By: Chelsey Clammer
When I opened wide—no, not even wide, just a little bit. Just barely.
When I opened my mouth just a little bit, just barely, proof of a crumbling infrastructure tumbled out, and the stench of failure filled the car so quickly, so fiercely, that windows were rolled down within seconds. And not just a little bit, not just barely, but windows rushed down, yawping, unlike me, unlike how I couldn’t open my mouth because the infection inside it was so severe, so vicious that my jaw was swollen shut.
- (of organic matter) rot or decompose through the action of bacteria and fungi
- (of a building or area) fall into disrepair
- undergo a gradual decrease
- decline in quality, power, or vigor
Which is another way of saying:
- Decay: (of organic matter) rot or decompose through the action of bacteria and fungi
Regardless of the fact that I live in a large apartment complex in an area where the actual earth—its soil—is a long-forgotten, mythical element in this wasteland of concrete and asphalt, regardless that I live on the third floor, and how there is a lack of a lake or swamp or any standing-still body of water anywhere near here—even the manmade pond became so stagnant that it surrendered its wetness to evaporation—when I sat on my balcony and smelled the disgusting, offensive stench, I stopped writing and looked around because I was certain there was a dead snake rotting somewhere near my feet. But no. No rotting reptile found. I then checked the bottom of my shoe for dog shit even though I don’t have a dog and had yet to venture outside my apartment that day.
“What in the hell is that smell?” I said out loud to myself, still trying to identify the odiferous source. It wasn’t until I spoke those words out loud that I realized the stench was coming from my mouth. Soon, I would experience what septic shock feels like as it ripped through my body. Shortly afterwards, I would be puking and shaking and calling 911 and hyperventilating and my hands would turn blue and my lower back would clench and I’d go to the ER and be told that nothing was wrong. Stomach ache, perhaps. A week later, a friend of a friend who is an oral surgeon would tell me I was lucky that the infection from my abscessed tooth didn’t spread to my heart. A tooth infection can be fatal.
Although we’re not living in London in the 1600s when the 5th leading cause of death was a tooth infection, and while modern medicine has reduced the number of tooth infection fatalities to under 100 per decade, the fact that people die from an abscessed tooth is in and of itself harrowing. The twelve-year-old boy died in 2007 when bacteria from an abscessed tooth infected his brain. The twenty-four-year-old man who, in 2009, couldn’t afford to get a tooth extraction or antibiotics (the total cost of which would be around $100 USD) died from the infection. Or those like me who are one of the 830,000-plus people per year who have to go to the emergency room because of an aching tooth infection. That’s 830,000 people who eventually received a costly hospital bill because there isn’t such a thing as emergency dental care in this country, even for something as basic as an extraction—for something that is arguably one of the easiest life-saving and preventative procedures that, on average, takes less than 30 minutes to perform.
Which is another way of saying that, at thirty-four years old, my husband almost became a widower because we don’t have access to dental care.
- Decay: (of a building or area) fall into disrepair
A bridge. A crumbling infrastructure. Concrete and metal getting tired, wearing down. Assessments are made and turned into reports that will go ignored or most likely unread, because who has the time or the money to fix something that already exists when we are trying to build more buildings and offices and highways that help to get people to work? Also because of the hope that more construction creates more jobs and an increase in employment means an increase in money for the city. We delude ourselves that concrete and metal are for forever, that what looks strong from a distance will always exist, regardless. Ignore the close-up, the in-your-face warning signs. We don’t have the time. We don’t have the money. Bridge repairs aren’t our top priority. It’s a bridge. It will be fine.
August 1, 2007.
The I-35 W bridge collapsed. A 336-meter stretch of concrete, metal, and asphalt—the central and adjoining spans, and the trusses and deck—dropped 35 meters down into the Mississippi River, crashing throngs of commuters stuck in rush hour traffic down into the water below. 13 people were killed, 145 were injured. Note: a 2001 evaluation of the bridge reported preliminary signs of fatigue on the steel truss section under the roadway. Six years after the evaluation, six years of being ignored, the fatigue was too much to bear. Such decay. Such corrosion. The bridge buckled, collapsed.
- Decay: undergo a gradual decrease
…17, Buccal. 18, Buccal. 19, decay. 20 Buccal…
The dentist role calls my rotting teeth, turning them into a litany.
Aside from brushing every day, it’d been a decade since my teeth last had a cleaning. Having no health insurance, it isn’t until my aunt offers to pay $700 for extracting my cracked tooth and cleaning the rest that I go to the dentist for the first time in ten years. And when the dentist inventories my mouth, when she peeks into what she’s going to have to figure out how to fix and save, when …17, Buccal. 18, Buccal. 19, decay. 20 Buccal… I start steaming in the chair with thoughts about how this country forces us to pay exorbitant amounts of money for basic care.
