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Friday, February 03, 2006

A Jaw-Dropping Experience

Today, February 3rd, is the anniversary of the day I got my braces off, 12 years ago. Next to my wedding day, it's still the happiest day of my life. You see, I wore them for almost five years and had to have major jaw surgery before they could be removed.

The surgery happened right before my junior year of high school and later, during my junior year of college, I wrote a paper about it. It was for an intense creative writing class and the topic was "Personal Reminiscense." My classmates encouraged me to write a more serious paper so this was my attempt.

I'm pasting it here exactly as I wrote it (even though I see so many opportunities to make it funnier). I'm even including my original author's note at the end which was required of us.

Happy braces-off anniversary to me!

Elsa K. Weidman
E325M- Personal Reminiscence
March 11, 1998

Soul Surgery

I never noticed my pointy chin until sophomore year of high school. My orthodontist pointed it out during a routine braces-tightening one September afternoon. He informed me that my three years of service wearing braces were all for naught. Unable to correct my prominent underbite, he referred me to an oral surgeon for corrective jaw surgery.
“If the condition is bad enough, we usually like to do the surgery as soon as possible,” the oral surgeon explained to my parents and me. He then added, “You know, cause the other kids like to tease.”
“Well, you don’t think her jaw is that bad, do you?” my mother asked.
“Oh Yes,” he answered without hesitation.
What was he talking about? My condition? I had spent enough time in the orthodontist’s office to understand that I had an underbite which caused my bottom teeth to sit slightly in front of my upper. But no one ever teased me about it. At least, I didn’t think they did.
I glanced sideways in the mirror as the oral surgeon talked over insurance claims with my parents. My chin did stick out a little bit too much. And teenagers tease anybody with even the slightest imperfection. Why should I be the exception? My oral surgeon—an expert on the subject— assumed without a doubt that my peers chuckled at my protruding chin.
Maybe they stared at my profile in disgust. Or maybe they whispered catty comments behind my back like, “She looks okay from the front, but from the side—UGH!” Or worse. Maybe they had labeled me cruel names like witch girl or Jay Leno’s look-alike.
The more I worried, the more my chin grew. By the time we got home, I felt like a walking chin. Feeling my self confidence drain out of my body, I begged my parents to let me see a different oral surgeon. While I had accepted the fact that I would have to endure this major surgical operation, I refused to let this tactless doctor near my jaw.
We set the date for Christmas break and I had placed my massive underbite in the capable and caring hands of a new oral surgeon, Dr. Kershman. Through my frequent pre-operation visits to his office, Dr. Kershman patiently explained the procedure he would perform to correct my jaw problem. He would first break my jaw and then move my mandible (my upper set of teeth) forward so they would rest just slightly over my bottom teeth. The operation would take about six hours and he assured me that I would be very unconscious the whole time. When I woke up my jaw would be wired shut and it would remain that way for six weeks.
The fear of surgery soon replaced my fear of ugliness. Dr. Kershman had me watch a video which detailed the dangers of such a major operation. The film explained minor complications which had me only slightly worried until the end of the film when the narrator’s serious voice announced, “And the final risk— which is a factor in all surgery—death.” Death? I had to wonder if I really wanted to risk my life for an improved chin.
As December approached my life became consumed with the surgery. How could I live on milk shakes for six weeks? What if I had to vomit and I couldn’t cut the wires in time? What if my jaw looked even weirder than before? What guy would want to date a girl with a mouthful of wires? I rarely slept through the night and I experienced gruesome jaw surgery nightmares.
Dr. Kershman calmed my anxiety by informing me that we’d have to put off the surgery because the insurance refused to cooperate. He also pointed out that my frail 90 pound body could not handle the loss of a lot of blood. So we decided that while we waited for the okay from the insurance company, I would work on getting fat.
I had to get up to 100 pounds in order to donate blood to myself for the surgery. Spring break looked like the next possible opportunity for him to break my jaw. So while my parents cursed the insurance company, I ate—a lot. Spring Break came and went and we hadn’t made any progress with the insurance company. While surgery fears still plagued me, I wanted more than anything to get it over with.
I finally did. On August 11, 1993—almost a year after the first oral surgeon confirmed my condition, a thousand visits to Dr. Kershman’s office, hundreds of phone calls to the insurance company, and a lot of fattening food — I broke my jaw. Well, Dr. Kershman broke it. I woke up in intensive care with my mouth wired shut, a splint connected to my upper pallet, and an IV stuck in my left arm. I stayed in the hospital for two nights and on the third day Dr. Kershman released me...and my wires! I barely listened as he explained why I wouldn’t have to suffer through six weeks of silence. I only cared that I could speak again.
I first requested a mirror so I could examine my perfectly proportioned face. The reflection that stared back at me didn’t have a pointy chin. Instead it had swollen cheeks covered in hideous black and blue bruises. The splint in my mouth made me look like I had a third set of teeth. How could I face the first day of my junior year of high school looking like this? The kids would surely find new nick names to replace my old ones.
My parents didn’t think that even this major surgical operation should cause a glitch in my perfect attendance record. So four days after my release from intensive care I began my junior year— splint and all. I approached the front doors of my high school full of anxiety. I struggled to put one foot in front of the other, and when I saw my heinous reflection in the glass doors I considered going back to my car and hiding in it all day. But I kept on walking.
I thought about the year I had spent worrying about my appearance: how I always tried to sit in the back of the room so that no one would have to look at my profile, how I only looked in the mirror from the front, and when I did catch a glimpse of my profile I turned away and fought back the tears. But now I realized something. As I entered a new school year, I also entered a new life. Once my jaw healed, I wouldn’t have to worry about anyone teasing me or calling me names behind my back. They could finally stop what probably had been years of ridicule.
Relieved, I set foot in my first period class prepared to answer many questions. A girl I had known since elementary school spoke first: “What happened to you, Elsa?” I explained that I had had surgery to correct my jaw. I expected her to leave it at that. After all, she had grown up with me and had probably always snickered at my pointy chin. Instead she looked puzzled and asked, “Why? You looked fine to me.”

