A story from way back about an experience at a dentist
Butchered at the Dentist
On the 5th of July 1948 in Great Britain the National Health service was formed and by the 1960s it was fully functioning and providing the public with a level of care never before seen. It's reputation as the “world's best,” public healthcare service was fast becoming established.
I thought I'd better make that statement before I embark on my tale, or a whole bunch of legal beagles will be queueing at my front door.
I was working for the Co-op, at their main meat processing plant near Northfleet in Kent. Everyday lorries would be queuing outside by the time we arrived there for the start of our shifts at 7:30 am.
As apprentices, the first job, every day was to get all the meat offloaded, and safely stored in the giant fridges, and freezers that lined the cutting room.
Every Monday morning a lorry pulled up packed with about two hundred pigs. They were all dangling upside down, an S hook through their right Achilles tendon securing them to the overhead rails. As they hung there in neat rows, they had what looked like great big grins on their faces. I always imagined that they must have been telling each other jokes on the way over from the slaughterhouse, by the way, they were all smiling at each other, just to pass the time I suppose.
Anyway, the object of the exercise was to get those piggies from the back of the lorry to the fridge as quickly as our little trotters could carry them. The way we did that was like this. The lorry driver would get up amongst the pigs and slide them one at a time along the rail to meet one of us, standing with his back to the open doors at the rear of the lorry. The driver would then swing the pig forward so that it's front trotters landed over your shoulder. Once you'd steadied yourself, ready to take the weight, the driver would unhook the porker from the rail. Then all in one movement you had to let the pig slide across your shoulder until it reached the balancing point. You then clamped your arm around his middle to stop him from falling. You then legged it from the back of the lorry to the fridge. Waiting inside would be another unfortunate, standing there with a box of hooks to secure Mr piggy to his new rail.
I say unfortunate because I hated that job. On the face of it, it seemed like the easy option. That is until you've tried standing in a room that's a dog's breath above freezing point for about an hour and a half. No, I much preferred running backwards and forwards with 150 lbs of pork bouncing up and down on my shoulder, sweating my nuts off, any day.
Anyone that's ever cooked a piece of pork with the rind on will know what I mean. Part of the slaughterhouse process is the removal of all it's hair. In Britain, we like to eat the rind.
“Anyone for crackling,” can be heard in millions of households every Sunday, and no one wants to end up with piggies short and curlies stuck between their teeth, now, do they? The problem is that whatever it is that they do to achieve this, it's never a total success, there's always some stubborn bristly ones left in place.
I got up one morning, and was busily doing my ablutions in the bathroom, when I noticed that the left side of my face was slightly swollen. As there was no pain I did what I always did in circumstances requiring medical attention, I ignored it. I thought that if it didn't hurt that it probably wasn't serious, and would go away on its own when it was good and ready. So I banished it from my mind and went to work.
The next day was the same scenario, get up, get ready, check the expanding carbuncle on the side of my face, ignore it, go to work. This sequence of events continued for a week or two, the facial mound slowly expanding. Suddenly and without warning, one night, I was rudely awoken from my slumber by the most horrendous and unrelenting pain in my jaw. It was one of those pains that have a pulse, pounding away hour after miserable hour. I'd got up about three times during the night to take copious handfuls of paracetamol, but nothing hit the spot. There was the odd hour when it calmed down slightly, but it always returned with renewed viciousness. By the time morning arrived I couldn't tell if the pain was in my jaw, my neck if it was earache, toothache, migraine, or any other pain that you can get in the side of your head. The unrelenting pulse started in my neck and finished on top of my head. It had become so exquisite that it almost felt like it had a life of its own and was possessing me.
I hadn't seen a doctor for years. I was twenty one years old, and the last time I'd been to the quacks was when I was nine. I had run in front of someone on a rope swing that had been suspended from a tree in the woods at the back of our gardens. The log of wood that they were using as a seat clipped me in the ear and perforated my eardrum. But that pain was nothing compared to this.
I made an appointment to see Dr Mitchell. She had been my doctor since we moved to Crayford all those years ago. Although I hadn't seen her for ages, I remembered her well. She scared the shit out of me. She was the most dominant, say it how it is, straight talking kind of woman you could ever have the misfortune to meet. You certainly wouldn't want to run into her down a dark alley on a wet Wednesday. But I had no choice, it was too late to change doctors now.
