‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – A Trip to the Dentist in Leeds and Papua New Guinea. Not for the Squeamish!

‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – A Trip to the Dentist in Leeds and Papua New Guinea. Not for the Squeamish! Cup of Tea Tales

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  5. ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – All the Fun of the Fair! Woodhouse Feast, Roundhay Park Fair and Other Childhood Delights.

I cannot say what age I was when I started to go to the dentist, but I remember my first one well. Mr Gosling had his surgery on Easterly Road in a large house very close to the public toilets next to the Fforde Grene public house and across from the Clock Cinema. I was only at primary school at the time and my first impression of the dentists was a waiting room that was cold and not particularly inviting. There were some magazines for adults, but nothing for younger clients and it had a lino covered floor and a few hard chairs.

Mr Gosling was an elderly gentleman, or at least he appeared so to me. Anyone above the age of about twenty seemed old, and all teachers were incredibly old. The dentist wore half lens glasses, which I suppose now would have helped him with his near vision, but I had seen no one with them before. Being led into the surgery by my mother was like walking through the gates of hell. It was full of cold, hard metal objects that surrounded a leather chair. In these times, the chair reclined only a little, so unlike the one’s today that recline to the point of being horizontal with your head in the dentist’s lap. I was ushered into the chair, sitting fairly upright, and the dentist and assistant gathered around me in an intimidating manner. A bib was placed around my neck and I was instructed to open wide.

Of course, before leaving home, Mum ensured my teeth were given a thorough scrubbing with the toothbrush to ensure there was no food and there was no chance of bad breath. Toothpaste in these days came in alloy tubes, not the plastic of today, and fluorine was not in the water and had just started appearing in the toothpaste. Pepsodent and the new super exciting Signal with a miraculous series of red stripes were the ones we had. ‘You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent’, the adverts announced. It was only when I was much older that I discovered the toothpaste in these times had added sugar to make the flavour more palatable. Face and teeth suitably scrubbed, I opened my mouth with ‘a ring of confidence’, to be assaulted by a hand with a sharp-pointed metal implement. Everything about the experience was alien to me. I had only ever had people show me kindness, and no adult had ever hurt me intentionally. This was a situation that changed as I entered high school, and so it was with a shock that this metal point jabbed into my gums, between teeth and into cavities that suddenly exploded with pain. He would comment in a strange language about incisors, molars, and give a report of each tooth to the assistant who made notes.

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This was probably my first realisation that life wasn’t always good and that we could deteriorate even at such a young age. Why would God create teeth that didn’t last? I reasoned. The fact that Mr Gosling had a habit of humming and whistling as he worked did not help this discomfort. His apparent good humour was not matched by my fear and the sharp pain from the probe finding a cavity or two. This anxiety became particularly severe when it was announced that I needed a couple of fillings and I needed to ensure I regularly brushed my teeth. This surprised my mother, as she believed I brushed my teeth twice a day. What she didn’t understand was that boys will avoid teeth cleaning by utilising a range of strategies. I, and I believe most boys, would smear toothpaste around our lips, run the tap and wet the brush in order to convince anyone checking that we had cleaned our teeth. A kiss goodnight from Mum was a cunning way of checking, but my tactics fooled her. I wonder if I would have behaved in such a manner if I had known how much trouble and pain teeth can cause?

Fillings! The word didn’t mean much the first time, but ever after, it always brought fear. I was helpless, sitting open-mouthed and open souled, totally unaware of what was to happen to me, whilst a stranger had his hands in my mouth. Stainless steel implements of nightmares were arranged on the tray next to me, and a glass and stainless steel syringe appeared in his hand. The word cocaine was mentioned and then there was a sharp stab into my gum, and then repeated at another point. I was shocked and there was a sharp pain and I almost clamped my teeth around his hand. Luckily, it only lasted a second or two. When it was done, I was left to stew for a while whilst my mouth became numb and this spread up to my nose. For some reason, I thought that was it. Oh, how wrong could I be?

