Monday, January 23, 2012

My One Year Anniversary of Meeting Rakhee & Going to the Dentist - 39 Appointments Later!

Though I was hoping it would fall on the same day as my first visit to the dentist in nearly 20 years, which occurred last year on January 19th, my closest appointment will be tomorrow's quick Post Op with Elif while Rakhee begins her Board Exams. As I am facing the home stretch now, I have been a moody mixture of emotions, both for Rakhee and myself and my whole treatment plan and this story in general. I can't help but wonder what's next for each of us, if I will manage to raise enough money and we will be able to finish before she graduates, what I will do with all I have written, all I have learned and if I will one day consider any sort of dentistry-related career, or perhaps fundraising and grant-writing for some community dental health non-profit, or if I will in some way inspire and partner with any of my student dentists down the road. I still am also constantly awaiting the next step, waiting to heal, waiting for a remotely consistent diet, trying to schedule my next appointments and organize my next fundraising events. I am kind of a mess, though I think I manage keep my emotions and stress in check by having my job to focus on and remaining grounded through exercise and spending as much time in nature and away from the mental malaise of city living as possible. I can't wait to finish and save money toward something ELSE, now that I have actually learned to save money as a result of all of this. I will most likely be saving to finally permanently move out of Phoenix and pursue a new life elsewhere. But that, you will have to ask me about again later in the year. For now, I want to talk about my anniversary, and the past year and how it has changed my life.
If I had had an appointment closer to the 19th, I probably would have written something very similar in a card to Rakhee as I just posted for her in a previous blog that listed the 30 most inspiring people I have known that have helped shape me into who I am today. However, since I could not, I shared the link to it as a proud gift I posted online for the world to see on that date. Since that entry is incredibly long and much of it doesn't specifically relate to my teeth, in case you may have missed it, I want to share the section that relates to her  again here, as I consider it of significant importance to this blog, to our story. Here it is:

 29. Rakhee Patel

Rakhee and Trent  fighting the Battle of Tooth 17. March 2011.
The most color-coordinated filling appointment ever.
dunno, I just like this picture. It reminds me--Impressions always seem like a calming Zen moment and 5 minute head hug. (How often does anyone hold your head motionless, anyway!?) It's a humbling and moving time to reflect upon all that we have been through. It's  kind of the most at peace one can feel in a dentist's chair...once you learn not to gag, that is.

Rakhee is my student dentist who has been with me for 35 of my 39 appointments in the past year and my partner in writing the story of my smile reconstruction...not to mention the HERO of it. She is the architect who was able to envision a new and improved me before I ever even thought it was possible, and made me believe in her dream. Every time I pick up a toothbrush or floss it it a "thank you" to her...for showing me after nearly 20 years of feeling incomplete as I watched small parts of me disappear to decay that I'm not broken. For teaching me a new language to speak about the one thing in my life I could never utter and giving me the courage to find a way to make that darkest secret I most hated about myself into something positive and inspiring to the world. For helping me to make something often taken for granted and/or hated or feared into a uniquely heroic tale that for the first time in my life helped also transform my writing into something positive and accessible to thousands of supportive people all over the globe. For giving me the strength and guidance and support to face my deepest, darkest, most depressing secret and brave over a 100 hours in a dentist chair. (So far!) For helping me to find the discipline to save money for the first real time in my life and often sacrifice my sanity to sock away nearly ten grand last year--nearly half my earnings. For showing me that anything is possible if I believe in myself, and for always believing in me. For giving me my smile back, slowly yet surely, and inspiring me to truly open up to the world, regardless of how many teeth I happen to have or how afraid and vulnerable I might feel. For always making me feel taken care of, despite how much pain and torture I have endured throughout my appointments in a way that no family, lover, or best friend ever could, and teaching me to for the first time in my life to take care of the most neglected parts of me. For helping me to heal, in far more ways than just easing the pain of a toothache. For having the patience to deal with a crazy, intense patient like me, for teaching me so much about myself, and I hope even, for allowing my honesty and perseverance to inspire and strengthen her desire to be a dentist and a healer, while bearing witness in such a firsthand and intimate way to the power of her abilities to truly make someone have a better life, to watch them physically transform before her very eyes, and know that it was at her own hand. For being my biggest cheerleader through all of this. I hope that my trust in you and support from the beginning to be a part of such an intensely personal journey, let alone to let me share it with the world in such a graphically-detailed, specific and personal way on the internet, has helped inspire you to be an even better dentist--to see things, for once, so elaborately through a patient's eyes, "shoes," and mouth and truly see how exactly who you are has made a difference in the someone's life.

