The Dental Hospital

Just before I left Auckland all those years ago I went to the dentist. For root canal therapy. It was not someone I had seen before; recommended by a friend . . . what could she have been thinking? I remember his rooms were in the same building  in Parnell as International Art and I thought that was a sign. He was an older man, tall and rangy, with alarming eyebrows, wearing a three piece woollen suit. And stench breath; it wasn’t until he had taken his jacket off, laid me out supine in the narrow chair and opened his mouth that I realised this. That blast of foul air will never quite leave me; a dentist with halitosis has to be the nadir of nadirs but I was too young to protest, to shy to do what I should have done and left. Quite possibly a sadist too – when he had injected me, and was waiting for the anaesthetic to take effect, he produced from somewhere a large book of colour photographs of mouths full of teeth with advanced dental decay and, as he turned the pages before my appalled eyes, told me these images foretold my probable fate. So it proved: his root canal therapy was defective, he left some nerve tissue at the base of said canal and, not long after I arrived in Sydney, the tooth abscessed and began to cause me pain. I went to the Dental Hospital in Chalmers Street; that building, ‘shaped like a tooth’, built into a narrow corner block next to Central Station. The first time I opened my mouth in there the dentist said: Oh! You’re from New Zealand. How did you know? I asked him later. The shoddy dental work, he crisply said. It’s characteristic. Well. They were quite pleased to get me because the operation I was to have, an apicoectomy – surgery during which a tooth’s root tip is removed and the root end cavity filled – is uncommon and, since it is a teaching hospital, they could use me as an example. A lesson. I was foolishly proud of my notoriety, if that’s what it was, at least until I found out what was involved. They were going to slice the gum vertically in two places then peel it back, scrape out the rotted bone of the upper jaw (the infection had gone thus far) then do the rest, as described, above. The day came. I walked. From Golden Grove down Cleveland Street, past the Mail Exchange, across the park. One of those winter days, not unlike today, when the world seems new and also very old. The city buildings excrescences upon the sky we would have done better to leave blue and alone. The theatre was on one of the upper floors. The dentist, a younger man, disconcertingly like an avatar of the older man whose error had led me here. Abrupt, tensile, perhaps nervous. A gaggle of gowned juniors crowded round the chair.  The anaesthetist, a shy Asian, managed to get two needles into my gums but the monstrous third was beyond her powers to insert. Once, twice, she tried and then the impatient dentist wrenched it from her: here, give me that. He jabbed with main force upwards and I . . . fainted. When I came back I did not know who I was. Where I was. A circle of anxious faces, a man in a white coat yelling: Wake up! Wake up, man! He was slapping my face. It’s hard to say what happened next. Like this: I saw, from high above, the far away town where I was born. I saw the mountain, the dissected hill country to the west, the surf-fringed ocean shores. I saw the sea beneath me, rucked with waves. The brown cliffs of Bondi, the red suburban rooves . . . I flew in the window of the room where I (but who was ‘I’?) in the chair lay. And then I joined myself. Somewhat improbably, the dentist (if that’s what he was) proceeded with the operation. Afterwards, as I sat in the waiting room with my upper lip swollen, like an assault victim, he came and told he I’d had a fit and needed an encephalogram. Needed my head read. There’s something wrong with my brain I said solemnly to the friend who met me in the park afterwards. Foolishly proud again perhaps. She snorted – there’s nothing wrong with your brain, she said. However, there could be something wrong with the world . . . all this is so long ago I can’t now remember which tooth it was; but know I still have it. I should be grateful for that I suppose. I am. But I don’t go to the dentist any more, or only in extremis. Must be ten years now. Umina, 2002. The other thing they told me in there is that I have very hard enamel. Prehistoric teeth. I’ll go with that.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Dental Hospital

  1. Linden McCall

    The Murder House…… every school used to have one, eh ?
    Part of our wonderful childhood growing up in New Zealand……
    and I remember the dental nurse with her foot on the pedal, merrily slowly drilling my teeth away……

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