Good teeth, bad teeth

teethI first went to the dentist way back in the early 50s when dental practice was fairly primitive: needles seemed blunt, fillings took an age to cure, loud scary drills driven by string ran hot and even though Xrays would have existed they weren’t in common use. It seemed like the practice of dentistry had barely moved on from the days when being a dentist was an adjunct of a barber’s job.

My first dentist was a Mr Heap. I’m sure he was well-qualified and dedicated to the well-being of his patients but he was of an age and my experiences in those early days scarred me for life. I remember if you were to have an extraction the needle for the Novocain seemed to go though the roof of your mouth and didn’t seem to do any good anyway. On one occasion the the first I knew that I was having a tooth out was the injection going in and then I was in for 20 minutes or so of agony.

There was an alternative of course and that was to ‘have gas’. As soon as I found this out I exercised my right to choose. That was quick and painless but the gas did seem to stay with you for a day or two after the event.

Maybe this was all deliberate. After needing quite a few teeth taking out in my childhood and teenage years I managed to survive with no more extractions until some 50 years later. I must have done something right although my current dentist nags me all the time about my dental hygiene.

I left the UK in 1974 first for New York, where I stayed for 6 months, and then to Jakarta for 2 years. Jakarta is only an hour or so’s flight from Singapore which I visited frequently and that’s where I got my dentistry done in those days. Compared to my earlier experiences it was like leaving the Dark Ages. The dentists of course were Chinese, they had studied in the US, Canada and the UK and had multiple degrees which they announced on their name plates.

The experience was as day follows night. It started with the chair reclining flat and then the assumption that if you had to have a filling you had a local anaesthetic. I guess this gives the dentist the confidence to do the job properly without worrying that you would react adversely to the threat of pain. I saw the needle and was filled with dread and that’s when my body tensed and my limbs stiffened. Problem was I didn’t feel a thing. Even though I saw the dentist’s hand drive the needle into the roof of my mouth the needle must have been so fine that I felt nothing. Except of course I felt silly with my legs sticking out in anticipation of pain. Maybe that’s the time I started to trust dentists again.

After Jakarta I moved to Hong Kong and I was back to British dentists albeit with 20th century equipment. I visited for my check-ups and must have had a few fillings but my experience was largely benign. However my dentist must have sensed that he wasn’t making enough money out of me because he tried to persuade me to get some sort of bridge installed to keep two of my teeth apart and to prevent the development of a ‘dirty triangle’. I was not convinced and the idea has not occurred to any of my dentists since.

During the 80s I lived in Switzerland and that’s where I had my first experience of dental hygienists. The lead dentist at one practice told me that only two countries took dental hygiene seriously: the US and Switzerland. On the one hand you could say that this is a cynical way to develop a second revenue stream. On the other maybe it makes sense because it’s about prevention of tooth problems which later result in the need for more serious and irreversible surgery. I’ll buy that.

I remember four dentists during my time in Switzerland. The first was a Brit and the daughter of a colleague at the company for whom I worked. The second was Hungarian and in those days Hungary was where you went in Europe if you needed expensive dental work done more cheaply. The third was a US educated Swiss and my introduction to dental hygiene. And the last one was an Iranian who specialised in minimising the use of Novocain, taught me breathing exercises as a means of coping with incidental pain, and intoned Farsi chants as he worked.

Finally back to the UK and my dentist for the last decade or so has been Max. He’s almost a friend and he treats me in a room with a big window facing out onto a very pleasant garden. He’s got all the technology. There’s a chair which I’m sure is based on business class seating design, the needles are automatic, fillings are UV cure, Xrays are taken routinely and displayed on a screen, just like business class again.

Max is forever counting my teeth and rating my gums and slowly he seems to be getting a little happier with what he sees.

A few of years ago Max fingered one of my teeth and said he thought it should be taken out. I told him I was not too excited by that prospect, I hadn’t forgotten Mr Heap, but he said ‘yes I know that’s why we’re going to do it now’. So the needle went in and as he held the pliers aloft Max said you might hear some strange noises. Well the only noise was the sound of the tooth being dropped into the kidney dish. I didn’t feel a thing. Subsequently I’ve even volunteered for an extraction.

Dentists are of course largely private and so they’re in it for the money so most practices also have their hygienists and Max’s is no different. I’ve rejected one because I felt that she did more damage to my teeth than otherwise. She reminded me of a Russian prison camp guard. Now I’ve got Anna from Poland who is much kinder and we, Max, Anna and I, seem to make a good team to look after my teeth. My only problem with Anna is that everytime I see her she tells me to double the time I spend cleaning my teeth.

I’ve had one incidental detour. In 2017 on holiday in Australia I felt a problem coming on in the region of an ectopic tooth which has subsequently been extracted. I visited a dentist on a Friday afternoon, he was a root canal specialist but took time out to take a quick look and gave me a ‘scrip’ for antibiotics to keep it under control. No charge and it did. The problem went away. When I told Max the story on my return he said that Austrialia is the place to be if you find you need to go to the dentist.

I had my ectopic tooth taken out in March 2018 and now I’ve got a big gap in my teeth upper right. Just right for holding a pencil. I’m doing my best to follow Anna’s instructions and last time I visited Max he didn’t ask me to come back for more work although he always threatens. It’s taken a long time but maybe now I don’t hold dentists in complete dread.

Go to for the story of my ectopic tooth extraction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s