It was a terrible two days, back in 1980 in Port Elizabeth. My dentist expected me to go back the following week to have the wisdom teeth on the left removed, but after he yanked out those on the right hand side and I spent the next two days in agony, I never went back. I've avoided the dentist chair as far as possible ever since.
While on holiday in Hawaii I was unexpectedly plagued by a sharp toothache on the left side of my mouth every time something cold touched one of my teeth. Eventually the pain became more piercing and more frequent, to the point that I resolved to face my fears and submit to the call of the dreaded dentist's chair on my return to Australia.
It took me seven weeks to get an appointment at a convenient time that didn't interrupt my work schedule, so I booked it for one hour believing that would allow sufficient time for both diagnosis and treatment. The type of treatment I had in mind was a minor filling, of course, but I was to discover differently.
Facing my fears of 30 years I took my seat and was duly reclined and illuminated. The good doctor probed around in my mouth, employing a plethora of resources – mirror, magnifying lenses, some miniature pick-axes, swords, daggers, assegais and spears – all of which could potentially inflict pain. Alas though, all of that was to no avail.
Unable to locate the source of my discomfort, he resorted to less technologically-advanced methods. First came the ice test. This entailed carefully placing a slither of ice on each of the teeth in the location of the pain, simultaneously monitoring by observation the extent of my pain. Whilst this procedure definitely reminded me why I had avoided the dentist for so many years, it appeared to bring him no closer to a diagnosis.
Next came the toothpick test, during which I was required to bite down hard on successive sections of toothpick, again needing to animate my respective pain sensation each time. Strangely, and to my delight, the toothpick test was not nearly as pain-inducing as the ice test had been moments earlier. Still, as was about to be explained to me by my torturer, the tests had proved inconclusive. I wondered why anyone would want to spend their days peering into people's mouths, uttering soft-spoken assurances while hurting them for a fee. The only logical conclusion was that they must be driven by some kind of psychological fetish, perhaps living out a kind of benevolent sadism through their work. I couldn't help feeling that there should be a law against such brazen physical abuse, but consoled myself in the knowledge that I was in the hands of a professional medical practitioner who obviously knew what he was doing.
Clearly, more diagnosis was needed, so out came the lead-lined protective sheet and an ominously gun barrel-shaped weapon was aimed at my left cheek, as the technicians scrambled for the exit to avoid the x-ray's side effects. I lay there helplessly surrendering, like a lamb to the slaughter. The doctor suggested, since the x-ray machine was operational now, we might as well do the other side as well. Instead of counting sheep, I mentally recounted my ‘treatment' so far: two x-rays, five ice cubes, four toothpicks, one paper cup of mouth swill, one bib, no injections, no fillings, 45 minutes gone. Time was ticking by, and it crossed my mind that we might not actually get to the treatment today.
Unfortunately the radiology report didn't reveal any cavities either, so the dentist was forced to concede that my mouth was actually healthy, all my existing fillings were intact, and that my pain might be caused by a minute and invisible gap occurring between some big-worded tooth parts. He said that wisdom teeth should usually be removed between the ages of 17 and 20 (so I had been five years too late, even in 1980). Also that my remaining two were impacted (as they would be after being in there 35 years too long) and may therefore need to be extracted under general anaesthetic. In order for him to accurately assess the potential complexity of such an operation I would have to go for more advanced x-rays first, but in the meantime I should continue to brush often and floss daily. Great … no painful treatment today!
I proudly presented my Australian Medicare card at the reception desk, but was shocked to discover that it doesn't cover dental costs. The bill for my one hour of futile torture was $227, which is about 100 times what it cost to extract my right side wisdom teeth in 1980.
And it's the hottest summer in a decade so I'm going to have to learn to drink cold water without grimacing. But at least I still have half my wisdom teeth. By the way, I forgot to ask, what are the damn things there for? And why on earth are they called wisdom teeth?
Dr Dave Robinson is Professor of Management Studies at Imagine College and Central Queensland University, an entrepreneur, surfer and amateur musician.