I’m pretty sure I have a screw coming out of my face. The roof of my mouth, actually. I can feel a bump that wasn’t there before and there’s a slight metallic taste if I press on it with my tongue. It hurts a little if I press too hard. I remember my friend Julia telling a story of having dinner with a family friend who had been in a severe car accident thirty years prior. In the middle of chewing he suddenly stopped, reached in his mouth and pulled out a half an inch screw that had slowly worked its way out over the years, only to present itself over spaghetti with Julia and company. He stared at it between his fingers, shrugged and continued eating.
Oh yeah, I have twenty titanium plates and screws in my face. I wish I had a more exciting story explaining why I do. Like “I was in a horrible tractor trailer accident” or “I was attacked by some kind of wild deer.” No, it’s not a very sexy story. When I was in high school, my orthodontist said my jaw hadn’t grown right and therefore my teeth weren’t meshing correctly. I had an underbite. Nothing Frankensteinian or anything. I looked normal. But I sometimes had a hard time chewing food and I got severe migraines that they thought might be caused by this. (Which were not, but that’s another story.)
So they said they could cut out my upper jaw, move it slightly forward, fill in the gaps with some plates and voilà! Easy!
It was not.
It was 1995. Now you have to realize that the one thing that defined 1995 in my house was the OJ Simpson trial. My mother was obsessed with the O.J. Simpson trial. Obsessed. She watched it all day, every day, for 134 days. (I looked it up.) She would yell at the TV and roll her eyes dramatically. My brother and I would look at each other, both very annoyed and hungry for attention. He grabbed me by the hair and bit a chunk out of my arm. Nothing. I threw a chair through the kitchen window. “He’s getting away with murder!” was the only sound from the living room. It was hopeless. I hated that damn trial.
So on October 3, 1995, I was prepped for maxillary osteotomy surgery (DO NOT YOUTUBE THIS). I was a senior in high school. I had never had surgery before and really didn’t know what to expect. A nurse came in and asked me a bunch of questions. Am I pregnant, do I have a cold, that sort of thing. Then she took out a permission form and asked me to sign it. Since I had never been under anesthesia before, they didn’t know how I would react to it. It might make me nauseous, she explained. Since my mouth was going to be wired shut after the surgery, if I vomited I could choke to death.
“In the event that this happens, this form gives the doctors permission to cut open your throat. This way you will vomit out of your neck so you won’t choke on it. Sign here.”
It was the first time I thought perhaps this wasn’t going to be as easy as everyone made it out to seem. I signed the form.
The nurse started an IV and started the sleepy-time drip.
“Why don’t you count backwards from 100 for me?” she asked.
“Woooooaaaah, I really feel that one!” was the last thing I remember saying.
I woke up hours later in the recovery room. There was a nurse sitting by me, staring at me. As soon as I cracked my eyelids, she said “Hi Jill. You’re in a hospital. You’ve just had surgery.”
I can remember the feeling so clearly. My sinuses were completely swollen so I couldn’t breathe out of my nose. My mouth was wired shut so I had a very limited space to breathe there, too. I had over two hundred stitches from the inside of my upper gums and lip, wrapping around my upper jaw and through my sinuses like a baseball. Everything tasted and smelled like blood. Metallic. There was blood dripping slowly out my nose and down the back of my throat. I couldn’t feel my face. I couldn’t feel my tongue or my mouth. Everything was numb, dead. It was horrible.
I was so, so thirsty.
“Wahder?” I was able to mutter out.
“You can’t drink water yet, but I can give you some ice chips,” the nurse said. She put a sliver of ice on my lips as I waited for it to tortuously melt and drip into my mouth, one drop at a time. It tasted like cold blood.
Finally they told me they were going to wheel me to my room. For weeks before the surgery, I had been planning on making a joke when I saw my Dad immediately after surgery. A few years prior he had had an angioplasty after a heart attack. When he woke up in the recovery room, his doctor asked him how he was.
