to hearing good news from dentists, she replied with a warm smile, “They lack imagination.” I was floored.
The bad news is that many of my teeth are on the way out, but the good news is that I have excessively long roots, which means those that are left stand a very chance of being saved. Over the next year I would get a text or a call from Patrick, asking things like, “I think I can get you into a study @ Harvard so super convenient (in Cambridge)- working w/ a periodontist right now who runs it” or, “Would you be up for traveling to Idaho to get work done?” My answer was yes, of course. But there’s only so much to do when there’s no real way to pay for it.
Weld a New Smile
Then I get an email on a Monday morning from Josh about a fundraiser he and Patrick had been working on but hadn’t publicized. They wanted to ask if it was okay. I thought it was a lot more than okay. We put the word out as best we could.
Seeing a fundraiser grow from 0 to $11,000 in one week of promotion was overwhelming. So many donors have been so generous, many friends, many friends of friends, and so many anonymous people are making a possibility out of an impossibility. While thirty-thousand dollars is not the largest number I hear in the news or about friends of mine; for me $30,000, to be frank, is a lot more money than I’ve ever managed to save.
I am so inspired and amazed and appreciative to Patrick, to his wife/boss/office-manager Caroline, to my great friend Josh, and to Doctor Vega and Doctor Alikhani, to Doctor Waters, and to the donors. You heighten an already present appreciation of the communities I am grateful to be included in. Thank you. You have me all-smiles.
- The cost breakdown. Patrick is talking to a consultant.
- Occasional updates as things begin to happen.