dentist

“Believe me, this is hurting you less than you’re paying me”

In the teeth of moral hazard

On the whole, I’m in favour of teeth. They let you eat stuff, bite people you don’t like that much and – if you ever feel the need – grip a leather pad in your mouth while twirling from a trapeze rope.

But teeth come with baggage….decay, fillings, crowns, extractions and all kinds of trouble…..with a capital T and that rhymes with D and it stands for Dentists. My feelings about dentists are not quite as positive as those about teeth – and I should know, because from the age of five I saw rather too much of them.

Like my father’s sister Molly, I was born with an endless capacity for producing teeth. Other kids had exciting things like whooping cough, measles or tonsilitis, but I had a gob with seventeen teeth more than the script suggested. That’s far too many: so many, in fact, that a civil war in pursuit of lebensraum was going on in my gums.

My first dentist had been my mother’s dentist when she was a girl, which was fine except my mother by this time was already 35, whereas Mr Green seemed to me the wrong side of 90. His practice was in a rambling old Edwardian mansion in Cheetham Hill, and the staircase leading to his surgery was, I think, the one they used for the Martin Balsam scene in Psycho. In truth, he was a kindly old man, but he tried to hide his bad breath with cloves, and always sported those pince-nez glasses that make you think of words like Mengele, Himmler and Beria.

In those days, the jungle juice of choice for extractions was N20, better known as laughing gas. The humour in the process escaped me: the dentist would clamp your mouth open so wide, your teeth could look at the ceiling even though your nose was pointing straight ahead; then he put a mask over your mouth and said you were feeling sleepy. Mainly, I was feeling betrayed by my mother.

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Mr Green took a lot of my teeth out, but when they kept growing again he told Mum I’d have to see somebody else with more specialist expertise. He probably had an exorcist in mind, but anyway I wound up going to a chap called Batten for three years. He took more teeth out, and then made me a brace-plate designed to make the lucky teeth left over move into the empty lots he’d supplied. Wearing the brace was like letting a homeless midwife live in my mouth.

I didn’t like Mr Batten, but he obviously knew what he was doing…and so by the age of 11 it felt like my orthodontic nightmare was over. But five years later I needed an oral X-Ray to investigate pain in the roof of my mouth.

The oral X-Ray plate represents one of the few diehard things left in the practise of dentistry that refuses to get any less painful as technology moves on. It never fails to find the soft gum flesh it so obviously craves, and then slice into it with the frenzied sadism of Jack the Ripper. In this sense, it is beaten only by the syringe delivering painkiller to the patient through the medium of unbearable pain. But the needle torture can’t match the anxiety felt as, once the X-Ray razor blade is in place, the dental practitioner slaps a lead-lined shelter on your chest and then retreats six blocks in order to press the button.

I digress. The X-Ray showed that I had two further rows of teeth under the skin behind the upper ones, and they were quietly rotting away like so many unpleasant isotopes. I will never forget the dentist asking me, “Didn’t you notice the roof of your mouth was unusual?” Think about it: it is an outstandingly dumb question. Anyway, if you’re disturbed by explicit medical description, look away now.

The process required to fix this involved a dental hospital, and a surgical procedure that consisted of rolling the skin behind the upper teeth away, collecting the pulsating fragments thereunder, and then sewing the skin back on by stitching between my teeth….using black thread.

It was physically painless, but – as far as the already fragile self esteem of a pubescent was concerned – emotionally horrendous. Not only did I have to walk around in public looking as if my top teeth were informally tied to my nasal passages by ink spaghetti, the complete change to the roof contours effected by the removal of the Alps meant that Oio shund it verr dishicult to plonunch ebbyfung. When you’re 16 and spotty, this is not – believe me – the fast lane to losing your virginity.

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The years passed, and all things considered I remained surprisingly socialised. It emerged that my choppers were not only numerous, but strong: I sailed through a series of now forgotten check-ups, until in my mid forties the first signs of wear and tear began to appear. This involved my lower row of teeth. At either end of the row I’d had wisdom teeth: but when these were removed during my tragic infancy – only to grow again and be removed yet again – the remaining teeth (encouraged by Mr Batten’s plate) had spread out in a less than perfect manner. They had too much room, and were now become wobbly.

I was able largely to ignore the warnings of those who follow the profession of the bloody pole for five years. But then in 1999, my jaw collided with a Great Western train plastic back rest just outside Paddington Station. My train had hit an unsighted Thames train head on. It was yet another triumph of rail privatisation following which nobody culpable went to jail; but my lower teeth decided from then on that enough was enough. Gradually over the next ten years, they took on the appearance of anarchically arranged headstones in a graveyard.

Worse still, the gum instability led to infections. These infections usually occurred in Portugal, Greece, France, Jamaica, Majorca, Sydney and Namibia. I only had to so much as tentatively reserve an air-ticket before, on arrival in foreign parts, a little man with large biceps and a baseball bat would start playing the percussion track from Money, that’s what I want on a loose root. I particularly recall one holiday in the Algarve when a somewhat shady German doctor prescribed pain killers to help me. They removed the pain, and also any connection I had to a 3D Universe. The trip back by air was uneventful apart from the fact that I didn’t need a plane.