“Nicholas Hughes to room four, Nicholas Hughes to room four”
I walked from the waiting area, which was full of noisy children, and screaming babies, into the relative quietness of the corridor, with its white painted walls and white doors and smell of antiseptic everywhere. The pulse that was raging in my face was now being matched by one in my chest.
My god if I wasn't in so much bloody pain I would turn round, and get the hell out of here. I thought to myself. But I couldn't, so when I reached the door with the silver number four on it I gave it a pathetic little knock.
“Come,” boomed the voice from the other side of the door. Dr. Mitchell was sitting behind what looked like a very expensive oak desk. She was wearing a dark blue jacket, I couldn't see below the desk, but it was most likely the top half of a suit. She had two rows of quite elegant little pearls dangling from her scrawny neck, and a pair of black round wire rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose. She had short dark curly hair that was slightly greying because she definitely wouldn't see fifty again. She glanced up from what she had been reading, I presumed it was my notes, but it could have been last month's copy of Cosmopolitan for all I knew.
“Nicholas, take a seat, what can I do for you?” Her features reminded me a bit of Margaret Thatcher, her voice was slightly deeper, but just as dominant. I sat down and began my sorry tale.
The moment I told her that my facial carbuncle was over two weeks old, she began a lecture about the stupidity of men who leave things for too long. She said that she could refuse to treat me, but I was no longer listening. I couldn't concentrate on anything except the marching band entombed in my head. She didn't seem to have one iota of sympathy for my plight, but I had all but given up. My head was bowed, and I was staring aimlessly at the floor. Suddenly I felt a hand touch the side of my face. She had got up from behind the desk and while I wasn't looking walked round to me. Her touch wasn't gentle or caring, it was more pressing and probing.
“You've got a severe infection,” she barked, “it feels like it's deep inside your jaw, I'm very concerned about it.”
Shit if she's concerned it must be serious, I thought to myself.
“I'm going to phone Guys and get you an appointment, now will you go?” I nodded my agreement.
She continued, ”I'll give you something for the pain, but you must go to the hospital,” again I nodded.
Now under normal circumstances I would have run a mile at the sight of a needle with a point that was heading in my direction, but this one was different. Like a heroin addict who had gone too long between fixes, I couldn't wait to get that damn needle stuck in my vein and feel the sweet juice of relief pumping through my body. She stuck it in my arm, popped a little plaster on the minute wound and promptly went back behind her desk, leaving me to get dressed.
Once settled she picked up the phone that was perched on the corner of the desk and had a brief conversation, her tone had changed completely, it was obvious that she was talking to the receptionist and was familiar and friendly with her.
“Hi Jill, could you get hold of Mr Khatris at Guys for me please...... lovely thank you,” she said. She placed the receiver down and without looking up or acknowledging my existence she began writing.
A few minutes had passed with her furiously writing a letter while I went back to staring at my shoes, when the phone rang, she stopped writing and picked up the receiver. She began a conversation that wasn't quite so familiar as the last one. It was the Guy's hospital consultant. She was polite but slightly formal, and it was obvious she was talking to a fellow doctor because after the, “hello” part I didn't understand a word of it until the,“thank you and good day,” part.
She neatly folded the letter, put it in an envelope and sealed it with a damp sponge.
Too posh to lick it, I thought.
“Hand this in when you arrive, your appointment is at 1.30pm this afternoon. It's important that you go, do you understand?”
I nodded, took the newly sealed envelope from her outstretched hand, got to my feet, gave a slightly half-hearted “thanks doctor” and left the room. I walked back out through the busy waiting area, past reception and out of the building to the car-park beyond.
The car-park was bounded by a low brick wall, and it was on this that I sat to consider my options. It was here that it suddenly dawned on me that the pain that had been torturing me all night had all but vanished. Beaten by a tiny prick in the arm.
