That our teeth are in our heads seems natural, though the location is something of a liability. The trouble starts with tooth decay, which permits the usually harmless bacteria in our mouths to enter the spongy, supportive core of the tooth (the “pulp”). Something untoward can then unfold. The germs proliferate, white blood cells amass, pus accumulates, and a dental abscess is born. Hence the liability: It’s not good to have all this happening so close to one’s brain.
An untreated dental abscess can invade the tissues of the head and chest. It can infect and clot the veins of the neck, and spread between the skull’s many sinuses. If it reaches the brain, it can result in a brain abscess or meningitis. This is now a rare event, but it wasn’t always. In the seventeenth century, “ ‘teeth’ were continually listed as the fifth or sixth leading cause of death,” a 1999 article in the Journal of the History of Dentistry asserts. Two hundred years ago, the author notes, tooth pain was a killer.
But here’s an unfortunate rule in medical history, at least in the United States: The untreatable conditions of the past become the untreated tragedies of the present. Mary Otto’s heartrending and incisive book, Teeth, builds on her Washington Post story on Deamonte Driver, a black twelve-year-old from Maryland who “died of a toothache” in 2007. His life could have been saved, she wrote, if his family had insurance, or if they had not been stripped of Medicaid for a time when they were homeless, or if Maryland’s underfunded Medicaid program had provided adequate access to dentists. “By the time Deamonte’s own aching tooth got any attention,” Otto reported, “the bacteria from the abscess had spread to his brain.” Surgeries and no doubt much suffering followed, but it was too late.
– New Republic