Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Tooth Will Out

I was sitting in the dentist's chair yesterday, about to have a new crown fitted - the old one was gold and made me look like a James Bond villain. I'd been assured that the old crown was too far back for anyone to see it, but every Christmas photograph showed me smiling like a pimp and I was getting fed-up with having to airbrush the offending molar out in Photoshop. It was time for a change.

Tap, tap, tap. "How does the tooth feel?" It hurt. Surely there shouldn't be any pain at all if the nerve had been removed? The dentist explained that some root canal fillings fail, but she knew a man who could probably fix it for £600.

£600 seemed a lot of money to spend on a tooth that occasionally hurt a little, but then I found myself making the following calculations:

If I die at the same age as my father, then I'll live for roughly another 12,000 days. £600 divided between 12,000 is around 5p a day. Would I spend 5p a day to avoid suffering from dental pain whenever I ate? Yes, absolutely. 

Suddenly it all seemed very clear and I tried to explain my reasoning to the dentist, but as soon as I alluded to any intimations of mortality, I knew I'd gone too far. I might think about my death every day, from the basic questions of when and how, to the more trivial ones like how many novels I'll read before I die, but my dentist just needed a simple yes or no.

Spending money on dentistry is as rewarding as repairing a gutter, but the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. By the time they were 40, both of my parents had dentures, which foamed at night in pink and blue plastic containers on their bedside tables. Without their teeth, they looked like figures from a nightmare.

As a child, I was given the impression that the same fate awaited me. My mother certainly did everything she could, albeit unwittingly, to ensure that I followed the same path. Every bedtime I was given a glass of orange squash, which I sipped through the night, bombarding my teeth with a relentless assault of sucrose.

During the day, sweets were added to the mix: Trebor Mints, sherbert lemons, fruit salad chews, Spangles, Refreshers and the original Curly Wurly, which could remove a filling quicker than a Harley Street dentist:

If we were travelling anywhere by train, I could also expect to be treated to a bar of Dairy Crunch, if the Nestle vending machine didn't swallow my 5p. My teeth didn't stand a chance.

By the age of seven, I was already being given fillings. An unscrupulous dentist called Mr Maclean claimed a small fortune from the NHS by filling milk teeth that were about to fall out. To add injury to insult, he didn't bother giving me any injections. It was like being in Marathon Man.

I bore the pain with a stoicism that my sons regrettably lack and my reward for bravery was a record of this:

Filmed in Teddington in winter, it was probably the last time I found Benny Hill funny.

I often wonder why my mother was (and still is) determined to give me as much sugar as possible. Was it the wartime rationing that gave her generation an obsession with toffees and biscuits, or simply the novelty of being able to afford things that were once rare treats?

By the age of 20, most of my teeth had fillings and during the last 25 years, I've felt like a late Byzantine emperor, fighting a futile war of attrition against an increasingly powerful enemy. But all hope is not lost. According to the dentist, my gums are in reasonably good shape and none of the teeth have quite reached the point of no return.

The foaming denture containers will have to wait.

I will finish with this piece of popular verse, which will be familiar to most readers in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, but probably unknown to anyone else. It wouldn't be the same in another accent:


Grey Area said...

I've always associated dentures with personal failure - being roughly the same age as you, and coming from a large family where dentures were almost inevitable after 30 - or, as one of my friends noted 'they were the ideal wedding present for a woman like my mum - a new set of teeth for the photographs'. I was determined not to go down the same path - never eating sweets, regular dental check ups and over enthusiastic brushing. I suspect we had the same childhood dentist, gleefully filling perfectly healthy teeth with screwed up Kit Kat wrappers. Alas, all to no avail - as my (soon to be X ) dentist told me recently - "it's such a shame, I get people in here who smoke, drink, take drugs and have poor dental hygiene - but they have lovely teeth and gums, yours are shot - combination of bad genetics, brushing too hard and bad luck". I can recommend getting a really good, professional dental hygenist - should be about £35 per session - they have less of an agenda than a dentist - will take more personal and professional pride in the results and are generally more candid and honest with you - seeing mine 3/4 times a year has been a very good investment. I know that you are aware of all the hospital treatment I had recently to repair a latent cleft palet and a mass of traumatic peridontal work - very successful - but I don't recommend it to anyone the nightmares will live with me a lifetime.

Martin said...

About 18 months ago, I had a toothache. My dentist advised me that he could arrange for an endodontist to do root canal work. It would cost around £1,200 and be 85% successful. The only other option was an extraction for £110. No contest.

Steerforth said...

Richard - I've been following your dental saga with interest, as you're further down that road.

I've had a huge problem finding a dentist I can trust, particularly as the diagnoses vary so wildly between NHS and private. The private dentists usually say my teeth are buggered, but can be fixed for £2500; the NHS ones say they're mostly fine, but we need to yank that one out and let my 15-year-old nephew try his hand at an amalgam filling on the other one.

I've now found a private dentist who seems to be honest and competent. Also, they have a good hygienist, so I feel more hopeful.

Perhaps one of the best things I did was buy an electric toothbrush that makes a warning beep if I apply too much pressure to the gums.

