One of the great levellers between kings and commoners, between millionaires and mortals, is the dentist’s drill. The mere sound of one can cause brave men to crumble into cowards. We all encounter it at some time; in my case, we’re old acquaintances.
Last week a piece of tooth came away when it encountered an obstacle in a cheese sandwich. I carried the fragment around in my wallet for three days, hoping the dentist could somehow cement it back into its home at the back of my mouth.
“Gross!” was Jo’s horrified comment when I showed it to her over breakfast. Americans see teeth differently to us.
I felt rather attached to my tooth. It had lived in my mouth for more than fifty years; it had chewed my first piece of chicken tikka; it had laughed at Harry Worth, smiled at royalty and at the birth of four children; it had encountered strange tongues during furtive teenage liaisons and survived while all around had been drilled and filled. It seemed rather disloyal just to discard it.
My dentist, no respecter of tradition, took one look at it and threw it in the bin.
“Just a little prick,” he said, encouragingly.
“Are you talking about me?” I countered, hoping a feeble joke would take my mind off the enormous horse-syringe that was being pointed at my mouth.
“Can you believe that I’ve been going to the dentist since I was five?” I said.
“Back in the fifties, there was no colour television, we had Bakelite switches and were excited about the invention of the transistor radio. Since then, man has gone to the moon, CDs have come and gone, they’ve discovered and almost cured AIDS, and yet you dentists still use the same old syringe and drills. Don’t you guys have any research and development?”
“Open wide,” he replied.
I went on: “Surely by now someone would have invented a laser that zaps away the pain, some molten enamel stuff that tops up broken teeth, some…. Ouch!”
My eyes watered at the pain as he poured a gallon of anaesthetic into my gum.
“You’re right,” said my dentist. “We haven’t really moved on technologically in half a century. They are trying to develop lasers for us, and even little cameras to create 3 dimensional models of your jaw, but none of it is ready.”
As if to demonstrate this last point, he told me to breathe through my nose, then stuffed an enormous containerful of foul-smelling rubber into my mouth.
“There must be an easier way,” I said three choking minutes later, after he’d prised the now-solid mold off my teeth and I was picking bits of rubber from the back of my tongue.
“How about 3D laser printing? They can make mobile phones that way, why not models of teeth?”
Later he showed me two types of crown to replace my old tooth: an ugly metal NHS version and a beautiful, handmade porcelain private alternative. No contest there: I didn’t dare look at the bill.
We British are famous for our bad teeth. The Simpsons produced a Big Book Of British Smiles, which was certainly no joke. Most of us wait for something to go wrong before visiting the dentist and then we begrudge the cost. Yet in America, proper dental care is the norm, helped by the tax deductions you get for dental insurance. Because you’re paying for it, you use it.
But finally I see that Britain’s smile is improving. Children with reasonable teeth are covering them with silver train tracks to achieve perfection – inspired by the same television programmes that brought us the school prom, Justin Bieber and other expensive US imports. Every toothpaste whitens: implants are replacing dentures. Our national image is being transformed as science comes up with new orthodontic solutions.
The one thing that modern dentists lack is a replacement for the syringe and drill. I can’t believe that Izzy, who currently loves riding up and down in the big chair, will have her image of the friendly dentist shattered by her first encounter with those evil metal monsters.
Come on, dentistry: enter the 21st century.