The other day…
…. as I found myself yet again in the waiting room at the local dentist, I began looking back in time at my unfortunate past; certainly unfortunate as far as dental health is concerned.
I would say that over the years that I have graced this blessed orb, my teeth have undergone massive transformations (yes, plural) and I am sure that I have unwittingly supported many a mineral venture with the amount of foreign amalgam that has been cemented to my jaw bone. Long gone are the milk teeth of youth. Long gone, also, are most of the teeth that have replaced them. I am reminded that my brother, after a lifetime of drinking sweetened soda, had all of his decayed teeth removed and now sports a fine set of acrylic choppers. They give him a nice pearly smile when he cracks a grin, but his face caves in when he removes his teeth for the night. Not for me that kind of thing. Not for me.
It seems that the folk who become dentists are either those who have failed at becoming MDs, are sadists, or have taken a completely wrong turn in life and find themselves looking down others’ throats the entire working day, instead of pursuing whatever youthful dream they once aspired to. Perhaps one has to be an embittered failure in order to qualify for entry to Dentistry 101, if such a course exists. Perhaps those who become dentists are of the same ilk as those who used to take pleasure in inflicting pain on others in their youth? None of my friends are dentists.
My experiences with dentists seem to be par for the course, unfortunately. Long periods of waiting in deathly silent anterooms, the whine of the high speed drill, heart palpitations brought about by tension and anxiety, more tension on being admitted to the surgery and walking the few steps passed the ever present smiling assistant (with the bouffant hairdo) to finally arrive at the ubiquitous plastic covered comfy chair.
Why do we dread this experience so?
I’m not sure if it is still the case, but the New Zealand health care system used to provide free dental services to elementary aged students in an effort to improve the dental health of the up and coming generation. Sadly though, the effect of this policy was to instil fear and dread in young hearts and minds. The school dental clinic was referred to as “The Murder House.” When the dental nurse was in session she would send a note to the homeroom teacher to summon her next victim to the chair. As an immigrant to the Land of the Long White Cloud, I had absolutely no inkling of what all the fuss was about. I remember looking at my new friends and classmates with bewilderment and wondering at the sudden look of shock and fear that appeared on their faces once their summons came. Ruddy redness instantly gone and replaced by pallid sweaty fear.
I did find this gem on the web giving the reasoning behind the service:
“It is to the children of the present day and of the future generation that we look to repair the wastage of this terrible war. And it behoves us to see that they’re given a fair chance to develop clean and wholesome bodies without which any nation must go to the wall”
NZ Dental Association President N Mitchell – 1921
Of course the intent was to benefit the population, and of course the effect was positive when compared to the state of health of the general population in wartime. So too are the advances in care that are obvious from the descriptions of the current incarnation of the service. Not entirely sure which “wall” Mr. Mitchell was referring to back in 1921, but it did remind me of another one later on in time penned by Roger Waters from Pink Floyd.
Anyway, a précis of my first experience…
* The nurse was pleasant.
* The clinic clean.
* The chair comfortable.
* The pain intolerable.
Up to this point I do remember having had some interactions with dentists but not really being able to recall much detail. That suggests that although the experience may not have been pleasant, it was certainly not trauma inducing. At the crux of the matter in this instance though, was the fact that dental nurses never used anesthetic. Maybe they thought that children did not feel pain? Maybe they thought that a bit of pain built character? Maybe they thought about many other things besides their child charges? What I do remember from that first visit was the slow grinding drill that bored into my enamel at about 10 revolutions per minute. I quickly found my back arching and my hands gripping the armrests of the seat and discovered that that seemed to be the most bearable position to suffer in as all previous victims had contributed their angst driven spasms in a similar fashion, thus leaving deep gouges and indentations that proved oddly comfortable.
I thought that once I had graduated from elementary school that my days of pain and suffering at the hands of dentists would be over, but I was wrong. The local dentist, a man by the name of Dr. Scott, was my next pain dealer. I remember being taken to his surgery by my father and also remember asking specifically for an anesthetic so that I would not feel any pain.
“You don’t really need an injection do you?” Dr Scott declared in a loud, overbearing voice; looking at me with scorn and derision as if I were some pitiful wimp.