Martin - That's twice what I've been quoted! But unless you're in your 80s, I still think it's worth saving the tooth. I can give you the name of a man in Worthing who should do it for less if you're interested.

Lucille said...

I have a very similar dental history to yours ( a Golden Delicious apple after tooth brushing at bedtime, two sugars in tea and sugar on cereal) and was too proactively treated by a dentist called I. Screech.
I later suffered an even worse fate at the hands of what was referred to as Australian trench dentistry. Now I have a horrible combination of amalgam, gold crown, white crown and latterly, white fillings. I'd like to sort it all out with a trustworthy dentist but fear and cost have held me back.

Annabel (gaskella) said...

I sympathise. Having strong teeth, I somehow survived a 60s/70s childhood with just four fillings. My gums, however have receded as quickly as the tide, and I have to spend a fortune on the hygienist 4x pa at £45 a shot - and all those little interdental brushes!

When I first moved to Abingdon a few months after having my daughter (motherhood does soften your gums), I had a nightmare about all my teeth dropping out and hot-tailed it to a dentist - turns out a couple were barely hanging in there as my previous NHS dentist's idea of a scrape and polish wasn't up to much.

I do sit and seethe at the cost though!

Lucy said...

Could be worse for you all!

Steerforth said...

Lucille - I'd say bite the bullet, but that would be unwise. The point is, if you can avoid the grim dental fate that awaits the sugar generation, it's money well spent. I must admit that the decision was made easier for me, as my son's refusal to go anywhere outside Lewes means that money that would have been spent on holidays can now be redirected to restoring my phizzog.

Annabel - Apparently it's all about the gums now, so I'm glad that your problem was identified in time. Why do we have nightmares about losing our teeth (my other two involve suddenly realising that I forgot to put any clothes on and not being able to run)? It's odd that so many of us dream about this.

Lucy - I think sterilisation is the answer. Those teeth have got to be taken out of the gene pool.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Me mum was ahead of her time. When I was about twelve, if I couldn't find her, I checked the bath, where I could find her, brushing and flossing away. But by gum (no pun intended!), her system worked -- she still had all her own teeth when she died at ninety.

Loved the Pam Ayres bit, but couldn't watch the Benny Hill -- the computer said, "The uploader has not made this video available for your country." LOL

Don't love computer-ise?

Steerforth said...

You didn't miss anything. I liked it when I was seven (and wept when Ernie died), but I can't say that it's a comedy classic.

Stephen Stratford said...

I am a New Zealander but my mother is English. (She has been here since 1946 but is still English.) When I went to the dentist a few years ago the Canadian hygienist visibly recoiled when she saw the mass of fillings and crookedness in my mouth. I explained apologetically, "I have English teeth." She said, "Looks like you've had English dentistry, too."

Steerforth said...

I didn't realise what a large role genetic inheritance has. In a UK survey of dental health, the worst teeth were in Wales, northern Scotland and Cornwall, so the English are the best of a bad bunch. Terrifying.

As for English dentistry, I wonder why it doggedly ignored the advances in techniques for so long?

Roger C said...

What a gruesome thread. Just the thing to read, I think to myself, when your ancient gums are bleeding persistently and your dentist is an incomprehensible Maltese woman whose only decipherable word appears to be "Hopital! Hopital!" I should like before I'm carried off to step into the Benny Hill debate. Canadian Chickadee is certainly missing the rollicking ribaldry of the song if she's not heard Ernie offering his girlfriend a bath in milk. " 'E said 'D'you want it pasteurised, 'cos pasteurised is best?' She said 'Ernie, I'll be 'appy if it comes up to me chest!" That tickled old Ernie and it tickled me too. Why she went off with Two-Ton Ted from Teddington buggers belief, quite frankly.

Steerforth said...

She would have been better off with Ernie, I agree. All that milk would have helped prevent the onset of osteoporosis whereas Ted's buns offered nothing but obesity and tooth decay.

Séamas Poncán said...

But you'll have to have them all pulled out after the Savoy Truffle...

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I share your pain. I had a deaf dentist who looked about 80 who drillled and filled my teeth from early childhood, never finding less then two fillings needed per visit. I also contracted appalling gum disease from ill-fitting braces as a teen which worse still, did not even straighten my teeth. I have been paying hundreds of pounds a year on dental treatment to hold them all in ever since. Worst insult of all - I wasn't even ALLOWED any sweets as a child, so how the hell could this have happened?

Gabrielle said...

What was it about Australian dentists!? Is it hatred of 'pommies'? One of them filled a front tooth and used so much pressure that thought my jaw would break.When I checked in mirror in car, my front teeth were slightly slanted to one side..seriously! I did complain and was sent to another dentist for 2nd opinion. I wa told "it couldn't have happened".it did! It happened in early 70s, in Basingstoke.I wouldn't let it drop now.I finally went private when an NHS dentist was grilling me on why I desperately needed treatment because my gums were bad.I actually got out of chair and left.Shortly after a private dentist assessed my gums as near perfect..same gums, different dentist! If in doubt, leave asap!

Gabrielle said...

I feel your pain!Biggest scam, some NHS dentists..hope different now.After years of private, I moved and am now dentist free.Was going to try NHS to save money but scared!