Dental Surgery Unexpectedly Triggered My Past Medical Trauma
Columnist Allison Ross was hit with a jarring flashback to her vasculitis onset
Once you’ve lived many years with a disorder as stressful as vasculitis, it’s both harder and easier to endure routine medical procedures.
A couple weeks ago, I encountered severe dental issues. I never had my wisdom teeth taken out as a young adult, and they were enacting their revenge. Shooting pain gripped my lower jaw, subtle at first, but then more insistent as the week progressed.
Within five days, I was unable to sleep at night. I finally contacted an emergency dentist, who scheduled a much-needed extraction for the following week. I was sure I’d be relieved afterward, but first there was an unanticipated surgery to get through. I dreaded it.
The day came. I was so nervous I’d barely slept the night before. It was a simple surgery, but I was burdened by doubt and anxiety. Since I was diagnosed with vasculitis as a teen, I’d been to hell and back. The swirl of past hospitals, doctors, and tests loomed over me like a nightmarish cloud, persisting all the way to my dental appointment.
I took a deep breath and sat in the chair, holding my lower jaw. I tried to remind myself that once this was all over, I’d feel so much better.
“We’re going to get the oxygen flowing to you now. After that goes for a while, it’ll be replaced with a mixture of oxygen and nitrous oxide, which is what will relax you.”
I appreciated the dentist’s explanation. Leaning back, I prepared to have a mask placed over my nose and enjoy the flow of oxygen until the effects began to take hold. My jitters were so strong, I was looking forward to the nitrous oxide.
But it turned out I wasn’t prepared after all. When the plastic contraption fit over my face, suddenly I had a horrific flashback: I’m 16 years old, in the ICU, and nurses are scrambling to keep me alive. I haven’t been able to breathe properly for many months. One of them fits a spongy mask over my face, and I inhale the sweet, clean flow of oxygen gratefully.
At the time, we didn’t know that my left lung was two-thirds full of my own blood due to a pulmonary hemorrhage. One symptom of my vasculitis onset was that I was severely short on oxygen. The problem had crept up on me so slowly that I didn’t realize how hard it was to breathe.
Flash forward to the present: Until that moment in the dental chair, I hadn’t realized I had medical trauma regarding masks. Then I knew.
I was able to rationalize the situation to myself and stop short of a panic attack. I knew the surgery had nothing to do with vasculitis, and I was far from a life-threatening situation. I knew I was safe and would feel much better after this easy procedure.
I simply wasn’t prepared for the parallels to a medical scenario from 18 years ago.
Many of us who endure health complications are stronger because of them. We know that things can get painful, uncomfortable, and invasive. We may not be scared, but it doesn’t mean things are any more pleasant.
I tried affirmations: You’re a survivor. You’ve been through much worse than this. You’ve had biopsies, physical traumas, and hundreds of tests. You can do this. But I was trembling again. Could it be that the dentist’s office was awakening some of those memories? Maybe my anxiety was heightened due to some form of medical PTSD.
There was also the financial aspect to contend with. I have been without insurance for many months now and am a cash-pay patient. Though the dental operation wasn’t beyond my means, it put significant stress on my bank account, in addition to the cost of regular vasculitis medications and lab visits.
“We got it out! All done.” The dentist’s voice assured me that I’d made it through yet another medical setback.
Though the experience wasn’t pleasant, it brought forward many truths. I’m grateful that there weren’t further issues beyond a simple extraction. I’m fortunate to be able to take care of myself. And I’m lucky to have family and friends who sent me messages of encouragement during recovery.
Ask someone what their most valuable possession is. Time and freedom? Their pets? Assets or family heirlooms? For me and many other chronic illness patients, the answer is simple: physical stability. I’m not asking for perfect health, just the ability to control my body and mind within reasonable means.
Like all medical situations, this surgery helped put life in perspective. And now I carry on — stronger, healthier, and more knowledgeable than before.
Note: ANCA Vasculitis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of ANCA Vasculitis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to ANCA vasculitis.
Did you have other complications with your teeth?
No other complications. My family has always been blessed with good dental health, so this surgery was an anomaly (and all non-wisdom/functional teeth are perfectly healthy still). Many vasculitis patients encounter issues with bone density due to heavy steroid treatment - earlier in my illness I did have some challenges with that. Otherwise, no other dental problems.