I don’t remember the exact date, but it was a morning in March 1984 when I awoke on a wheeled cart following oral surgery in a Houston hospital. Can that really be thirty years ago? The memory is still so vivid. After a few moments of panic I figured out that I really could breathe through the little plastic tube in my nose. My groggy brain must have decided: “The hell with this.” The next time my eyes opened I was back in my hospital room. I could breathe, but that was about all my head could do. The dental braces that had pulled and pushed my teeth around for the last couple of years were snugly wired together as well as secured by a vertical wire that ran through the bone at the base of my nose. I noticed a small shiny pair of surgical wire cutters on the little bedside table. I still keep those, never used, in a dresser drawer.
The surgical procedure I had undergone was considered a new innovation in the dental world at the time. I was told it was the only way to save my teeth from eventually being “pushed out of my head” by my misaligned jaw. I was born with a lower jaw that grew a bit too long, causing a fairly severe under-bite. With my jaw closed there was a gap between my front teeth, which explains why I hated baloney sandwiches when I was a kid. Unless I applied my tongue just right, the thin uncut lunch meat would all at once slide out of the sandwich and flop down my chin. I thought everybody had that problem. And just to add to the fun, nature threw in a slight cross-bite (the teeth on bottom sometimes struck a little to the left of my upper teeth). After thirty something years I was accustomed to my teeth moving around regularly. I’d chew on one side for a while and then have to switch because a molar was feeling loose due to poor occlusion. So, yes, I volunteered for the corrective surgery my dentist suggested. Basically, the procedure amounted to cutting my lower jaw bone on both sides and sliding it backward. Near the cuts the overlapping bone would naturally grow together in about six weeks. Today, this healing time is shortened by using permanent screws to secure the jaw.
After a couple of days of intravenous feeding, the hospital nutritionist brought in my first meal. I thought I knew what I had gotten myself into, but this was a shock. I had imagined being limited to mushy things like pudding, thin mashed potatoes, maybe even baby food. I was wrong. The little sections on that plastic food tray contained four tiny puddles of different colored liquids. They were all sweet and fruity tasting. There was no fork or spoon. I wouldn’t be using either of those for six long weeks. The nurse smiled apologetically as she handed me a plastic straw, the first of so many I would use over the coming months. The orthodontist had done an excellent job of realigning my teeth. The almost invisible openings between my clenched teeth were so tiny it required some effort to get even thin liquid past them and into my idling digestive system. A day or two later, they wished me well as I left the hospital. I had sort of expected some help with diet suggestions, but other than a few ideas from my Mom, I was on my own.
It took a while, but I eventually got into a routine of having meals through a straw. It was always challenging to get any variety. The hardest part was finding anything liquid that wasn’t sweet. Even V-8 juice was too thick and pulpy. The folks at my local grocery store must have wondered about that depressed looking guy who was always wandering down the juice aisle muttering to himself without his mouth moving. Speaking of which, you’d be surprised how well a person can learn to talk with his mouth closed. I still can do that. Annoys the hell out of people.
During the first couple of weeks I lost around 15 pounds, but as the nutritionist had predicted, I regained almost all of that while still on the liquid diet. Your system simply adjusts, I guess. Then, at six weeks the surgeon decided to extend the healing process two more weeks, just to be safe. That was tough to hear. I don’t think he understood I might at that time have been willing to take out a contract on his life for a Saltine cracker. Both of us did survive the eight weeks however.
At that time I worked as a computer programmer at Gulf Oil headquarters in Houston. My co-workers were great through this whole episode. For two entire months no one ate even a snack within my view. In fact I later learned there had been a group decision to never even discuss going out for lunch where I could hear them. Those were real friends. When the day finally arrived for me to have the wires removed, the whole department planned to take me out to eat at Fuddruckers, a favorite of mine for huge hamburgers. When I returned from my appointment with the surgeon, I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I could only open my jaw about a half inch. Unused muscles take days to recover to moving normally. But that was okay. At the restaurant I requested those now unfamiliar instruments, a knife and fork, and was able to slowly cut the hamburger patty into tiny bites. It turned into a rather long lunch.
I’ll never forget that time in my life. It was much more of a struggle than I had expected, but the surgery was a success. At the ripe old age of 65 I still have all my teeth and can bite through a baloney sandwich like nobody’s business.
Norm Brown is the author of the suspense novel Carpet Ride, published by Secondwind Publishing, LLC.