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When I was a freshman in college, and in control of my own destiny, it became apparent to me that I should have a dentist look at my seriously infected lower front tooth. It had given me trouble for years, ever since my friend intentionally kicked me in the face when we were playing football. I know it was intentional because, just a few seconds before, he said he was going to kick my teeth out. There were some vicious kids in my neighborhood, and I remember walking past this particular one’s house one day and hearing him scream bloody murder as his dad was beating him, who knows why. He was a grade above me so he was noticeably bigger than me. Anyway, he kicked me in the face, my tooth died and got abscessed, and I struggle with it a little to this day.

It would have been about six years later that I was seeing my new dentist, yet again about this infected tooth. There were so many problems with my teeth that it took three visits to deal with them all, and by the third visit my dentist had taken a liking to me and was doing his best to convert me into a fledgling dentist. In his effort to convince me how wonderful dentistry could be and to help generate my interest in the field, he had given me a hand-mirror so I could watch all the needle insertions, drilling away rotten tooth decay, scraping away too soft tooth material, and all the rest of it. I must admit it was interesting, and especially since it was my mouth, my teeth and my pain.

Dentistry in Spokane back in 1953 must have been a thriving business, because there was no natural fluoride in the water, and almost everyone had lots of cavities. The city fathers had refused to put fluoride in the public water supply, because it would weaken people’s bodies, and make us all susceptible to the communist menace. It was stupid thinking, unsupported by any facts, but people have not improved any since then and we still refuse to face simple facts, their obvious implications and conclusions. People only change their behavior when compelled by absolute necessity.

Now comes the most interesting operation of all, drilling out the rotten bone and abscessed gunk from beneath the bottom of the tooth. Remember, I’m watching all this in my mirror. First, the dentist makes two cuts into my gum. Then pulls down the flap of skin exposing the tooth to its roots and beyond. Fascinating! Then he grinds away at the rotten bone while blood leaks out and gets suctioned away. Very fascinating! Strange scorched vapors, different from the drilling of rotten tooth vapors, drift the short distance to my nose. I reminisce on the strangeness of it all, start to feel dizzy, nausea wells up, the rubber dam in my mouth prevents me from breathing, my stomach muscles tighten and I feel I’m about to vomit. The doctor says to relax, things are going well, as he crushes a small ampoule of ammonia near my nose. The odor overwhelms my senses and I bounce back to mundane reality.

The doctor said I fainted, but I don’t know if I really did, because I don’t remember any missing time.

Last week, fifty-eight years after that overly interesting visit to the dentist, I was at the VA hospital having some blood drawn. The nurse was very friendly, and we were having a playful round of vibrant repartee, while she was cinching me up, preparing the needle, bottles, labels and other paraphernalia.  During those intervening years I have had countless needles poked into me without fainting, but I must admit the possibility always enters my mind and makes me queasy, and the nurse was aware of my concern as I watched my precious bodily fluids being drained away. My blood looks surprisingly dark even in the tiny tubes.

The nurse says relax, it will all be over in a minute, and I start to relax. The old familiar feeling of being about to faint comes over me as I relax, but instead of relaxing as told to do, I tighten up my abdominal muscles for a second, release and tighten them up again and release at about a one-per-second rate. After five seconds I feel just fine again. All jet pilots learn this technique the first day of flight school because when pulling a few g’s your blood runs out of your head and to prevent this you push it back up with stomach pressure. So here is the point of this whole story — the medical profession is still recommending precisely the wrong thing to do when a patient starts to faint.

Last night I researched the problem, and it’s sometimes called vasovagal syncope, or fainting due to a decrease of blood pressure. Some people, especially heavily muscled men, send so much blood to their muscles in preparation to fight that when they don’t do some vigorous activity immediately, to keep the blood moving, their brain doesn’t have enough blood and they faint. It can be dangerous because while in this unusual condition the body can shut down and the vasovagal shock reflex may cause death. This overreaction is triggered in some people by medical procedures and is called trypanophobia.

The cause of fainting in these situations is because the person is told to relax, and they obey. When they do so, their excessively rapid heart rate slows down, their heightened blood pressure drops, and since so much of their blood is already in their muscles, and so little in their brain, they faint. The easy cure for fainting when getting needled is, just before and while the critical events are taking place, to tighten the abdomen repeatedly. Therefore, the medical profession should be trained to say:

If you feel anxious or weak, tighten your abdominal muscles repeatedly.