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In Fright of the Drill – ‘It was too late, the cavities were there’

This article was posted on Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Dentists may occupy one of the highest paid professions in the community, but to the average person in the street, I am pretty sure they are still looked upon as the ‘fang snatcher’ – a person with the ability to inflict unforgettable pain at will!
Then, after reducing the helpless patient to a frightened and crumpled mess, they’ll explain with a toothy smile, that the ordeal was necessary – a piercingly painful penalty for not brushing your teeth.
Of course, my pain threshold is somewhere around my ankles when it comes to the dentist. I can withstand a fair amount of pain like any man should. Broken noses, bruises, cuts and the like, but the intensely focused shrill that ricochets off the inside of one’s skull and rebounds into the extremities, reduces me to ‘Mr. Puniverse’ if a nerve is touched.
During a lifetime of visiting these white-coated gentlemen, many things have changed… but the same old pain occurs when they tweak a nerve!
My first visit to the dentist was as a small boy in Hobart. Ether was used to put me to sleep – I can still feel my head beginning to blow up like a football bladder and the glare of the lights above the antique barber’s chair spinning around frantically like a Ferris wheel at night!
A couple of years later, chloroform was used instead of ether… this was much better, but when the bad teeth had been extracted, the clotted blood and the gaping flesh were a constant source of attention for my probing tongue! Magnificent craters.
In those days the chairs had arms, but not any more. During a recent visit to the dentist, I discovered the hard way that they were missing – maybe he got sick of paying for repairs to the regularly dismembered chair!
I was distracted by my dentist’s poster on the ceiling, strategically placed directly above the head-rest on the reclining chair – something different to occupy my mind this visit!
As usual the large protective bib was placed around my neck as I tensely groped for somewhere comfortable to support my awkward arms, I opted for the folded arms and clenched fist position and braced myself ready for the systematic ‘scraping of the teeth’ ritual that precedes all drilling.

Dentists tell you not to clean or pick your teeth with sharp metal objects. So what do they do? Probe every crack and crevice with a miniature stainless-steel spike.
How do they know where the cavity is? They judge by the height their patient jumps off his chair as the exposed nerve is prodded. Sometimes that exploration into the plaque is more hurtful than the drilling and filling.
At this stage the nurse in uniform appears and some friendly three-way chatter occurs… maybe an X-ray is necessary?
Then comes the CRUNCH… how many fillings, and where?
In my case it was two – perhaps I’d been drinking too much Coca Cola. Anyway it was too late, the cavities were there.

My worst fears came true when he suggested a needle! I tried to shut my eyes before he produced the painkilling injection… but I failed!
There it was, a dirty big syringe with thumb cocked on the plunger ready to squirt its contents deep into my jaw bone – the fine metal needle on the end looked about 75mm long and even a bit blunt! My anxiety level trebled as the plastic cylinder hovered above my head like a sputnik in space.
“It might hurt a bit… and it might make your eyes water,” the dentist suggested.
He should have said, “It’s definitely going to hurt and it’ll certainly make your eyes water!”

Into the flesh went the needle – first to the left of my two upper front teeth, then direct hits above each of those, and finally a fourth jab to the upper jaw.
I could have sworn the second plunge of pain-killer was buried deep enough to touch my sinuses… simultaneously a pair of huge elephant sized tears rolled off the assembly line in each tear duct.

Slowly my upper lip, plus my moustache, appeared to float right off my face… yes, the painkiller was definitely working.
I know it’s easier if you’re relaxed, but somehow my whole body seemed tensed up and my tightly clenched fists had ‘white knuckle fever’.
Now for the drilling! Ready, aim… contact! I search for the expected pain but none is forthcoming. Maybe, just maybe, it won’t hurt.

What feels like huge boulders of broken tooth, drop into the saliva that has been secreted into the region beneath my tongue… then the watchful nurse puts her stainless steel-tipped sucker hose to work. Like an underwater vacuum cleaner, the by-products of drilling soon disappear into the hose.
Once the decay has been removed only a gaping hole remains!
“Rinse!” says the dentist.

I nervously pick up the glass of pale pink liquid and attempt to swirl it around inside my mouth without spilling a drop, but as we all know, that’s almost impossible when you haven’t got an upper lip. Like a baby, dribble runs rapidly and embarrassingly from each corner of my mouth.
Next task is to spit the remaining rinse into what looks like a miniature bidet – the smell reminds me of formalin and the city morgue!
Back to the reclining position… the nurse is mixing the filler paste somewhere away from my eye line… the dentist rams the first wad of filler hard into the man-made cavity.

Next, a plastic wedge to hold it in place. My mouth cannot possibly open wider without tearing at the edges!
Then when least expected, my dentist asks my opinion about an architectural problem of his… it really is very difficult to speak in depth on any subject when somebody else has filled your mouth with about eight fingers and various other items of dental equipment. I grunt but the questions keep on flowing through the cotton mask covering his mouth.

More pushing, more probing, an extra finger, two more plastic dividing strips and another mix of filler, yet, still no pain… I can’t believe it!

My fear of dentists can be pinpointed to a ‘bad experience’ during my early teens in Tasmania.
It wasn’t until I came to Victoria to play VFL football with Melbourne that I regained some confidence in these ‘madmen with drills’. I’m still not super confident about them even though mine’s a good bloke. Dr Barnes.
I had no alternative. I needed a mouth-guard to protect my teeth while playing football. Only a dentist could supply one personally fitted!

Have you ever tried to keep your mouth shut for five minutes while completely full of a sloppy mix of plaster of Paris? The other problem is to try not to swallow any. The taste is terrible and time passes so slowly.
I don’t know why I worried about getting the mouth-guard, because with one as large as mine the first item on my face that was going to get into trouble was the nose (five times broken)… and I must admit I’m not getting any better looking!
Anyway… drilling is almost completed in the dentist’s chair. My lip feels fatter than ever and the time is 11.30am – will there be any feeling there by 6pm? That day I was to read the sports news on Channel 9…

The plastic separating strips are painlessly removed from between my teeth and a file or similar tool is used to shape the filling flush with the original tooth surface.
The water drill has worked, unlike the painful machines of old.
Gee, it must have been bad in the early days of colonisation, when decaying teeth were wrenched from terrified patients with a pair of pliers – sometimes a knee to the throat helped the dentist get more leverage on his patient’s jaw!
I believe the first drills were pedal-powered and they provided an awful ‘slow grind’ and the constant smell of burning teeth.
So much for the past!
The only ordeal remaining for me was a high powered polish!
Still no pain… I can’t believe it… a quick rinse into the miniature water closet, and I’ll be okay. Sure, there was some blood but I could handle the blood. You little beauty, It’s almost over!

Another dribbling session on to my bib, and I’ll be away… I sat up and stretched my arms which had been locked tightly around my ribs for the previous hour.
In six months time there will be another check-up, but this time I won’t be so frightened!
Thanks, Doc!