Author's Note: I really tried to be serious this time. So I hope nobody laughed! I also hope my point is clear because I think spelling it out (so what I learned was...) would weaken the paper. This is about as serious as I can get since nothing too traumatic has happened to me...yet. If I do experience true suffering this semester I'll be sure to work it into a real downer!


Anonymous said...

I remember very clearly you coming to school, I also wondered why you had the surgery done. I too thought you looked fine before. Happy Anniversary anyway!!

So did you put on the ten pounds because I certainly don't remember that.


Anonymous said...

I was told since I was about 5 years old that I would have to have "the jaw surgery". Whenever I stopped growing they would schedule it. Our orthodonost, Dr. Ressling, was very proud of himself that he pushed my jaw back with 5 years worth of braces.
You were super brave to go through the surgery! I always felt guilty that I did not have to end up having it. Instead I just had to have my senior picture with my braces on!

Anonymous said...

No wonder oral surgeons make $300,000+ per year.

Writinggal said...

Thanks, Lisa! Yes, I put on the ten pounds by drinking lots of whole milk!

K: I remember that it was very important that I get my braces off before my senior pictures!

Jessi said...

I remember it being a big day when you got them off. I only knew you WITH braces! It was kinda exciting because it did seem like a long time.

I hope I don't have to have mine on that long! Damn you midline...MOVE!

Writinggal said...

J: You should get pink bands for V-day. I remember how I liked to make them seasonal. Although why would I want to draw more attention to them?

Jessi said...

Actually this month is the first time I went natural bands. Plus my next appt is on V-day. So I'm debating. But I have done pink tons of times. Nothing's moved for like 3 months! I'm getting annoyed.