… utter bastard!
“No…?” I replied meekly. Of course an impressionable kid is going to feel intimidated and respond that way.
… utter bastard!
And so, the pain continued.
In retrospect, I suspect that Dr. Scott did not give me an injection, but charged my dad for it or claimed expenses back through the government health system in order to maximise his fees, however, I have no real proof of that. Needless to say, the pain continued ( I think I said that already).
The list of dentists grew longer over time, and so too did my reluctance to voluntarily visit one. Once I was in complete control of my own destiny after leaving home, I rarely subjected myself to the hands of a dentist unless it was absolutely necessary. Before moving to Japan, one of the last encounters involved a gardener/dentist who was actually out in his rose garden trimming his beloved blooms when I arrived. It felt odd not to be greeted by a friendly, smiling receptionist. Even stranger to see the back door of the surgery wide open to the garden. After a brief wait, I called out to see if I could get some attention. Shortly thereafter, a man dressed in gardening gear trundled up the pathway and greeted me with a warmth due a long lost friend. I had never seen the man before and grew instantly suspicious of him. Where were his other patients? Why did his equipment look like it hadn’t been updated since before the first world war? What on earth was this going to be about?
“Oh,” he mumbled, after a brief check of my teeth and a cursory prod around the nether regions of my mouth. “It will have to come out. … They will all have to come out… Righto?”
What did he just say? I asked him for clarification, to which he said “Well, they are so far gone it’s not much use keeping them in. The extraction shouldn’t take too long.”
Probably the shortest amount of time I had ever spent in a dentist’s chair and the quickest exit ever made. I believe I still had the paper bib clipped to my chest as I ran panic stricken out of his clinic, down the garden path, passed the rose bushes, through the rose covered pergola archway to the safety of the bustling central street.
Here I am.
It will NOT hurt a bit. I know this because Dr. Togashi is an absolute master at his craft. Once I found Dr. Togashi just around the corner from where we live in Tokyo, I knew he was “my” dentist. So much so that even when I had a dental emergency whilst living in Melbourne for a time, I opted to wait and put up with the discomfort until I could make a trip back to Tokyo to get my mouth sorted out by him.
I’m not sure if this is true for all dentists in Japan, but Dr Togashi takes an inordinate amount of care with a patient’s teeth. He can be a little extreme in the slow pace he works at, and the number of visits he requires to complete what other dentists would do in twenty minutes, but now my mouth is a living testament of the best dentistry – period. I know this to be true because on the rare occasion I have had to visit other dentists, they always stand back and appreciate the work of a true artist.
At our first meeting, I had prepared myself for another white knuckled ride, however my tension soon evaporated when I saw his concern at my concern. Even though there was the language barrier to overcome, he made it clear that he always placed the comfort of the patient first. His initial careful explorations were probably the only thing I felt during the entire procedure. He found cavities for sure, but with each one, before giving an injection he would apply anesthetic to the gum with a cotton pad so that I would not even feel the needle being inserted into the gum.
Another surprise to me was that each filling undergoes a careful moulding process that ensures it fits snugly in the space left by the decayed tooth. To do this he takes a mould of both the top and bottom jaws and then sends them away to a dental technician. When, after a week, the moulds return, there is a shiny metallic filling that fits almost perfectly in the required place. A little bit of jiggling, along with some filing down is all that is required for the perfect filling. Superglue sticks the filling to the base and that’s it!
Gotta rave about it some more fantastic!
Over the years I make sure that I go to see him every three months, because I know it’s worth it. He has taken ownership of my teeth to the point that he has even taken out some of the workmanlike brick and mortar fillings from previous dentists and replaced them with gleaming metal or tooth like acrylic renditions. Taking my previous experiences into account it is hard to believe that my anxieties and fears regarding dentists have been laid to rest once and for all.
It is good to see that I am not the only one converted to the art of Japanese dentistry. A friend of mine remarked just the other day that he had given up going to see his dentist during his annual visits “home” as it was becoming more expensive to do so. He booked himself in to his local dentist in Japan and was as surprised as I was by the skill and craft evident.
He felt no pain