It wasn’t until 2013 that things got so bad, chewing anything beyond risottos was a painful rather than pleasurable experience. So I began internet research as the overture to what I thought might be a solution. I quickly discovered that the entire world was rushing to take advantage of tooth implants….and it seemed that Medical Tourism was the new black.

MT was being feted in all the social magazines and smart colour supplements as the way to avoid ripoff dental fees in England. Whereas I’d been quoted £56,000 to ‘fix’ my mouth by a charlatan in Lyme Regis, it seemed the same job could be done in Greece for €6,000. This was a happy coincidence, because I was due to return to Greece to cover more events in the Great Troika Gang-rape – and there was also some romantic potential on the horizon.

As I’ve explained before, it is part of their cultural mentality that, when asked if they can perform a service, the Greeks tend to answer with “Of course”. This is their polite way of saying “No”, but most foreigners don’t understand the tradition. I went to a prominent dentist on the mainland and she gave me the “Of course” shtick, after which she removed nine teeth in three minutes, with no N20 involved at all. I was impressed by this, but even more so by her close resemblance to Katie Melua.

So began three months of stitches, mouth-rinsing, jaw-drilling, screw-fitting, fix-mounting, trying to understand Katie’s English, and almost incessant pain. Followed by three weeks during which all four implants fell out. The love-interest having gone back to hubby, I packed up the car and drove back to Blighty for Christmas with my daughter.

Once again, my speech had been affected – I could now do a Bogart impression that would’ve fooled Lauren Bacall – but No 1 daughter hadn’t seen fit to give my son-in-law the heads up on what had happened; so when I arrived and began speaking to Damien, he asked ever so casually if by any chance I’d had a stroke. Those of you who by now think it couldn’t get any worse should stop reading, down a large Scotch, and then return suitably prepared.

On my return to France, I was pointed at a dentist in Villeneuve who – I’m bound to say – had a largely unblemished reputation, and a beautifully located surgery overlooking the River Lot. More X-rays were taken, a prognosis was offered (“Your last dentist was an idiot”) and then the fixed sum of €11,000 was quoted as the cost of building and fitting an implanted bridge. This seemed to me logical, given that the absence of most of my teeth in the bottom row did point to a suspension sort of solution.

One thing I need to point out at this juncture is that, whereas doctors never, ever criticise their fellow members of the BMA (Belligerent Monolithic Antimatter) dentists are the most bitchy professionals you’ll ever come across. “Who on Earth did this?” is a common opening question to any patient changing dentists. That’s hard to square with logic, given that by the age of 50 most of us have had at least seven dentists, all of whom claim that the one before was a clown. Why, for instance, does nobody ever meet the last dentist first?

And lo, a further nine months of pain, drill, extraction, moulds and fixation followed. In the middle of this, Vigur made an unadvertised appearance. As in – literally – I pitched up expecting Antoinette to do the job, and there he was – all the way from Bucharest…..Vigur.

Vigur had the bedside manner of a scorpion combined with the emotional engagement of Richard Nixon. But he was efficient. He fitted four new implants, and topped them off with keys ready to slot into the prosthetic bridge that would soon be ready for me. Up until February 2015, it was all looking good. Antoinette fitted the bridge, then adjusted it, then adjusted it again, and as the winter began to fade, I walked out into the pale sun a new and younger man. It had been a long haul, I told myself, but worth it.

A fortnight later, one of the implants fell out.

After another five weeks, I was down to two, with the bridge jumping in and out of sync alarmingly. Then there was one.

“Don’t worry,” purred Antoinette, “we’ll get Vigur back, and find a solution”. This sounded to me like a triumph of hope over dynamics, but I shrugged and started buying Fixodent to keep the prosthetic under control.

I never heard from Antoinette again. She’s in Holland somewhere, I’m told. I thought I was paying €11,000 for the Golden Gate, and I wound up with the Bridge over the River Kwai. Today I’m thirteen teeth and €17,000 lighter….the proud owner of half a set of false teeth I could’ve picked up in a joke shop for twenty quid.

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It’s a mordant tale, is it not? And, let’s be fair, funny in parts. But there is a moral to it: I might have been scared witless by Messrs Green and Batten, but they were sound professionals who enabled me to have normal teeth….at no cost, under the 1950s NHS. The culture that produced such men and women of laudable ethics has gone forever, but nevertheless, throughout Europe now the carpetbaggers are insisting that everyone must have more insurance and cough up out of their own, dwindling post-tax income. This ‘model’ is supposed to be fit for a culture whose professional classes have, on the whole, no calling beyond loads of cash – earning their crust from devious insurance conglomerates who delight in the sociopathic archaeology of small print.

I don’t envy anyone trying to bite into that particular pizza.