Grandma's Tales

December 20, 2006

In the dentist’s chair over the years

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 11:46 pm

As a kid, if I complained of toothache after a sweet binge, mom would pour a few drops of clove oil in the troublesome molar and sing me to sleep. That was decades ago. In those days we didn’t go to the doctor unless it was an emergency. Toothache was not an emergency. It was punishment for excess.

When I was teenager, a “sensitive” tooth I had worried mom. “You have to be married off,” she said, and after a lot search, found a dentist. Dentistry was not a popular branch of medicine in those days. There was no way they could have had a successful practice with moms strictly forbidding daughters to show their teeth to strangers. We were trained to smile with our eyes.

Also, the dentist had to be at least middle-aged. No young man could lay his hands, gloved or otherwise, on her daughter. My dentist was a grey-haired man, a kindly, bespectacled doctor. Forced to have clients from only half the population, he was kind of resigned to his fate. He was a patient old man with a slow manner. His neatly laid instruments looked wicked and far too big. He wore a headlamp to light up the cavities, and a pair of large pliers to pull out the teeth. After the surgery one had to walk up to the sink in the corner to rinse the mouth.

In the 80s and 90s there was a dramatic change in how men and women saw themselves. Toothache – though it was pretty common now – was not the only reason we went to the dentist. In fact, these medicos were not just dentists, they were branching out into being orthodontists. Their trade flourished in the fresh air of freedom. “Filling” took on a new meaning.

It was no longer taboo for women – married or single – to find comfort in a male dentist’s attention. The time had come for women to open their mouth and assert their rights. Of course, the break for freedom to see a dentist had to be a silent one, but well, everything comes with a price tag, right?

Dentists did not just extract teeth. They clipped, capped, crowned and dug root canals in your mouth. They shaped your teeth, enhanced your looks. Even the basic extraction was no longer a simple affair. You had to go through several processes before you saw your piece of ivory.

Ten years ago, when I walked into the “theatre”, I was in for a big surprise. The simple chair of the old doctor had been replaced by a contoured couch. I not only opened my mouth wide to a young, deodorant-smelling guy, I did it lying down! A lamp attached to a stand by a long arm was switched on above my face. The doc pressed a metal band around my mouth (to stop me from biting?) and proceeded to examine the teeth. His instruments had shrunk in size. He said he was cementing the gaps and assured me he was using an imported paste that matched the colour of my teeth.

He wore a mask. The bandit!

It’s only when I saw his bill that I understood why teeth are called ivory. It was time to insure them.

I had to visit him regularly, never mind his strong deodorant. And I was intrigued by the increasing number of “processes” and the cutting-edge technology. Now any visit, no matter what it was for, started with a “cleaning” done by an assistant. My oral history went into a computer. I was asked to go for an X-ray of the aching tooth. Neat plastic cups placed near the couch had cool water to rinse the mouth. You could just sit up, and spit into the tiny sink attached to the couch. And of course, the zeroes in the bill were multiplying.

Today, the doc has a state-of-the-art clinic. An assistant calls and reminds you of your 6-monthly appointments. You walk through glass doors into an elegantly-lit waiting room. There is soft music, a very pleasing fish tank and the latest glossies on end tables placed near comfortable chairs. The receptionist examines your card, asks you to fill up your medical history and ushers you in. The entire place looks like a series of high-tech scenes from a movie – pick your favourite.

The doctor obviously got 100% in his bedside manner test. He asks after your family, clicks his tongue and says the teeth need a “bit of work”. He gives a short lecture on the three most painful events and points out toothache is the third in that list (childbirth is first and heart attack is next). “But you have an excellent set, madam. It’s just that all the food you chew cannot be brushed away. It never does any good to neglect your teeth.” Yeah, the guy really knows how to prepare you for the after shock.

The cleaning procedure is the latest too. An assistant gently takes my glasses away and places a disposable paper wrap around my neck. A young doc (lots of women now!) jets in cold water spray with her left hand and gently scrapes the teeth with her right. In a sweet tone, she reassures me from time to time it’ll soon be over. (Only she kept saying “deposition” for “deposit”. Very distracting!) The light above moves along with my face. The assistant on my left sucks out the water and the saliva with a fine tube. It is a neat, efficient operation.

The biggest surprise is in the X-ray room. An assistant says, “Lift your hands, madam,” and wraps a lead jacket around me. “This is to prevent radiation, madam”. Hey, my mouth has seen so many X-rays, it’s now filled with radium (or whatever)! And I’ll pay for the jacket’s weight in gold! “Please remove all the gold ornaments, madam.” That’s it!

I went home and told my husband that the doctor asked after his health. “My teeth,” he corrected. “He was seeing dollars in them.”

Well, I wrote about medical tourism in India. Now I am the tourist. And I’m getting fleeced.

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