Health · Notes from West London

A New Dentist

Until this week I had had the same dentist for 25 years. He is now cutting back his hours, moving towards retirement and taking on only private work. If I wanted to continue with him as my dentist, I would have to go private, not on the NHS.

25 years is, by a long way, the most time I have spent with the same dental practitioner, and fortunately he has been the best of them. I shake my head at the thought of the butcher who had responsibility for my teeth during my childhood, and look back in horror at the way he treated my mother’s few remaining teeth in her 40s. When my mother told me that he had died, around 30 years ago, I uttered the rudest word in the English language, the one that begins with “C” and rhymes with hunt. Ordinarily my mother might have been offended by the word, and told me not to speak ill of the dead. But she just nodded, probably reflecting on the quality of his workmanship.

By my late teens we had moved on, to a practice usually staffed by visiting New Zealanders and South Africans. I regarded one of the South Africans as the best dentist I had ever had, but looking back there wasn’t much competition for the title. I had maybe three or four appointments with him.

In my 20s I switched to a different practice and was impressed by the new guy, but not impressed enough to maintain my 6-monthly check-ups. After a few years’ absence I only returned when an abscess made my left cheek swell up like a tennis ball. It was quite a sight. He sorted that out but I had concerns about his hygiene. He appeared to be picking instruments from a tray and checking them to see if he’d used them before. They hadn’t come fresh out of the autoclave, that’s for sure.

So I went another few years without a check-up, and in my early 30s I started with the dentist that I have stuck with until now. I had been away from the previous practice long enough for them to destroy my dental records (there is no obligation to keep them beyond a certain time) but that didn’t matter.

And earlier today my children and I saw the new dentist. We like him, and all went well. The children continue to be free of fillings, and none of the old amalgam or crowns that take up so much space in my mouth are in need of remedial work in the near future.

The new guy also did something that I have never seen before: he took x-rays of all of our teeth (not just trouble spots) and within minutes was able to show us the state of play on a screen. It was one of those moments when I felt like I was living in the future. I look back on the 1970s experience: drilling without anaesthetic; metal clamps fastened around the teeth that needed extra-large fillings, digging into my gums simultaneously; all that blood. It seems closer to the Victorian era than today’s appointments: x-rays, computer screens, no drills needed, and not a drop of blood shed.

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