The toothache had lasted for several days, with varying degrees of intensity. I had survived on painkillers, but it seemed that it was getting worse. When I woke up that Sunday morning, it was unbearable. The pain was throbbing, radiating outwards such that my ears and eyes hurt. I knew that I had to find a dentist. I took my painkillers and set off on what would be a long day of treatment and learning. I am not an ignorant person, but I came to know that there is still a lot that I did not know about dental procedures in general. Perhaps this was the experience that I needed to learn and develop an interest in dentistry itself.
At Pure Dentistry, a dental clinic near Carindale, people waited patiently for their turn. They did not seem to be in a mood for a conversation. Perhaps their teeth hurt, or they were meditating. Still, they could have been thinking of the Australian economy; it was difficult to tell. Some seemed angry, while others seemed a little frightened. It was understandable: many people fear dental procedures, as Marie L. Caltabiano et al. (2018) explain in an article in BMC Oral Health1. The thought of needles, the grinding and other invasive procedures will send many running for the hills. But people do not usually come to see the dentist because they want to. Instead, and as Alexandra Sbaraini et al. (2012) explain in BMC Health Services Research, they go because they have to. “You do not have a choice,” I said to myself after reading the mood in the waiting area. There was no talking, but there were silent glances. Two patients had brought their children with them to see Dr Soha Sharif, the famous kids dentist in Brisbane. These ran up and down. I smiled as I watched them, their play reminding me about the innocence of children. Unlike the adults in the room, they were unfazed with the new environment and all that went on in the dentist’s room. Their attitudes were serving as a reminder why too much worry will see one miss the good moments in life.
Meanwhile, I kept myself busy with that day’s copy of The Queensland Times. One after another, people would leave the dentist’s treatment room, seemingly relieved that they were done. Finally, it was my turn.
“Hello, my name is Sarah, and I will be your dentist today,” the dentist smiled as she gestured me to a chair, clearly employing calming strategies shared by Deva Priya Appukuttan (2016) in Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dentistry. We exchanged pleasantries, and she asked how I was feeling. I narrated the experience of pain and how it got worse with time. Dr Sarah listened carefully, after which she explained that it is usually advisable to visit a dentist as soon as that toothache presents itself. “You never know, it could be something minor; it could be serious, we always advise a visit to the dentist soonest,” she explained. After I was done explaining, it was now time for the real action to begin.
I settled comfortably on the chair mounted on the dental engine. Dr Sarah adjusted the equipment, complete with the beam that shone right into my mouth. She proceeded with the initial examination. She was detailed and took her time, even looking at all other teeth in the process. She explained that the tooth had a cavity and that it was an extensive one. She revealed that inner parts had been exposed and that a routine filling would not be sufficient at this point. I listened carefully, nodding as she explained to great detail why a root canal treatment was the right treatment. “It does not look so damaged on the surface,” I pointed out. “You are right, but the damage is extensive below the surface, with the rot going deep inside,” Dr Sarah replied. I agreed, and the process began. It is surprising how this process would be the beginning of a lot of learning and passion, the sort of passion that would see me want to become a dentist myself.
Dr Sarah administered local anaesthesia and sat back as her technician set up the working area. After a few minutes, the cleaning process began. As Ramandeep Gambhir (2015) explains, dental procedures are certainly invasive, even with the right amount of anticipation. I was required to open my mouth for an extended period, too long such that my jaw muscles began to ache. It did not help that the tooth in question was a molar, not easily accessible by the dentist. Even with the suction pipes in position, I still felt my mouth fill with saliva. Even with the anaesthesia, this was not a pain-free experience. The compressed air always served as a relief as it soothed the tooth and gum. Getting tired, I would sometime feel like closing my mouth, only for Dr Sarah to remind me that she needed it open to operate optimally. “This must be what people fear when it comes to visiting the dentist,” I said to myself inwardly. I remembered a friend who swore that he would never visit a dentist, declaring that to him; even the mildest of procedures was like being operated upon. After approximately 30 minutes, I could sense deceleration, and Dr Sarah was winding down. I breathed a sigh of relief as she said: “We are done, for now.”
I rinsed my mouth and spat in the sink. I looked at the tooth in the mirror. It looked different. It no longer pained, and it looked thoroughly interrogated in the inside, though covered with a white and shiny material. As she prescribed a dose of antibiotics and painkillers for me, Dr Sarah explained that I would return for another appointment after a week, during which she would examine whether the tooth had healed, before doing the filling. She advised me to arrange to have the tooth crowned afterwards because that would guard against the wear and tear that comes from grinding. After a brief conversation, I left her as I understood she needed to attend to the numerous other patients waiting outside. I made my payment and left. I felt a slight headache due to the relatively aggressive procedure, thus slept as soon as I was home.
I returned after a week for the second appointment as we had agreed. Dr Sarah was in her element, cheerful and a good mood, just as she was the first time I saw her. After greetings, I was directed to the X-ray machine where a technician took the image. Dr Sarah confirmed that the tooth had healed and that it was now time for the second part of the procedure. I lay on the dental chair as she began. I thought it would take as long as it did the last time, but I was wrong. The second procedure took longer and seemed more intense. Substances that looked like pins would be inserted to the tooth, after which intense grinding would follow. One after another and in a meticulous fashion, Dr Sarah would go on, sometimes gesturing on the assistant to bring this or that element of the process. Saliva poured, and the suction pipes did their job.
This second part of the process was more tedious, and I had to keep my mouth open for long. The salty fluid projected by the water nozzle would sometime go right to the back of my mouth, and I had no option but to swallow it. On and on Dr Sarah went, and I could only hope that with every action, the end neared. Cotton wool inserted in between the gum and the cheek on the one hand and the bottom of the tongue on the other was a source of great discomfort. Dr Sarah insisted that it was imperative to get this part right because for the filling to stick, it had to be mounted on a dry surface. The grinding and levelling were just as hectic as I had to bite and release a piece of foil repeatedly to ascertain that the tooth had been levelled accordingly. After a process that felt as if it had lasted forever, we were done. I stretched in relief as I rinsed my mouth with the salty mouthwash. My mouth felt swollen, and I struggled to keep the fluid from escaping from the side of my mouth. After a brief chat with Dr Sarah, I left, promising to come back after some time for the fitting of the crown. I had a short conversation with the cashier as she swiped my insurance card to deduct the payment.
As I rode home, I found myself reflecting on my experience with Dr Sarah. I had not known much about dentistry in the past. I had seen it as a profession that lacked excitement. However, my root canal treatment had given me a unique perspective on dentistry. I remembered all the pain I had endured in the past, settling on pain killers. Then I recalled a cheerful Dr Sarah, who was happy that she was a dentist. I went back to that Tuesday morning, seeing the faces of the patients that were in a foul mood, perhaps because their teeth hurt so badly. Dr Sarah was able to make them both healthy and happy was something that I found praiseworthy. Maybe I would be just as fulfilled as Dr Sarah if I brought such joy to people as well. Maybe dentistry was my calling. I could not know for sure, but at the very least, I needed to think about it. It should not have been a hard choice, though, because I had experienced what every patient felt – the relief that came when pain disappeared. It would be a nice thing if I too would make others feel just like I had felt. I needed time to decide. However, one thing was sure: Dr Sarah, had given me a unique perspective about dentists and modern dentistry.