The perils of sitting in a dentist’s chair

The tears erupted as soon as I saw the long chair, surrounded by shining, sharp instruments whose only possible purpose could be pain. My fear surprised me. I’m normally quite tough when it comes to pain – I was one of the few girls in my peer group who could handle using an Epilady when it hit the shelves during my teens. Haven’t heard of it? That’s because it was some sort of medieval torture device dressed up as a modern way of removing hairs from your legs. It had a revolving spring that caught hairs between its coils before ripping them out, follicle and all. It didn’t last long.

My Man looked helpless as I sunk into the chair, whimpering. He took up the observation position in the corner. Tried valiantly to look like a stalwart. The nurse bustled around me, tying a bib around my neck (so I was supposed to act like a baby?) and making as much noise with the sharp instruments as she could. The tears kept springing forth. Finally the dentist appeared, his mouth already covered with a clean white mask to hide his malevolent smile.

Despite having had braces and attending an orthodontist’s surgery for what seems like my entire adolescence, I was afraid. Very afraid. I’d never had anything done in a dentist’s chair before. No fillings, no extractions, no caps. The gum around my right bottom wisdom tooth had swollen up the night before and it hurt. I’d popped into the hospital to see if they could suggest a dentist to see as I’d never had cause to go to one in Bangkok. They had their own dental clinic; they told me to come back at 4 o’clock. 4 c’clock! But it hurt now!

I’ve become far too used to Bangkok’s excellent drop-in services that range from getting your shoes fixed under Skytrain steps to your hair cut in your favourite salon. An appointment! In Australia, making an appointment is the norm. A friend had a tooth of his flare up just before Christmas in Australia. They gave him aspirin and told him to come back in mid-January.

My dentist ignored my tears as he prised open my mouth and stared. His breath made a laboured noise through the woven cotton. Inhale, exhale, inhale.

"X-ray," he said.

"I had x-rays in October and the dentist…"

"You have the x-rays?"

"No, but he said…"

"You need x-rays."

I took a bunch of tissues and headed into the x-ray room. I stopped crying. Had the x-rays. Went back to the chair of torture, where the dentist was looking at them already.

"Extraction," he announced. I looked wildly around the room.

"When?" I said weakly.

"Now."

He was unimpressed with my questions. I wanted to ask what was wrong with the tooth. Did it absolutely have to come out? Was it growing crooked? Was there a cavity? Should I just have all the wisdom teeth out at once? How long would this take? Didn’t people normally get knocked out for this sort of thing?

I didn’t ask a thing. Somehow along the way we westerners have been taught that it’s good to ask questions about any procedures you’re having done to your body. It’s your body, after all.

But in the face of this dentist’s shortness I withered, shrivelled to nothing. I was utterly at his mercy, and I was annoyed with myself for being intimidated. I wanted to know things. Was this an example of the sort of high-handed arrogance that I have often heard Thai doctors accused of? There are certainly western doctors who behave this way, but somehow it’s not the same. They know the deal. They’re expecting you to ask questions, even if they think they know all the answers.

I started crying again, closed my eyes tightly and opened my mouth widely, surrendering. Cotton wool soaked in anaesthetic deadened the gum before I was given needles – two and a half, My Man said – and the tooth was ripped from my gum. It took less than twenty minutes.

I didn’t feel a thing. Not even those needles. The worst thing was the string pressing on the corners of my mouth while the stitches were being tied. What a pathetic drama queen! I was so pleased I forgot to say thank you as I skipped out, hitting my chin and feeling amused at how I still couldn’t feel a thing. I wondered if my smile was crooked, tried to feel my lips.

My Man was not quite as sanguine. Pale-faced, he told me that if he ever got a sore wisdom tooth, he’d rather put up with the pain than have that happen to him. I can’t imagine how he’s going to cope being a birthing partner should we have children. At least he won’t have to worry about ever falling pregnant himself.

Other People’s Horror Stories started flowing right from the moment we rang to let a friend know we couldn’t make his party that night. "The only thing I can imagine that could be worse than getting your wisdom teeth out is being castrated," he said. "I was laid up for a week in agony." I looked forward to my anaesthetic wearing off.

Another friend told of having all four out at once and not being able to eat a thing; then there was the student hospital where a dentist pulled out the wrong – unanaesthetised – tooth. Others said they were certain they hadn’t got the anaesthetic before the needle – maybe it was a good thing that I had openly demonstrated that I was petrified. One friend, however, insisted she’d had hers pulled out without anaesthetic while she was in high school. "And then I went to the movies."

I recovered within a week. Many painkillers and mashed potatoes were the keys.

But spare a thought for the dentist. Sure, he could have been a bit nicer, a bit chattier. In fact in my humble western opinion he would have been more of a professional had he encouraged some dialogue.

But dentistry must be the absolute worst profession in the world. How frightening to have a petrified patient shaking and moaning and blubbering as you try to make an exact incision in their pus-filled gums. How rotten to have to break people’s jaws, sew up their gums while they swim in pools of blood, deal with their stinky breath. I know it’s not a simple cause and effect thing, but I’m not surprised that I’ve read dentists have one of the highest suicide rates among occupational groups, (along with physicians, lawyers and military personnel – I know, the lawyer thing seems strange).

I went to university with a friend who had really wanted to be a dentist. I don’t understand why. But I’m glad that there are some people who do.

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