451 days of change: the journey of a musician getting their teeth back, gaining self confidence (DO NOT PUBLISH)

Hannah Hooper_6

Hannah Hooper looks across from her and sees her boyfriend, Matt — a tall and skinny man — sitting on the other side of the giant inflated circular tube that was tethered to her uncle’s boat. The sound of rushing water can be heard all around them as the boat speeds around Lake Buckhorn on July 4th weekend in 2018. 

Her uncle made a turn to head back across, when all of a sudden Hannah and Matt fall off the tube. Hannah hits the water first with Matt falling on top of her. His knees, still bent from sitting in the tube, hit her face and knock her left front tooth completely out of her mouth. 

As blood is running down her face while she gasps for air after resurfacing, she realizes something is wrong. She hasn’t even seen her face and already knows that her tooth is gone, which could affect her entire college career. 

Her uncle circles back around as Hannah and Matt attempt to swim towards the boat. When he finally reaches them, he immediately picks Hannah and Matt up, then speeds off to the lake house.  

Hannah, her mom, her uncle and Matt all file into the car to head out to the nearest hospital, which is almost 40 minutes away. Matt’s knee is bleeding from the impact and Hannah has already filled up an entire towel with blood with a second one pressed up against her face. 

After finally reaching the small hospital, Hannah is immediately taken back to one of the two emergency rooms while nurses tend to Matt’s wound. Two hours and several stitches later, the bleeding has been stopped and Hannah finally has received something to help with the pain. The initial problems and pain may have been taken care of, but her problems were only beginning. 

Hannah is a music performance major, meaning she plays her main instrument, the clarinet, roughly five to six hours everyday. In order to play the clarinet, it typically requires the performer to rest the instrument against their front teeth. Since Hannah was missing one and the other wasn’t stable, she had to learn an entirely new way to play her clarinet.          

Going into her junior year as a music major, Hannah had years of experience which were going to make relearning her instrument a challenge. 

As fall hit and Hannah made it through her audition, getting placed in the second highest band, her journey to relearn her instrument began.  

For her first private lesson of the semester she met up with assistant professor Amitai Vardi, who specializes in clarinet, and they focused on something other than music.  

“My first lesson back … I remember we didn’t do much playing, we did a lot of talking,” Hannah recalls. 

He asked her how she was doing and how much progress she had made with her playing abilities. Even though he wanted to see her grow and improve, he didn’t want her to hurt herself while she was healing. 

There was a lot of swelling in her mouth due to the bone grafting that was being put in to help fill the hole from her missing tooth, however the swelling was also making it harder to play the way she usually did. Because of the swelling, she learned a technique known as double lip embouchure, which allowed her to play without adding any pressure to her already aching mouth. 

Despite how difficult learning this new technique was going to be, Hannah never thought about leaving music for another field. 

She began pursuing music when she was in 5th grade. Her mom began to think she was a fairly good player, but it wasn’t until a professional judge at a music competition gave Hannah a standing ovation that anyone really knew how gifted she was. 

From that point forward, Hannah continued to excel in her musical performance but it wasn’t until she hit high school that she considered pursuing it as a professional career. 

But after the accident occurred, she was unsure how it would affect her playing but since she was halfway to reaching her degree she was determined to finish out her performance degree. 

While Hannah was pushing through her studies and working through adjustments with her playing, she was still dealing with the reconstruction of her smile. 

With classes for her junior year well underway, Hannah already had gone through two surgeries, two rounds of bone grafting and had received her first flipper. A flipper is a stand-in tooth that makes it look like a tooth is there, but it is not a permanent solution. 

“She was happy about getting the flipper, except she showed everybody that she was toothless,” Melissa Hooper, Hannah’s mom, said as she laughed. 

However, even with the new flipper tooth and the braces she had received, they were not able to correct her other front tooth, which was loosened by the accident. Because the procedures did not work, Hannah had to go in for surgery number three to get the other front tooth removed and have another painful tooth grafting. 

Losing another tooth meant another flipper had to be made so that there were two front teeth included instead of just the one. Despite having even less teeth, Hannah made even more of a point to show people that she was missing her front teeth. 

Anytime she would go to eat something or meet someone new, Hannah made a point of telling them, and sometimes showing them, her fake teeth. 

“I’m not quiet, I’m very vocal,” Hannah said with a laugh. “My biggest concern was that I didn’t want people to be hesitant to ask, because there is obviously something different about me, so I don’t want them to think it’s weird or rude if they stare,” she said strongly.

“I would have a lot of people ask me questions about it and I was thankful that they would.”

Her friends would always laugh whenever she shared her fake teeth with strangers. All of her professors supportive as she worked on creating her new normal in her bizarre situation. 

From the outside Hannah seemed calm and handling everything in the best possible way, but for those close to her, they could see the Hannah that was hiding behind all the jokes. 

Her mom said that the further along in the process that Hannah got, the more and more she could see the time and the waiting really start to wear on her.   

As much as Hannah tried to hide the insecurities she was feeling with her smile and the struggles she was facing internally, she was going to hit her breaking point from holding everything in. That point came on the day of her first concert of her senior year. 

It was a Friday afternoon, roughly one month into the new school year, and it was full of events and several long hours of playing. 

She went right from her studio rehearsal time with all of the clarinets, which ran from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m., to her private weekly lesson with Vardi, which ran from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. After her lesson, she had to race off to her full ensemble rehearsal which would take up the next two hours. 

Since that group had a concert later that night, a dress rehearsal was held after the two hour rehearsal so the group could play through the pieces one last time. This rehearsal would take an hour. 

After playing her clarinet for nearly five and a half hours, through the pain of her fake front teeth, she finally broke down and began crying. 

“I am sick of this,” she said to her dad over the phone, between sobs. “I don’t want to do this. It’s embarrassing to show up somewhere and have no teeth. It’s embarrassing and annoying to play without my teeth.”

She thought back through all of the trials she had faced throughout the past year, all of the thoughts she had fought back. Every struggle, every down point seemed to trace back to that accident on July 7th. 

“You’ve come this far, the hardest part is right now. It’s the waiting,” her father replied, interrupting her thoughts. “You’ve gone through the most painful parts already, but right now all you have to do is just persevere until the end.”  

With the encouraging words from her father she was able to calm down and make it through the concert, but it would be another week and a half before the entire process would be finally done. 

On September 17 she had an appointment to get her replacement teeth, but she was still guarded and cautious. As Hannah walked into the dentist’s office with her mother and grandmother, she remained calm and reserved. Her mother and grandmother were boasting about how she was finally going to have her teeth back but Hannah knew there was a possibility the new teeth may not fit. 

As Hannah sat reclined in the dentist chair, her mother and grandmother watched closely from nearby chairs, her mother recording the whole scene from her phone. After placing her teeth, the dentist stepped away and grabbed a mirror to have her check the placement of them.  

Looking in the mirror at a full smile of teeth, Hannah broke out into tears and all she could reply to the dentist was “Thank you.” 

“Thank you…thank you,” she repeated over and over again, tears still streaming down her face. 

Hannah had waited for 451 days for her teeth to be replaced, for her life to return back to normal. She learned, struggled and grew for 451 days. 

Even though she had outside support, Hannah knew that she had to be the biggest supporter throughout the whole ordeal. 

“The only person that I had in this situation is myself,” Hannah said, a thought that she said she regularly throughout the process. “If I just sit around and feel bad for myself, what is that going to do to me? Just make me upset. And it’s ok to be upset about a situation but you can’t let it overcome you, you can’t dwell on it.”

Contact Rachel Karas at [email protected]