Pinar and Rakhee...though they've never met, they kind of go hand in hand to me. My blog about my transformation is as much about both of them as it is me. Pinar was the one who helped me to face my own demons as I helped her face hers, and prepared me mentally to finally move forward before our lives went in different directions. Rakhee is the one who picked up where she left off and helped me to fix myself physically, both of them healers in their own right who helped me to learn to love myself and be more comfortable in my own skin. Years from now, when I look back on my life...there will be the lonely, shy, cynical, alienated and tortured Paul I was for the first part of my existence, and there will be everything ELSE that came after the Hell and back adventures of 2010 I spent in love, compassion and giggles with Pinar, and my physical reconstruction and new beginning at the hands of Rakhee and relearning how to smile, enjoy eating and open up to the world, the two of which who gave me my smile, my happiness, and my life back. Words will never express the immense love and gratitude I have for them, always.

I also want to share a portion of her reply:
I am speechless Paul. That blog entry was one of the most genuine and sincere things I have ever read! It reminded me why I chose to become a dentist, how small gestures of kindness go a long way, and how big of an impact people can have on another's life! You are great, thank you for that post-- I know that this has been such a crazy journey, but it is so comforting to read that it has truly impacted you in so many positive ways!

I find myself telling people of your story weekly, and ironically was just talking to a student today about you. She was wondering how I got you as my patient, and I said he just kind of "fell into my hands." Her response: wow. I said I know I am really lucky. It is great to know that I have made such a great impact on you, but you have taught me a lot too! You are one of my most complex cases yet, from complex dental procedures to learning new ways to tackle a problem or just understanding what reviving someone's smile can do for their life and future; it has been a great journey indeed! So thank YOU.
Her sentiment and I guess my sentimentality for our entire journey together and trying to even wrap my head around it all upon the anniversary inspired me to a few other gifts to her the occasion. After several frustrated hours in Photoshop (I'm kind of a Luddite when it comes to art. an analog kid who prefers X-acto blades and tape to computers.) and cropping and resizing and trying to reasonably color correct all the pictures to look somewhat the same, I managed to finally come up with something I was happy with that I have printed out to pass along to her tomorrow. This digital version, however, of course looks better:
After creating this, I thought about how else I feel other things besides just the physical appearance of my mouth have changed as well over the past year. I remembered this old picture of me that happened to get snapped at my 3rd appointment after my gross debridement when Rakhee was documenting the beginning status of my teeth, smile, facial structure, etc. I HAAATE that picture and think I look totally exhausted, nervous and all-around unhappy. I may have yet to overcome completely occasional feelings of stress, depression, anxiety or frustration, etc., but I have most certainly come a long way in the past year. I am human after all! But just the fact that I have begun to manage to loosen up the tension in my face and retrain my muscle memory to be more prone to smiling after so many years of tight lipped scowling and furrowed brows certainly must be becoming more and more evident to all who knew me before. To try to demonstrate that, I also created this for Rakhee and to commemorate the occasion in the blog as well so I could share it with you all. I am trying, slowly, to make the default expression on my face more of a reflection of the inner me--warm and kind and compassionate, and less an image of 20 years of pain, frustration, alienation and bitterness. I hope I am doing better!

I am trying to process it all. It has been such a long year and it is still far from over, though we ARE getting close. It is hard to even know where to begin when trying to tell you how many different ways my life has changed. Sometimes pictures can demonstrate more than words in the case of the ones above. Here are a few more that I think also tell a very different story of "Old Paul" vs. "New Paul."
For the past several years, all that I ever owned to maintain any sort of oral hygiene was basically one crappy toothbrush I used for far too long, and probably only every other day or so. Before I met Rakhee, this was all I had to take care of my teeth.

Though I didn't manage to save everything, this is the majority of all I used and used up to take care of my teeth in the past year. I currently have an electric toothbrush, prescription toothpaste and use 3 or 4 different kinds of floss. I will probably buy a water pick soon, and need to get more mouth rinse at the moment. I think I am going to even start carrying it on my bike in my "extra" 3rd water bottle holder that usually has peanut butter in it.
 I am glad that I can say, that I feel I have almost forgotten what it was like to feel pain in my mouth. The cuts and stitches and shots from corrective procedures are nothing compared to a single day in my previous life, and I gladly would have traded the pain of an implant healing for a few days with what it felt like to accidentally bite down on infected tissue growing over a fractured crown while chewing any day. It is hard to believe how much I have been through in the past year, and even harder to believe how many years I tried to ignore such intense pain previously, living in perpetual denial and pretending it would go away or I would one day win the lottery or something, and it would all figure itself out for me.


  1. Gongratulations, on your first anniversary. and glad you made the first step in taking care of you teeth.

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  2. Keep on believing, Paul. As you say, it's a long road, but you're getting there. I'm happy that you met a Rakhee that helps you not only physically but also mentally as you go through the smile reconstruction process. Good luck on your journey, Paul, and keep that faith burning!