Friday, July 26, 2013

The Deep Dark Fears of a Redhead

Interesting and apparently random fact: among anesthesiologists and other professionals whose jobs entail managing other people’s pain, there is a growing body of anecdotal evidence suggesting that red-haired people are either more sensitive to pain or less sensitive to painkillers—for whatever reason, we tend to need more painkiller than a non-redhead under the exact same circumstances.

Based on my own experiences, I’d say there’s definitely something to that theory. As a child, I made regular dental visits every six months, and not until age seventeen did I suffer my first cavity in need of a drill-and-fill. And something went wrong. The anesthetic definitely had some effect on me—my face grew numb enough that I couldn’t even properly close my mouth until the novocaine wore off—but it was not enough to completely kill the pain of a drill boring into my back molar.

I recall a few other incidents where it’s possible my red hair made me experience more pain than usual. For example, when I had my first attack of kidney stones, the powerful narcotics I was prescribed were not sufficient to make the pain vanish completely; the best they could do was move the pain from the forefront to the background of my consciousness. (My second attack, when I was in graduate school, was even worse, because I had no health insurance and the inner-city emergency room I visited avoided prescribing narcotics or any drugs with recreational potential and a resale value on the street.)

Anyway, I went to the dentist earlier this week and spent a few hours sitting in his chair while he used his dental drill and dental hacksaw and other scary-looking devices to file away at my four front teeth (which, for reasons too complicated to explain here, needed to be topped by “crowns”). If you ignore the cost of the prescription eyeglasses and various vision exams I’ve needed since age fourteen, my dental visit this week cost me more money than all of my previous adult out-of-pocket medical or dental expenses combined.

But I’m not writing to complain about the massive hit my savings account took this week. I’m writing to complain about the pain.

When I went to the dentist’s office, I told him and his assistant about my fear that maybe the standard dose of novocaine wouldn’t be sufficient. (And the hygienist mentioned a former doctor-boss of hers who’d made a similar observation: redheads seem to need more painkiller than others.)

Most people suffering through the same procedure I did need only two doses of novocaine—one dose while the dentist works on the first two teeth, a second dose for the second two. I needed either eight or nine doses (I lost count). And the whole time, I kept thinking “Thank Zod novocaine has no street-corner resale value; if it did, the dentist would be legally forbidden from giving me as much as I need.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration absolutely hates painkillers and the people who use them. According to the DEA, letting a bone-cancer victim die screaming in agony is preferable to running the risk that said cancer patient (or relatives with access to her medicine cabinet) might spend her final days a little bit high. And I will share with you readers a deep dark secret, one of my great fears which, before today, was known only to my closest and most trusted friends and the NSA sociopaths who read my emails: I worry that I will suffer a painful medical problem which modern medicine knows exactly how to treat—but is legally forbidden from doing so thanks to DEA agents who refuse to entertain for a second the possibility that drugs with “fun intoxication” potential might have legitimate medical uses as well.

My last dental visit for anything more than a cleaning and checkup was in 2006, when I had a wisdom tooth coming in at a bad angle. And the drug laws made the experience far worse than it had to be. Here’s an excerpt from something I wrote seven years ago while half out of my mind with pain:
Christ, it’s not you guys, the CIA or even the codeine that need to get the hell out of my head lest I go insane — it’s the pain. How can I make it go away right now, without breaking the law and risking a long term in prison? I can’t.

My government is legally requiring me to suffer pain. I haven’t even committed any crimes, and my government is legally requiring me to suffer pain. If I try to escape it tonight I can only do this by breaking the law. I mean, yes, I’ve got those old pills left over from my last wisdom tooth extraction. But I took them more than an hour ago and I don’t think they’re working. They're making me pretty tired, I'll admit, but my tooth feels exactly the same.

Most galling of all: the laws requiring me to experience every bit of this pain are justified with the excuse that they protect my health.


Blogger Charles Pergiel said...

This might be irrelevant, or maybe not. A couple of times in years past when I had dental work done, I ended up feeling terrible. The Novocaine worked, but the aftereffects were miserable. Seems I was reacting to the adrenaline that is normally added to Novocaine. Last time the dentist left the adrenaline out and the aftereffects were not nearly so bad.

6:47 AM  
Anonymous 1amWendy said...

Things must have changed, Jennifer: when my father was in his last days the hospice people dispensed so many narcotics that I was gobsmacked. I had so much morphine and vicodin lying around that I was worried I would poison the local water table getting rid of it (I was instructed to simply send it all down the garbage disposal).

4:10 PM  

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