He returned, and the pale mint green crane-like tower I had noticed was swung my way and he fiddled with the end and then, with a footswitch, started the drill. The noise I can still hear now. The sound of a dentist’s drill, particularly those used many years ago, has a special place in the fear section of the brain. The wail of a banshee holds no less terror and I challenge anyone not to share the same response. It has a similar impact as the scraping of fingernails on a blackboard. Ever since that first time, there is nothing more likely to strike fear into my heart than sitting in a dentist’s waiting room and hearing the whistle of someone experiencing the drill. The dentist reached into my mouth whilst the assistant hung a miniature vacuum cleaner over my bottom lip. It wasn’t comfortable and dug into the palate below the tongue, but I had no means of repositioning it and it just added to the misery. The drill whirled, water sprayed into my mouth, and the tooth disintegrated. I think he may have muttered, “This won’t hurt a bit!” but if he did, he lied. He whistled and inflicted torture and there was nothing I could do. I was helpless, at his mercy.

It seemed like an eternity, but I am sure it was just a few minutes. The assistant made up the amalgam filling and she mixed and scraped whilst standing off to the side, out of sight. The dentist stopped the drilling, told me to rinse my mouth out and then the assistant handed him another tool and he squeezed the mixture into the tooth he had removed most of and then repeated it with the other. Sharp tools appeared in his hand and there was some scraping of the tooth. I was told to close my mouth, further scraping and then the last instruction to rinse my mouth out with the glass of water. Because my mouth was numb, the rinsing caused the water to dribble out of my mouth. The bib was suddenly whipped off, and I was told to get up, and look after my teeth better, with regular brushing. My mum and I left and walked home. My forehead was numb at this point and when at home and was given some orange juice, I found I couldn’t drink it as it dribbled from between my numb lips. I seemed a very long time before the numbness went and life could return to normal.

We changed dentists to another on Easterly Road, halfway up the hill and on the opposite side. Having grown accustomed to fillings, I was no longer quite as terrified, and this was helped by improved treatment methods, equipment, and painkillers. There was one experience I had not had up to this point, and that was an extraction. I can’t remember why I was needing a tooth removed. I was sitting in the chair, tense and afraid, when the dentist said, “I’m just going to give you a little gas. You’ll just be a little woozy. Just try to relax. Nothing to worry about!” A black rubber facemask was clamped over my nose and mouth. There was the strong smell and taste of what I now know was Nitrous Oxide, laughing gas. I breathed in and knew no more until faces appeared swirling around my consciousness, accompanied by a dull ache and the taste of blood. “That’s it now, David. All done!” The words of the dentist and the smile of the assistant, and it was all over. “Rinse your mouth out.” I did as I was told and noticed blood in the sink. I turned to see a concerned look on my mother’s face. “Now don’t eat or drink for a couple of hours and then you should be as right as rain!”

I think I may have had gas another time, but I am not sure why, unless they removed double first teeth, but later, when I was at the end of primary school at Harehills I had double teeth removed to allow for overcrowding, but this was not with gas. When I saw the dentist with the overcrowding, they decided I needed a brace on a plate for three months to straighten them out. I returned to get the plate fitted on the day I was to attend a girl in my class’s birthday party. The brace was fitted, and it was very tight. I was shown how to remove it and it was quite difficult and uncomfortable, but then I headed off to the party. I was very embarrassed and, to make matters worse, I could barely speak with it in. I really didn’t enjoy the party and I could only nod and just about managed to say yes or no. I believe we may have played postman’s knock, but as you can guess, I don’t think I was anyone’s first choice.

Older still, we continued our progression up Easterly Road and moved to a dentist at the top of the hill and back on the other side of the road. It was a large corner house, and we went there for many years. One thing I remember was that when I was old enough to go on my own, I was asked to sign a blank form for the treatment before anything was done. I can only think of one reason for this and that was dentists were paid by the National Health for the work carried out and who knows what work was claimed? This seemed to be the general practice of all the dentists I had, and I also think it was an encouragement for extra work to be undertaken. In my adult life, I don’t remember the constant need for fillings to be re-done regularly, but the early ones seemed to require this. Maybe I am just getting cynical in my old age, but the payment for work system seemed to encourage unnecessary treatment.

