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Cookin’ with gas

March 25, 2011

When thinking about The Good Old Days, everyone my age remembers one thing that wasn't the least bit good. In fact, it was horrible. It was the dentistry.

Today a visit to the dentist is a joy, a delight, a foray into a pleasure dome. The dentists are the very picture of kindness and enlightenment. Their concern is heartwarming, their techniques flawless, their equipment state-of-the-art.

This is the polar opposite of the dentistry, and dentists, of my youth.

Compared to today, dentistry of 50 years ago was primitive, if not barbaric. The belt-driven drills were hotter than the hinges of hell.

As for technique? I assume dentistry, like medicine, has made astronomical strides over the years, in which case the dentistry of my youth was in its Dark Ages.

And as for the dentists themselves? The only thing they have in common with their predecessors is the name.

The Old Time Dentists were a varied lot. Some were excellent in both technique and manner. Others had fine technique but lousy manner. And still others were legendarily incompetent and miserable SOBs besides.

One thing almost all the OTDs seemed to have was total insensitivity to pain - the patient's pain, that is. So I'd be in the chair, twitching, sweating, gagging, my jaws aflame, my synapses firing on full automatic, my nostrils filling with huge plumes of scorched enamel and dentin.

Meanwhile, the old molar mauler was drilling his black heart out, whistling the wedding theme from "Figaro" and thinking only of 5 o'clock, when he could knock back a double or three at the Elks Club.


The rise of the NADs

In the late 1960s, this started to change with new techniques, equipment and attitudes. This gave rise to the New Age Dentist.

The NAD's technique was flawless, his equipment space-age, his attitude one of consummate care and concern. As opposed to the OTDs, the NADs did everything in their power not only to make the patients' experience painless but even to make it pleasurable.

In 1973 I had my first NAD experience. It was due to my last OTD experience. (Thank God!)

Briefly, the OTD screwed up a perfectly healthy molar, killing the nerve. At that point he generously offered to pull the tooth. I graciously declined, and I sought out a dentist who'd graduated sometime in the 20th century. Thus I met my first NAD.

His name's Eric Dumond, and when I ran across him he was in practice by himself. He was also the best dentist I'd ever been to, and he may still be. But I didn't know any of that at the time. I only knew my head was going to explode from pain. I was hurting so bad when I got to Eric's office that if he'd offered me either a quick decapitation or a first-class ticket on Dr. Kevorkian's One Way Express, I might've taken him up on it. As it was, he offered me a root canal instead.

The idea of a root canal filled me with dread. I didn't know what exactly a root canal was, but everyone always referred to it as something that seemed a perfect accessory for an auto-da-fe. Luckily, it turned out the exact opposite.

All my other dentists had administered Novocain, and Eric did as well. But he offered something else, namely J.B. Priestley's greatest contribution to humankind - nitrous oxide.

Novocain works as a block. That is, it's injected between the tooth and the brain, theoretically stopping any pain impulse from getting to the brain. With all my previous experience, some pain still managed to get through - sometimes a whole lot of it.

Nitrous isn't a block. It works its magic on the brain itself. So the impulses go to your brain, but they get somehow scrambled so they register as something but not pain.

And not only did the impulses get scrambled, but I did, too.

He put some sort of cover over my nose through which the nitrous passed, and at first I didn't notice anything. Then I began to realize something about the Muzak in the background - it wasn't coming across as music. Instead it was a weird, repetitive "whaaaa-uh-whaaa-uh-whaaa "

After that, there were all sorts of sensory distortions and dislocations. My scalp tingled, my toes went numb. My thoughts became visual - I followed a bunch of them into what felt, and looked, like a deep tunnel.

I could see everything around me clearly if I wanted, but for some reason I didn't want to. Instead, I looked here or there, or everywhere or sometimes even nowhere. Believe me, at that point Alice had nothing on Old Dopey Boy.


In the looking glass

While the whole experience pretty much ran together, it had one clear and focused highlight.

Somewhere in the middle of it all, Eric wanted me to see in a mirror what was going in with my tooth. His mirror was a huge old hand mirror with a plastic handle. It was about as big as a racquetball paddle and weighed about as much as a roofing hammer.

"Here, Bob," he said, "take this," and he slipped me the mirror.

The only trouble was he didn't tell me explicitly what I was supposed to do with it. Left to my own very shredded senses, I suddenly saw myself as something in a TV medical drama. Eric, his hygienist and I, we were the O.R. team.

And while I may've known it was a mirror when he gave it to me, now, in the middle of my medical fantasy, it'd become some vital instrument I was to pass to the hygienist, who was standing slightly behind me.

Like the medical professional I was, I responded immediately, snapping the mirror to her. Or at least I tried to. The problem was the instrument tray: It was in the way, perched over my chest, so when I swung the mirror up I nailed the instrument tray, sending it and all the instruments clanging and clattering all over the walls and floor.

"Ah, you can give that to me now," said Eric soothingly, at the same taking the mirror in a gentle but firm grip.

"Huh?" I said, not quite sure what just happened.

"OK," said Eric, holding the mirror before me. "Now take a look."

I did, but not knowing what to look at, I ended up staring at that purple birthmark on my left cheek.

"Damn," I said. "It's shaped like Vermont or maybe New Hampshire."

For obvious reasons, neither said anything, but just kept on with the procedure, which was executed flawlessly.

Eric did a brilliant job as my dentist till he left town a bunch of years later.

Since then, Drs. Neil and Small have ministered to my dental needs. Though they don't use nitrous, they're every bit as good as Eric.

So, truth be told, as much as I liked Eric, I don't really miss him.

But I sure do miss his nitrous.



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