Because in this country, you have to have enough money to afford good health. If you don’t have the right job that provides the right benefits (the “benefits” of HSAs and HMOs and in-network and out-of-network and PPOs and limited open enrollment periods and unreachable deductibles and three tiers of prescribed medications and all the lingo of the health insurance no one really understands except that it dictates which medical professionals you can go to), or even if you have right job that provides the right benefits, most likely the health insurance plans are too expensive to be an actual option. For example: health insurance that makes you pay $3000 out-of-pocket for your deductible—that’s $3000 you have to pay before your benefits even begin. This shouldn’t be even be considered an option—not even just a bit, not barely.
The day after I was released from the ER because of that fierce, septic infection in my mouth and jaw, I went to the free dental clinic to have the abscessed tooth removed, which they mostly did, but the dentist forgot (or did she even know in the first place?) to write me a prescription for antibiotics. Thirty-eight hours later I went back in the ER with my jaw swollen shut. Again. This time, I would get antibiotics, though I could only afford the cheaper kind which ended up not being strong enough to kill the infection because inadequate meds is one of the few alternatives you have if you don’t have dental insurance.
- The free clinic that is only free if you have a financial planning appointment within a month of your visit but the first appointment available is in two months and so the free clinic will not be free.
- The free clinic that costs just a little bit more than free, except during their walk-in hours which are from 8am-12pm on Mondays, and don’t forget it’s first come, first serve, and that the waiting line winds around the building every Monday. There is no guarantee that you’ll see a dentist that day. You just have to wait.
- The affordable community clinic that extracts teeth and doesn’t prescribe anti-biotics, that doesn’t actually extract the entire tooth, that doesn’t give you anything for the pain when you have a dry socket, that tells you it’s your fault that you have a dry socket, that packs the dry socket for you but that refuses to do it again when that chunk of whatever it was falls out of your mouth within two hours when it was supposed to stay put for seven days, the clinic that is now demanding that you pay for those two follow-up visits even though the reason why you had to follow-up was because of an inept dentist.
Which is another way of saying that because of a decaying healthcare system, I had to succumb to the free dental clinic where I absolutely received my money’s worth.
- Decay: decline in quality, power, or vigor
The bridge’s aftermath: the collapse was officially declared a disaster seven days later. After the government helped and the donations came in, after the cost of just the emergency response totaled $8,000,000, it was thirteen months and $234,000,000 later that a bridge that never should have collapsed to begin with, was rebuilt. The atrophy of society lies in part in our habits – we must re-build when we don’t attend to the simple issues and catastrophe strikes. Our tunnel vision means not attending to the warning signs and our problems end up cost more than millions — it cost lives, too.
The 35W Bridge Remembrance Garden opened on August 1, 2011. Four years after the collapse, the memorial was built, its view looking right at what used to be right there, right where thirteen people died because of inept decision-makers. It was a glowing result of a community coming together in the face of such tragedy. There was a focus on symbolism. On remembering.
Thirteen columns erected, a litany of names read and thirteen doves released at the opening ceremony to commemorate the lives that went down with the bridge. Money can’t bring everything back after such collapse.
Which is another way of saying that the bridge finally received attention, just 13 deaths and 145 injuries too late.
Which Is Another Way of Saying Decay
What in the hell is that smell?
It’s not my mouth this time, but the gradual decay of a society that insists we all have access to the resources we need to stay healthy. And I don’t have enough vigor or power to help create something else. I’m too busy, dizzy, nauseous from navigating the alternatives to do anything about the crumbling infrastructure of this society. Of my mouth.
We delude ourselves into thinking that our system is for forever. Ignore the warning signs. We don’t have time. Too busy standing in line and hoping to get affordable help, too busy working for too little, too busy sobbing from pain and praying that some other patient won’t show up, praying that someone else is too busy to attend to her own health, just so there’s an open appointment and an opportunity for an inadequate dentist to mostly extract only the visible part of the problem. The surface-level dilemma. A cracked tooth, an infection under its root.
All of this is a matter of ignorance. Of ignoring. We don’t want to deal with what feels like a minor inconvenience.
Consider the infection, then consider what would need to be done for its eviction. The dentist and antibiotics. Healthy mouth and gums I can’t afford. Now ignore. Ignore the pain as much as possible. Try to forget it’s there. The throbbing is a constant reminder, but there isn’t any time or money available to remove it. Perhaps the infection will tire out and vacate the mouth.
But decay won’t fix itself.
Bridges won’t do their own repairs.
There’s another infection going on, running deep through our social foundations. The symptoms compose a long list: How our resources are spread too thin to be able to truly attend to a bridge. The threatening cracks that spread when ignored. That eventually fissured. The superficial issues we didn’t listen to.
Which is another way of saying that the real issue is rooted too deep to extract, too problematic to treat.
What we think and assume versus what we actually do.
Get weary of the gradual decrease.
Wait for the buckle.