“I can see!” he yelled. The doctor was startled and confused, thinking he had preformed surgery on the wrong man. My father howled with laughter, but apparently cardiologists do not have good senses of humor, he said.
When they wheeled me out of the room and into the hall, I saw my parents rushing toward my bed. I remember the looks on both of their faces when they saw me. It only lasted only a split second, but it was there. Horror. Shock. Dear-God-What-Is-That-Thing. But they checked themselves and smiled, asking how I was.
I was in agony. But comedy first! The show must go on! I choked out the words.
“I camb sheeee,” I sputtered.
My Dad panicked. “What? You can’t breathe? She can’t breathe!” he yelled.
“Nao, nao, Dad… I…cann…see,” I repeated.
“You can… see? What do you…oh. Oh. I get it. ‘You can see.’ Ha.”
Not so amusing from this side of the hospital bed, is it, old man? I snickered and swallowed more blood.
They wheeled me down a hall. My parents stood on either side of my bed rails, my mother looking down at me worriedly. We passed a TV in a lobby, and she looked up. The trial was on. OJ! Damn it, OJ! Not here, not on this day! But the timing was unavoidable. It wasn’t just another trial day. No; today of all days, the OJ Simpson verdict would be read.
My mother’s head bobbed up and down, moving from my deformed, bloodied face to the TVs we passed through the hospital, all tuned to the trial of the decade. At exactly 10 a.m. on October 3, 1995, after only four hours of deliberation the previous day, we entered a large elevator that would take us to my room. As they wheeled me in, we all heard clearly from the television in the lobby across the hall the words, “We the jury, find the defendant, Orenthal J. Simpson…”
And the elevator doors slid shut.
“Nooo!” A primal scream erupted from my mother. Animalistic. “Nooooooo!” she screamed, frantically pushed the buttons.
I lay on my back staring up at the ceiling. If I could have smiled, I would have. It was proper, it was sweet, it was delicious. It tasted like blood.
The door opened and my Mom burst out like a greyhound out of the gate and ran into the nearest room, knocking over wheelchairs and the elderly with a single sweeping arm. I’m not sure what the woman attached to tubes thought when she was startling awake by my mother dashing into her hospital room in her attempt to get at the nearest TV, continuing to scream “Nooo! Noooo!” Perhaps she thought her time had finally come; that my mother was the Angel of Death coming to claim the lives of the innocent in her fury that an ex-football player would go free.
I finally was wheeled into my room and things settled down. My mom took over ice chip duty. My face felt numb and stretched, my mouth not my own. It’s hard to explain what it feels like to wake up with someone else’s mouth, but it is quite disturbing. I reached up to feel my face. I froze.
I had a snout.
Not just some puffiness, not just some swelling. A snout. I could wrap my entire hand around it. My intestines dropped.
“Gibeee amir,” I demanded.
“What, honey?” Mom asked leaning closer.
“A mir! A mirror!!” Suddenly I was living that Batman scene where the Joker sees his face for the first time.
“Oh, I…um. I don’t, think I have…um,” my Mom stuttered, riffling through her purse half-heartedly.
“Let her see, Judy,” my Dad said softly, resigned. There was no hiding it.
I was handed a mirror.
I looked like a baboon. My face was pointy, swollen and bruised, yellow and blue marks from where the instruments had held my mouth open while the surgeons worked. I was deformed and hideous, beyond your typical seventeen-year old vanities. It was traumatic. I heard a disembodied voice groan Ohhhhh God from a mouth that was no longer mine. I moaned, I laughed, tears welled up in my puffy eyes and I choked. I felt one of the two hundred stitches pop.
“Look on the bright side,” my father offered. “Rooting for grubs will be much easier during the rainy season. Maybe you’ll even move up to Alpha Female of the pack.”
