The Dentist & Pliers

My first cell phone was an Ericsson 1018. I got it as a gift from a friend in September 2000. It did the two things that a basic phone should do – receive/make calls and send/receive texts. That was all. No bling, no madoidos. It was a heavy hardy piece that could easily double up as a weapon.  In the 20 short years, 2G phones evolved into the smartphones of today, making my Ericsson 1018 the cellphone equivalent of the Neanderthal man.

It is not just the cell phones. Nearly every technological field has changed by leaps and bounds in the last 20 years. Except one. Tooth extraction.

My first ever visit to a dentist is etched in my memory. I had watched as a mini crater developed in one of my premolars. I could not get it fixed soon enough because I did not have health or dental insurance. Cost of fixing a cavity was prohibitive. Government health clinics, which were affordable, rarely had residential dentists. Private dental practices is where the money was and nearly all dentists had private practices. My choice was between having a cavity in the tooth and having one in the wallet.

If you ever had a real cavity, you know that that night will eventually come when all hell breaks loose. That is the one thing that a decaying tooth has in common with a night runner: they both become active after nightfall. It is a mystery. Way up there with other unsolved mysteries – such as why people walk clumsily, while scratching random parts of their body, immediately after getting out of bed in the morning.

How is it that you can eat dry roasted maize, and chew sugarcane purchased from a hawker on Ngong Road, all day long, no problem, but as soon as night runners are up and about, that is when the toothache happens?

One hour with a toothache is long. A night is like eternity. Not willing to endure another torturous night, I made an appointment to go to the KNH Dental School. I arrived at the clinic with one goal in mind: to leave with my ailing tooth in my hand. I took X-rays, waited in a long, slow moving line. When I was finally in the dentist’s office, I perched up on the dental seat and waited as the dentist looked at the X-rays. The tooth, he said, was far too gone and had to be extracted. Good.  At least we were on the same page on that one.

After the local anesthesia, I was utterly surprised – shocked actually- to see the man reaching out for what looked like a pair of pliers, not unlike those used to tighten nuts and bolts in a workshop! Up to that moment, I had imagined that tooth extraction entailed some fancy 21st century technology.

Pliers?? I bet they have a better sounding name for the instrument, but its basically a pair of pliers!

This person was short and petite, probably no more than 5ft, but he was strong! He got hold of the tooth and started yanking away at it. I was totally unprepared for just how much brute force is involved in tooth extraction, and was starting to fear that I would have a piece of my jaw in my hand, in addition to the diseased tooth.

Somewhere in the room, a phone rang. Once, twice, three times. Surely someone else should be at hand to answer it? And someone did answer, the dentist himself! He left me on the seat, cheek retractor still in place, my mouth agape, and went to answer the phone. It was not a wrong number. It sounded like a call from a friend and they had a few things to catch up on. I propped myself a little, and looked on the mirror mounted on a wall across from me. Aside from looking utterly ridiculous with a drooped face and my lips held back with those cheek retractors, the gum around the ailing tooth looked like it had been blown away in a mini explosion. This was an excavation, not extraction!

The dentist eventually hang up, came back and yanked the stubborn tooth some more. It came off, miraculously, minus my jaw. He gave the tooth back to me, wrapped in some cotton wool. It did not find its way to the incinerator or a fancy research lab.

Twenty years passed by, and I visited a dentist for a regular check-up. Thanks to my employer, I had obviously come a long way from days of no medical or dental insurance. On this particular visit, the dentist somehow convinced me that I did not need my wisdom teeth. That the wisdom teeth would eventually affect other teeth and cause misalignment, and they ought to be removed. I believed him. So here I was, with a drooping face from the local anesthesia, awaiting removal of an otherwise healthy pair of molars.

They had TV monitor mounted above the dental units. You can catch up with news, enjoy Oprah on OWN, or the Teletubbies while they altered your dental formula. The dental unit itself was sophisticated, with an array of equipment and instruments attached to it, including a swinging arm that takes instant digital x-rays. It was a few light years ahead of the dental unit at KNH Dental School. They even had a blanket to keep me warm and cozy, during the procedure. That is the kind of stuff dental insurance coverage include – warm fuzzy blankets and TV.

I watched in utter disbelieve as the dentist reached out for what looked like a pair of pliers! Pliers!

You would think that in the twenty years since my last extraction, technology would have evolved and they would simply zap the tooth using some laser zap-O-tomatic or something! In the twenty years, Amazon had made it possible to carry a whole library in the purse via the Kindle; TVs and computer monitors had lost their butts, touch screen technology had replaced buttons, flip phones had vanished and replaced with touchscreen smartphones… Even folks with emails had found their way to!

But here was my dentist, towering over me with a pair of pliers! Just like that guy 20 years prior. What do they call this, Tooth Extraction 2.0? It is barely a step above my grandmother’s preferred method of tying a tooth to the doorknob, aka, Tooth Extraction 1.0!

I played dead and went through with it. They never offered the molars to me and I did not ask for them. I hope someone is conducting great research with my molars.

P.S. Here is another mystery, totally unrelated to teeth: why hair salons can never get the water temperature right when they shampoo your hair – it is always either too hot or too cold!

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