When I meet with clients who have been injured through no fault of their own, while preparing their cases, one of the questions I ask of them is “what is the worst part of what happened to you.” Most of them say, it’s the pain. Then I ask them, “what does the pain feel like?” and many answer “it just hurts.” Obtaining further information can be a lot like pulling teeth (pun intended, and you’ll get it when you read on) so I follow up with “what would you have to do to me to duplicate the pain you feel?” and this is when the answers get good:
“I would have to stab you in your lower back with an ice pick and twist” “I’d set a mountain gorilla on you and have him squeeze – it just takes your breath away” “I’d have to give you the worst toothache ever in your neck.”
That last one, I imagine was a description of a dull, constant throbbing pain, but I never had a toothache. Seriously. I avoid the dentist like I avoid Walmart during Covid-19 or cold/flu season. I have severe dental anxiety, even though most visits, aside from being uncomfortable, are completely uneventful. Sure, I’ve had 2 or 3 fillings in my time due to wear and tear, but never a painful cavity. I’m embarrassed to admit, that I go years in between cleanings because I hate and fear the process so much. I went my entire 44 years of life without experiencing dental pain, that is until last February.
I started having this uncomfortable pain in my mouth. So I put on my brave girl pants, and headed to a dentist I heard nice things about and he confirmed, you need to have wisdom tooth extraction. In fairness to this nice man, I had heard this recommendation for years, but this time the problem was that there was a cavity on my wisdom tooth causing my pain. Plus the others weren’t far behind. I agreed that it was time to take care of this problem and took the referral card for an oral surgeon in town. Then Covid shut it all down and mysteriously, my tooth ache kind of went away. Kind of. I was warned by everyone I spoke to that I “need to take care of this…it’ll only get worse.” It wasn’t so bad anymore and I just didn’t have the time…
With the State of New Jersey shut down and our law practices turning almost exclusively virtual, I picked up the pace with my caseload. With no distractions like commuting or trial calls or sitting around a courthouse, “waiting to be reached” on a motion or conference, suddenly I found extra hours to churn out work. I was so proud of my super productivity. Even with the uncertainty of it all, I fell into a routine and a pace that I thought I could sustain. I may have put on a few pounds in those months (wine deliveries), but I was healthy and getting it done. Lady boss quality stuff. Even with Anna in virtual school last spring, with “mom, I need help” being shouted at me from the kitchen, usually at inconvenient times, it was all working out ok. That is, until the tooth pain cometh.
The pain came back, and in the words of our former President, it returned “BIGLY.” It became intolerable. I complained constantly. It brought tears to my eyes. It required pain medication and ice packs. I couldn’t think straight. I was short-tempered (not just short-statured). I couldn’t sleep. And because I couldn’t sleep, I was tired and unfocused. I was moody and emotional. It’s impossible to be a boss-lady-litigator/mommy/housekeeper/partner/dance studio director/musical theater teacher when your face hurts all the time. It was definitely time for action. I called the oral surgeon, she confirmed my fears, but reassured me she was really good at her job and I was going to be just fine. She told me, we would have fun. She is a very beautiful liar.
Ironically, on the afternoon of February 19th, 2021, the 12th anniversary of perhaps one of the most important jury verdicts of my life against a local oral surgeon who molested his patients while they were under anesthesia for wisdom tooth extraction, I underwent oral surgery for wisdom tooth extraction. I went in with a sense of dread and overwhelming anxiety. I liked this dentist a lot and I trusted her, but I knew what was about to happen wasn’t going to be that much fun. I was right about that as I continue to recover. It’s not going great and they don’t give you the “good stuff” anymore. I have to rely on Extra-strength Tylenol and whatever Scotch or Whiskey we have laying around – I’m old-fashioned like that.
The take away from this experience has been two-fold: first, we really have to stop ignoring ourselves and self-care. Self-care always seemed to me to be a namby-pamby, frou-frou idea that justified massages, pedicures and “Treat Yo’ Self” style indulgences. It’s not. Had I just taken care of my tooth pain when it first reared it’s ugly head, I probably wouldn’t be dealing with the residual issues now that are interfering with just about everything from work to sleep to fun stuff like folding laundry (ok, that’s not really fun, but my excuse for not doing it is and has been “babe, my mouth hurts, I need you to do it.” Babe is thrilled.)
Second, when it comes to our injured clients, and the way we tell their stories of harms and losses, of pain and suffering, I now have a much better relatable experience to what they must go through, especially my spine injured clients. Only their pain doesn’t always resolve (and hopefully mine finally does) even with surgical intervention. All of my complaints – the lack of sleep, the emotional issues, the way a stupid tooth could interrupt my entire life – are very similar to the way our clients feel, daily. Even though it’s kind of terrible now, and I am writing this after waking up in agony in the middle of the night, I will feel better, or should, by next week. Our clients with permanent injuries won’t.
Although my wisdom tooth experience is a big, fat “I told you so” from everyone, it’s also a broader learning experience in the art of telling my client’s story. I’d like to even say this experience has made me a better trial lawyer. Let’s say that. And yes, I solemnly swear to make my dentist appointments on a regular basis from now on.