I shut my eyes and continued to moan. Thank goodness for dark humor, I thought. This obviously isn’t permanent, so I just needed to relax. And stay away from all human eyes for the next, what? Week? I had taken the next week off of high school to recover. It had better be back to normal by then or else I’d might as well shave my ass and take up residence at Lincoln Park Zoo. Sigh.
I stayed overnight, focusing on breathing out the tiny slit that my lips allowed and swallowing melted ice chips and blood. Mom wanted to stay with me overnight but I insisted that I was fine and she should go home. I was lying. I desperately didn’t want her to leave, I was scared. But I am programmed to be tough and turn away help, so after a million “Are you sures?” she left. I was left alone with my ice chips, monkey face and Demerol clicker, which I did not hit once. I was afraid it would make me fall asleep and stop breathing, so instead I laid there awake all night, hurting.
The morning finally came. My parents finally came. My doctor finally came, chipper and flippant to the fact that he had just cut my whole face apart less than 24-hours ago. I just wanted him to say it was ok for me to go home, which he did after assuring me that it turned out “beautifully” and that I would look less like my tree-dwelling cousins in a few days.
I went home. I remember sitting on the couch surrounded by the tools of my recovery: wash cloths, hydrogen peroxide for swishing out my mouth and unbrushable teeth, ice for melting between my lips, ice packs for fighting the swelling of my snout and cans of Ensure. Oh, hateful geriatric drink!! It was the bane of my existence yet kept me alive for the six-weeks my mouth was wired shut. It smelled like Coco Puffs and to this day the smell sends me on a minor PTSD trip. My father looked at me pathetically and promised to take me to any restaurant I wanted once I could eat again. “Bob Chin’s Crab House,” I sputtered.
My snout dramatically reduced from that of a baboon to that of a Japanese macaque in two days and in five I resembled something more human, perhaps after a bad wisdom teeth removal. Of course my mother took photos, and of course I later found and destroyed them. I returned to school in a week, which was still horrifying but really not too bad considering I was pretty much invisible in high school anyway. I lost 20 lbs in six weeks.
By far the worst part of the surgery was the numbness. It took weeks to regain feeling in my mouth again and to this day I have a patch about the size of a nickel on the roof of my mouth where I had some nerve damage and never regained feeling. Not a big deal, I suppose, but still. I have to carry a card with me that explains to authorities that I have metal in my face in case I set off metal detectors, which is rare. The only time I set one off with my face, in fact, was at The Jenny Jones’ Show (it was a “My Mom’s Too Sexy” make-over show, if you’re wondering). I suppose I do have a nice smile, perhaps “nicer” than my original, but I also feel the throb of my tissue trying to reject the foreign titanium on humid days. The migraines turned out to not be related to my bite, so those didn’t go away. I suppose on the upside it is to my advantage to drop the line “I have 20 titanium plates and screws in my face” in social situations (and once in during a job interview), but in the end, was it worth it?
After a serious of bizarre symptoms and battery of tests, I was recently told that I have a hole in my heart by another chipper and flippant doctor who told me not to worry, he did this all of the time, not a big deal, he’d just go in there right quick and sew it up. I told him that perhaps he did this all of the time, however I did not, and thus it was a bit of a big deal. To me. The only person whose opinion matters in this situation. I opted not to have the surgery. At least not until I have looked at a more complete picture of my specific options.
Perhaps we are too willing to accept whatever it is the experts discern is best as Fact. Perhaps they too are vying for job security in the meat market that is literally our meat. We know that there is a jump in the number of scheduled C-sections at 11 AM and 4 PM, coincidentally right before the lunch hour and quitting time. Perhaps a surgeon’s solution is to cut because that is all that s/he knows. Perhaps society truly believes that scientific progress is always the answer. Perhaps, however, just because we can do something doesn’t always mean we should.
Where was I?
Oh yeah. So I think one of my screws is coming out. I’ll have to have that checked out.
This post originally appeared on Thought Catalog.