My worst dental story took place when I was an adult and living in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea. I was head of a small school and we were quite remote. Mt Hagen was the largest small town, and that was about an hour away. One Saturday morning I awoke with the worst pain I have ever felt in one of my double teeth. I was in agony and I didn’t know what to do. We had lived on a mission hospital with American doctors, at Kudjip. I phoned a friend who lived about forty minutes away and he came around and drove me to the hospital. They had a look and said all they could do was to take it out. My friend phoned the nearest dentist in a town called Goroka. It was a local dentist, but trained in Australia. We finally got a call through to him and he was at the horse races. He said he would see me if we drove down. The journey was about three hours on only partially-surfaced roads. The hospital had given me a combination of drugs for the pain, out of date donated ones, but they took the edge off the agony. The journey was a blur, partially due to the medication, but we arrived and the dentist appeared. He had a strong smell of alcohol, but I didn’t care, as the pain was excruciating. He had a look, reckoned I had an abscess, and started his drill. He didn’t give me any pain killer injection, and I was fairly nervous. I sat there with my mouth wide open. He drilled into the tooth and there were two immediate happenings. The first was the immediate loss of pain. The hole allowed the relief of the pressure and the pain vanished. I could have cried with joy. The second thing was there was this terrible smell of putrid meat, and this was the infection. He cleaned the hole a bit and packed it with cotton wool, soaked in antiseptic. I was given some anti-biotics and told to go to Mt Hagen hospital to see their dentist in a week. I felt so much better. I almost kissed him.

The trip to Mt Hagen hospital was uneventful, but here again there was no gas, as it had been stolen. The dentist, another local, had a look and then took a long probe and stabbed it down into the cavity. The pain was instant and excruciating, and I clamped my teeth down instinctively around his hands. He told me it was still infected and that the pain was the sign. When I no longer felt the probe, it would then be fine. I was given more antibiotics and told to come back in a week. This went on for another couple of times, before the pain had gone. He then inserted a silver pin and filled the tooth, and all went well. When I went back to the UK I visited the dentist in Wrenthorpe and she removed the pin, fitted a gold crown. I suffered years of problems with the tooth and eventually had it removed under general anesthetic here in Perth.

I was informed by a UK dentist that before gas was introduced, chloroform was used. It was poured on a cloth and held over the nose and mouth of the patient until they became unconscious. I thought this sounded dangerous, but he told me there was always a nurse there, and in many ways, it was as safe as gas. Modern dentistry is painless and not as scary for me now. I guess we are so lucky and most people keep at least some of their teeth all their lives. My father had all of his removed at a young age, and I hated seeing his teeth in a glass of water. I was told by my mother that parents would have an insurance policy for their children that paid out when they were twenty-one, to pay for their teeth removing. Dentistry is certainly something that has improved over my lifetime.

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2 Replies to “‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – A Trip to the Dentist in Leeds and Papua New Guinea. Not for the Squeamish!”

  1. Well David, you have managed to re-awaken past nightmares about British dentists. I now remember all too well the belt-driven drill grinding away but which always seemed to seize-up at a critical time during work on a cavity, and the little white porcelain bowl for spitting bits of teeth and blood into (where on earth does blood come from in a tooth?), and why was tooth extraction always the first option? Fear of a visit to the dentist’s caused me to really scrub my teeth, so much so, that an appreciable amount of gum recession occurred over many years.

    Once I had finished school and was no longer in the clutches of (I guess well-meaning at the time) parents, I resolved never to visit the dentist again (just because it was free on the NHS didn’t mean that I had to suffer). So for 15 years I totally avoided them, until I moved to Canada in 1982 and experienced a totally different approach to oral hygiene. My first dentist there was so considerate and recognised instantly the handiwork (let’s not call it skill) of British dentists (did they put an ‘NHS’ stamp on those amalgams, I wonder?). For the first time in my life I experienced no discomfort or pain during treatment.

    When I moved to California, it became even better (perhaps because of the incredible cost of treatment in the US), although I now realised that North American dentists see every tooth as a financial opportunity – the longer they can keep a tooth in your head, the more money can be made from it. For the first time in my life I had a female dentist. Now this might not seem like a big deal, after all there’s no reason why a female dentist should not be the equal of her male counterpart, but it was the thoughts of having female hands gently probing into a very personal area of my male body whilst lying helplessly horizontal that took some overcoming. However, overcome I did, and since then after every move to various parts of the US, I’ve always had a female dentist (that they get a kick out of my Yorkshire accent has nothing to do with it, of course.)

    Cheers,

    Terry Lowe.
    Virginia, USA.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was the same with me, Terry. I avoided the Australian dentists until I had a problem. They commented on the NHS mouth of fillings. The NHS system is the best in the world, comments are not true, but maybe the cheapest. Dental work here costs a fortune and to make matters worse my dentis spends the whole time telling you where he has been on holiday and how he is spending the fortune you pay him. Luckily for him, he is a good dentist and his work is painless apart from his dreadful bedside manner.
      I never thought about a female one. Maybe I should give it a try.
      David

      Like

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