by Jennifer Teich
Superior labial frenulum.
That's the fancy word for the little web-like flap of skin that connects your upper lip to the gums of your upper teeth. Peel your upper lip away from your teeth and up towards your nose--you'll see what I mean.
I no longer have a superior labial frenulum. Instead, I have a thin train track of a scar that extends all the way from one side of my top teeth to the other, straddling all 14 of my upper teeth. This scar delineates the place where my surgeon took a scalpel and split my jaw open.
When I was a little girl my parents noticed that my teeth weren't meeting properly. They took me promptly to anorthodontist, who said, "Yep. Her teeth aren't meeting properly. Come back next week and we'll put some braces on her."
I shook with fear for the next week. Braces?! I was only in the fifth grade! No one I knew had braces yet. I would be made fun of for years! I'd never have any friends!
Despite my protestations, the braces were put on, and there they stayed for seven long years. About half-way through the orthodontic treatment, my teeth were straight but something entirely more sinister had revealed itself: my jaws weren't the same size. It was this fact that explained my crooked face, my funny teeth, my headaches, and the incredibly loud popping noise made by my temporomandibular joint.
The braces stayed on until the end of high school as the orthodontist tried in vain to correct the problem. He failed, and the word "surgery" began appearing more and more often during appointments.
All through college I ignored the worsening problem as much as I could. My face got more crooked, my bite got worse, and my ability to eat civilly in public diminished. One day, when I began to notice a pronounced lisp when I spoke, I caved.
We consulted a surgeon, who said I needed orthognatic surgery. He explained the procedure in layman's terms. "Basically," he said, "We disconnect the upper jaw from the skull and move it forward and tilt it down a bit. We reattach it with a series of titanium plates and screws. Then we split the bottom jaw like a log and realign it with the midline of the face. No biggie."
After a few more consultations and a tantalizing computer-generated image of what I would look like after the surgery, I decided to go for it.
On September 28, 1999, I was wheeled into the operating room and knocked out. After nine hours of general anaethesia, during which my face was rearranged, I woke up swollen and incredibly sore, but trimphant. So what if I looked like Alfred Hitchcock? The swelling would be gone in three months. And so what if I couldn't eat anything solid for six weeks? Really, when you think about it, free movement of the jaws is truly one of life's most overrated experiences.
I can't say my positive attitude lasted very long. (It seemed to disappear as soon as my prescription for Percocet wore off, really.) The recovery process was very long, very tedious, and very painful. I threw up in the recovery room, and again the first day I got home. (With two broken jaws, this is an indescribably painful sensation.) I developed a rare infection and had to be rehospitalized. I had to eat with the medical version of a turkey baster for a month.
But I healed just fine in the end. The swelling went away, I lived to eat crunchy foods again, and now I have a face that looks the way evolution intended.
And I have my scar as a souvenir.
My superior labial frenulum is gone, but I don't miss it one bit. Every once in a while I look at my new face in the mirror, admire the symmetry, and feel for the scar with the tip of my tongue. It reassures me that what I see in the mirror is real, because I can feel how it happened. Through it, I know that the girl staring back at me from the mirror is pretty for the first time in her life, and that she really is me.