I'd the first appointment at nine o'clock, and it was now barely 9:30a.m. I should have gone to work for a couple of hours, but I wasn't that conscientious and I'd already phoned in sick. So I lit a cigarette and tried to think of something better to do, anything so that I wouldn't have to make that journey. I know people think I must be mad, but I just hated the thought of being touched and I knew that I'd be prodded and poked at the hospital. I'd only gone to see the doctor, driven there by the devil living in my face. It would have been far better if I'd been a bit braver and rejected the injection, but I wasn't, so I folded the letter up, stuck it in my pocket and made my way home.
I'd been home for a couple of hours, I'd eaten breakfast and was busily wasting my day watching tv. Suddenly just like a torch, you flick the switch and there it is a room full with light. Well that was it, one second I'm happily watching the tv, someone pressed the wrong button and the four horsemen of the apocalypse came riding in through my ear, round my cheek, and skidded to an abrupt halt on my jaw, where they dismounted and spread out. That injection didn’t last very long.
I handed over the now slightly dog eared envelope to the woman behind the desk. She took it from me, gave it a cursory glance, swivelled in her chair, and promptly stuck it in one of the pigeonholes that she had her back to. She turned back to face me and to my amazement a section of the little square holes that my letter went in suddenly disappeared up through the ceiling.
" Now that’s clever," I thought.
She gave me a half hearted smile, the compulsory one that they have to do a thousand times a day, and told me to go to the seventh floor waiting room.
I got out of the lift and found Mr Khatris waiting room. I was quite relieved to see that there were only two others before me. I took a seat and waited, bent over my elbows on my knees and my head resting in the palms of my hands, counting the throbbing pulses as they marched through.
“Nicholas Hughes,” the name didn't register at first. I was lost inside myself.
“Nicholas Hughes,” I looked up. An unusually tall Asian man, Indian I think, was gesturing for me to follow him.
“How do you do Mr Hughes, please take a seat.” He had a very cultured Indian accent and was wearing a really expensive charcoal grey suit, with a white shirt and a maroon silk tie. Despite his look of wealth and importance, I immediately felt at ease. He had a friendly affable manner, he was the absolute polar opposite of my doctor.
He had already read Dr Mitchell's letter before I had entered his office because he didn't begin with the usual barrage of questions. He felt the side of my face, I could sense the heat permeating from my burning cheek, radiating into his hand. He then took a quick look in my mouth and then back to my cheek.
“ You've got a little infection there Mr Hughes. There's no sign of any tooth decay or gum disease. I think it's a bacterial infection. Something's got inside there while you weren't looking Mr Hughes,” he said.
I thought, Oh there's me sitting here in agony and he's making jokes.
But it had just dawned on me, It was carrying those bloody pigs. If you didn't put a rag between your face and the side of the porkers belly as it slid from the lorry driver's grip on to your shoulder, occasionally it would scuff the side of your face causing a slight irritation. It was a bit like shaving rash, and this had happened to me a few weeks ago, but I'd made no connection at all. It was something that had happened loads of times and not only to me to everyone.
I told Mr Khatri about carrying the pigs and he agreed.
“Yes,“ he said. “That's more than likely, and if a pork hair had got in there, it most certainly would have caused this level of infection.”
So without any real proof, it was decided that the pigs were guilty. Anyway, it didn't really matter how it had got there, it just mattered that it was gone before my aching jaw was.
I got sent for x-rays, and they took my blood for analysis and an hour or so later I was back sat in front of Mr Khatri the consultant.
“The infection is eating a hole in your jaw. We need to get at it as quickly as possible. I'm suggesting that if we remove the tooth above the site, we'll be able to drain off the fluid. Then we'll be able to clean it out and put you on a course of antibiotics. You should be fine”
Wow! I wasn't expecting that. I hated the dentist more than the doctors, but it had to be sorted.
I'd never seen a dentistry department like it. Guys is a teaching hospital and so every doctor that you visited was accompanied by a gaggle of fresh-faced medico's, eager to learn. The dentistry department was set up just for that. Instead of entering a room with a single chair, there was a whole row of them, it was like a dentists production line. Six patients at a time were seated, and the dentist inspected the mouth, decided on a course of action and then moved on to the next leaving one of the students to carry out the work.
When it was my turn the dentist called all the students over, they surrounded my chair while the dentist explained to them what was going to happen. I supposed that it wouldn't be too often in their careers when they would be called upon to pull out a perfectly healthy tooth, but only one of them could win the jackpot.
