When I read the headline in the Age Fake dentist operating in Melbourne’s northern suburbs I at first wondered why anyone would want to be a dentist so bad that they would just do it without any schooling. As I read further it was about Mr Velipasaoglu who was trained as a dentist in Turkey but was not qualified to practice in Australia. So I wondered what makes a person a qualified dentist; and where do dentists come from.
Throughout the fifties and sixties, dental hygiene and management weren’t really practised in Australia; it certainly wasn’t in my family and the catchphrase about teeth was if they start hurting get them taken out. But I think there was a degree of hurt that would concede a visit to the dentist was in order and curative work could be considered.
I thought back to what I remember about my early dentist experience. I don’t remember his name but my mother kept repeating that he was a relative of ours; some distant cousin, or something as obscure and that he wouldn’t hurt us. We rode our bikes everywhere in Williamstown, even to the dentist; 72 Electra Street Williamstown. The building was a non-descript double-fronted cream brick veneer structure, the second building down from the corner of Douglas Parade and Ferguson Streets.
There was a waiting room to the right as you went in and the surgery was on the left. I vaguely remember waiting in the waiting room wondering what the strange odours were. I didn’t smell chloroform or ether again until I was studying chemistry at Footscray Institute of Technology. I know my mother would never tell us an untruth, but it did hurt. Sitting back in the chair you knew when the drill would stop spinning because you would watch the chains and pulleys slow down as the drill was pushed into the tooth. And that’s when you had the different levels of pain, and there was also no escaping that burning smell. How I dreaded each visit but I did have more fillings. I think that this dentist relative of ours wore rimless glasses.
When I was old enough to no longer listen to my mother I never really went back to the dentist again. Fillings fell out and new cavities appeared, and I ate a lot of soft foods. Whenever we journey back to Australia the meat pie and sausage roll are the first on my list of must-eats. Some habits just die hard.
They say that America is the land of opportunity. So I decided I was going to save my teeth and give them a new life. And I would eat hard foods that needed severe chomping: the chewing of sound and fury. I braved bone implants, bridges, caps and root canals, fillings and extractions to reach crunch domination. Three dentists a periodontist and an endodontist have been part of the save the teeth team. I remember my first visit to the first of the three dentists. I don’t think he looked in my mouth; the hygienist pushed a probe between the gum and the roots of my teeth and she repeated numbers as she wrote them on a chart. Two four, four eight, eight eight, sixteen two and so on. She then cleaned my teeth. When the dentist came into the room the hygienist shared the chart she had written the numbers on and all I overheard from their hushed conversation was; bicuspid, bite and bifurcation. We made two follow up appointments: to extract a front tooth and prepare a bridge and then to struggle with three fillings.
Save the teeth was set in motion.
I think the dental office was in a building on South 17th street but has since been demolished to make way for the Omaha skyline landmark First National Bank of Omaha Corporate office. But all I could see, my body tense and rigid and my hands clenching and gripping that arms of the chair, as I lay facing the window, was a huge ceramic pot containing a lonely amaryllis bulb. I was referred to the periodontist by my first Omaha dentist, Dr Steve Wachter: it was soon after when he saw his last gum tree.
On my first visit to the periodontist, the hygienist pushed a probe between the gum and the roots of my teeth and she repeated numbers as she wrote them on a chart. Two four, four eight, eight eight, sixteen two and so on. Dr Swain was committed to saving my teeth; he peeled my gums back to expose the jaw bone for bone grafts and then stitched the gums back in place with the sewing dexterity that I thought only my mum could ever have. Swain deadened my jaw and most of my face with abundant amounts of lidocaine, articaine, and epinephrine but I was still tense, rigid and skittish. I would spend several hours in the dental chair on each visit and it was during my second visit that I thought about the heavy use of the numbers that were factors of two: two four, four eight, eight eight, sixteen two. And all the dental words that had the prefix bi. Maybe it was the lidocaine but my mind went back to form 5AB at Williamstown Technical School.
We were two years past Mr Stonehouse’s class but John Colville and Robert Ballard and a lot of the form 3AB boys were still classmates. We were introduced to the concept of the new Math; Venn diagrams, intersection and union of sets, matrices, and numbering systems that were not base ten. It was the time of Sputnik and the Explorer satellites and we were told that computers were going to engineer the future of humankind and they used binary, octal or hexadecimal numbering systems. We mastered the subtleties of only using ones and zeros to express numbers and became masters of the binary number system; a numbering system that uses the base two.
I never put it all together before now. I started to look forward to my doses of lidocaine, articaine, and epinephrine because it unloaded my mind of daily occurrences and allowed me to focus on the fact that dentists and periodontists communicate mostly with a binary number system and in a language that contains a lot of bites. It was like a computer talking to a computer; they were humanoids. I mused over my epiphany every Swain visit; he had done all he could with bone grafts and scaling of the jaw bone and I was getting comfortable in his presence and was preparing to confront him about my humanoid theory when just like Wachter, he saw his last gum tree.
So I’m now back with the dentist I should have always been with: even though he has had to extract a couple of teeth he has also capped and filled others. He is a loyal save the teeth team member. Whenever he adjusts the chair so I’m in an upward prone position I turn away from the blinding white light and just whisper knowingly: convergent evolution humanoids. As soon as the instruments are put in my mouth I say things like; did you use a laser blade to shave this morning, or isn’t it around your lunchtime, are you going out for a byte. And when I leave the dental office; there is so much roadwork on Dodge Street I’m going to have to take the R2 detour home.
The drive to my dentists’ office takes me down two of Omaha’s major streets. Depending on my route I can pass; casual fast-food drive-throughs, coffee shop drive-throughs, pharmacy drive-throughs, furniture pick up drive-through, a bank drive-through, a library book return drive-through, a job fair drive-through and a pizza drive-through. Maybe they should have a dentist drive-through.