Wednesday, August 11, 2004

On Dentistry

As I sit here, my already big lips bloated beyond belief - the left side of my face is still in turmoil from the local anaesthetic the dentist applied a few hours ago - I thought I'd write a piece on dentistry. I've already written about my chewing stick theory of history and bemoaned the loss of Crest Smooth Mint Gel but that was more about teeth not dentistry. In any case, there'll be no conference calls or speaking engagments for me today...

I've seen dentists in 4 countries so far: Ghana, France, England and the US. Surprisingly the French experience was worse than the Ghanaian. Of course that has to do with the 'summer of cavities' (1985 perhaps?) when my two cousins and I were treated at the infamous 'Faculte de Chirurgie Dentaire de Nancy'.

Harken back if you will to seven Wednesdays in a row wherein three children (after the first week my uncle and aunt let us go on our own) would get on the bus in Vandoeuvre and make the hour and a half trek to this teaching college to be human guinea pigs for dental students who would inspect and imagine cavities, proclaim the need for fillings and proceed to botch the procedure. So we'd head back the next week and the filling would not have set or, more likely, would have fallen out in the interim. Repeat and rinse seven times like I alluded to. I can't remember any pain inflicted by these excuses for dentists (my cousins have a different story), but it got tiresome after the third week or so. I can't quite imagine what my uncle and aunt were thinking: perhaps a lesson on the theatre of the absurd, Kafka, or some bonding or character-building something or other. The upside, I guess, was that we learnt the value of brushing teeth and avoiding dentists at all costs especially if they were akin to Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man. You don't want to be poor Dustin Hoffman strapped into a chair with no anaesthethic as the Nazi draws closer to pull your teeth...

If France was epic and eventful, and Ghana rudimentary, dentistry in England was a little better - the caveat being that, with the NHS being what it was, you had to wait a little longer for care. It also helped that the Indian dentist I had was very chuffed/impressed by my heading to Harvard - like Nigerians, Indians are much impressed by brand names in higher education. Much ink has been spilt about bad teeth and Englishmen and perhaps poor old Martin Amis with his dental travails is the best exemplar:

Amis spent $30,000 on [his teeth], having a[n American] dentist anchor them to bone with titanium rods. The money came from the $800,000 advance he received for the new novel, "The Information" It was a sum that whipped a sizable portion of the London literary establishment to fury. Some of its pillars seized on that costly dental work to aim wounding remarks at Amis. Someone quoted his famous writer father, Kingsley, as saying he couldn't read Martin's novels because they were too scatological and the language too self-conscious. It was noted with approval that Martin's face fell when he heard this.
"Some said I wanted this money to have my teeth capped so I can look like a South American movie star,"' Martin Amis said yesterday. "Others asked, 'Why isn't he having it done here instead of the United States?' There's a strain of anti-Americanism in it all."
Dentistry is completely different in the US. The stereotypes are all correct: everyone's teeth look straight, shiny white, and healthy or, if they are teenagers, they are wearing braces on their way to dental perfection. You wonder if this is the same dentistry as elsewhere - it's like trying comparing the Premier League to your weekend pickup games in the park; there's just no comparison. I mean take the entire profession of "Dental Hygienists" for God's sake - who'd would have thought it: people devoted just to cleaning and polishing? Americans spend so much on their teeth and their dentists oblige with this amazing professionalism and division of labour. Amis's $30,000 is probably not even an extravagance - think of dentists in Beverly Hills.

Needless to say, I am the happy recipient of the fruits of American dentistry. The whole choreography of wedges, burnishers, smoothers, pastes, explorers, x-rays etc; the exquisite sequences of dentist and assistant operating in tandem once the hygienist has finished with you and made your teeth shine with loving polish; the seriousness of the care, the fussing and fretting about every little nick in your bicuspids...

For some reason when I started at Lotus, I didn't understand that you just had to call up any old dentist and simply ask whether they took your insurance. Unlike primary care, you didn't have to choose a dentist upfront - sidenote: this seperation of medical from dental and optical care is another peculiar Americanism, but more on the scam that is American healthcare later. So I went for something like 3 years without seeing a dentist in America - continuing to visit the UK for that kind of care when I remembered. I can remember the scorn of the American dentist (Dr Yun?) at the quality of work the UK dentists had performed which she proceeded to promptly remedy. Indeed I think the overwhelming fussing that I received was to compensate for the supposed deprivations I had endured at those rank amateurs.

So anyway, all this was passing through my head as I lay in the basement in that lovely brown chair, while Doctor Gordon was doing due diligence on me, making me hold the suction tube - they always like to give you something to do, I guess it mitigates any nervousness - and I looked out through the window at the feet of the occasional passers-by wondering if they could see the intricate engineering tasks taking place on the operating theatre of my bottom molars. I guess this is why Americans feel they live in God's own country.

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