It was just my luck that the job of pulling out a really well rooted tooth from its point of anchorage was a little Chinese girl. She could have only weighed about four and a half stone, and she looked like she was yet to celebrate her twelfth birthday. She actually looked more nervous than me, and that was saying something because I was kacking my pants. Anyway I thought that she must know what she's doing.
I'll just lay back here and bear it, it'll be all over soon enough, I thought.
She prepared the injection and quite nervously stuck it in my gum, instantly all the feeling disappeared from my face as the Novocaine took hold. It was actually quite nice because it gave me relief from my demon pain. But it soon became evident to me that she had overdone it a tad. I could no longer feel my head at all, and my left shoulder was numb, but I allowed her to carry on.
Now I was fully desensitized she set to work. Clearly I couldn't see what the poor girl was up to, but I felt a strange crunching sensation. I couldn't exactly feel it, it was more like I could hear it inside my head. She had attached an instrument to the tooth and was having an almighty battle with it, but the tooth was winning. All of a sudden I heard a little pop, and she stopped. I didn't know it at the time, but the little pop was the sound of the pus from inside my cheek bursting through my skin and running down my chin. She had applied too much pressure.
They may as well have drained the poison from the side of my face in the first place. I think the idea was that going the tooth route meant that I wouldn't be left with a scar. Now I had half a tooth and a hole in the side of my face instead.
My diminutive Chinese butcher sheepishly said that she couldn't do it, and scurried off to get the real dentist. When she returned he was with her, and he set to work on the tooth, straight away. He finished removing the broken bits, stuffed the hole with cotton wool, wiped the muck from my face, let me rinse out my mouth, stuck a plaster on the side of my face and let me get up out of the chair. It was as if he couldn't get me out of there quick enough. He handed me the prescription for the antibiotics that the consultant had prescribed earlier. He then handed me a leaflet on taking care after an extraction and said that I was free to go.
Two minutes later I was stood on the pavement outside the hospital in the middle of London, it was a dark November evening, and I was totally disorientated. I still had no feeling in my head, and shoulder, and I couldn't think for the life of me where the station was. So for the second time that day I found a wall to perch on, and attempted to light a cigarette, but it was impossible to smoke. I couldn't tell if I was putting it in my mouth, my ear, or my eye for that matter.
Eventually, I managed somehow to get my faculties together. I found the station and got myself on to a train and home. The trauma of the day and the previous night's lack of sleep had left me totally exhausted. I fell into bed and slept like a baby.
The next morning when I awoke I couldn't quite tell if the events of the previous day had been an awful nightmare and that I had dreamt it all. But I quickly came to my senses when my tongue, which had completely regained its feeling, ran across the big wad of cotton wool wedged in the hole that this time yesterday was a nice healthy molar.
I hopped out of bed and went into the bathroom to inspect the damage. Once in front of the mirror I peeled the plaster off and attempted to pull the blood soaked cotton wool from my mouth, but oddly it wouldn't come. Now, obviously if I'd yanked at it, it would have come out easily, but my mouth was sore and I was being really careful with it, gingerly giving gentle little tugs. As I was doing this, I noticed that each time I pulled on the cotton wool, there was a tiny piece of flesh on the wound on the outside of my face that moved in time to my tugs. So I pinched it between my thumb and forefinger and pulled on the other end. To my horror I realised what was going on. What I had between my thumb and finger wasn't me, it was the other end of the blood soaked cotton wool. It had worked its way from my gum through my jaw and out of the side of my face.
My god they've mutilated me. I thought.
I managed to get all the wadding out of my mouth and soaked some clean cotton wool in TCP and re-plugged the hole. I stuck a clean plaster on my face and got back into bed and slept for the rest of the day.
Before that day, even though I intensely disliked going to the dentist, I did make the effort and go for check-ups every six months. I haven't been once in the last thirty years and I've no intention of going either. I've been really lucky with my teeth all things considered, and I've not had a single filling in all that time.
It did heal up eventually. I was left with a dimple shaped scar on the side of my face and a real phobia of dentists, especially little Chinese ones.