We need them. They are heroic. They should each be awarded a medal for gallantry, in the sense of noble, to hang beside their framed certificate of qualification for poking around and excavating in people’s mouths all of their working lives.

Is there a more feared profession than that of dentist? I know a woman who attends her dentist only when absolutely necessary. Between making her appointment and keeping it she is in quite a state. By the time she arrives in the waiting-room she is in a high state of anxiety, or even fear, and she is no longer into the surgery than she is likely to faint; fall over, flat out. Needless to say her dentist and his nurse are prepared for this and are ready catch her. She will almost certainly faint in the chair.

This may be an extreme case, but a significant proportion of the population fear the dentist. I can only surmise that this is because they’re not too keen on pain. It may be that they have an irrational fear of needles or it may be both.

To hear some dentiphobes talking you would think that, as a breed, dentists are sadistic, evil people who revel in causing pain and distress.  Of course they are not. They are like any other group of people doing the same job; amongst them there are warm kindly ones, pleasant ones, all-right ones, unpleasant ones and shysters.

I suspect that how adults feel about having their teeth seen to is largely determined by their experiences of the dentist in childhood. However, since causes are frequently multi-factorial it is probable that pain thresholds, quality of teeth, to which of the above categories their dentist belongs and other things are also factors.

My own early childhood experience of the family dentist was good. He was a genial man who did his best to put me at my ease while he chatted to my mother about the news, gossip and scandal of the town. The only other local dentist at the time had a contrary reputation, but of him I had no first-hand experience. The treat for being good at the dentist was a bag of marshmallows which I had to share with my sister when I arrived home. This I considered entirely unjust.

By the time I had returned on a visit to the town of my birth as an early teenager there was a third dentist in practice. In the early 1950s he had been a member of the IRA and when he was eventually freed from internment in the Curragh a band and large crowd of supporters went out the road to meet him and welcome him home. With a raging tooth ache I was unable to make an appointment with either of the two older practitioners and had to settle for the liberated terrorist.  He was pleasant enough but a bit rough. He extracted the tooth. I might still be in possession of that tooth if he had made an effort to save it. In those days some dentists took out teeth that if they were to take them out today they would probably be guilty of, at best, malpractice and, at worst, criminal assault.
During my life to date I have lived at ten different addresses around Ireland, which means I have had, as an adult, a variety of dentists of varying personality and professional competence. I am fortunate that I have good teeth that give me little trouble. Hilary my wife is the opposite; she has soft teeth that cause her endless problems. In my early thirties, not having been to a dentist for seven years Hilary convinced me that I ought to have a check-up. I did, but there was nothing to be done but have my teeth cleaned. That particular dentist was more interested in rugby than dentistry. I have no fear of dentists; I seldom need an injection to have a filling and on one occasion I even dozed off in a dentist’s chair.

I brought our two children aged about ten and twelve to another dentist who despite not having to do anything but clean their teeth, gave each of them a whiff of gas without consulting me. Having discovered this at home I phoned him to register my protest. He trivialised the matter and told me that a letter I threatened to write to the dentists’ professional body would arrive with him anyway as he was currently president of that body! He fell into the last category of dentists mentioned above!

I have no hesitation in saying that my present dentist, and almost certainly he will be my last, is without doubt the best one I have ever had. He is kindly, good humoured, explains everything clearly and above all he is highly professional. He even gave our adult daughter, who has teeth like blotting paper, his home number to use in case of an out-of-hours emergency; an egregious act of supererogation. So far she hasn’t needed to use it.

I have one question for dentists. How in the name of goodness, if you rinse out your mouth after cleaning your teeth can toothpaste adhere to your teeth to protect them from heat and cold? Perhaps the manufacturers include glue in the mix! However, who am I, a defunct cleric, to question the denizens of the world of dentistry?

There’s only one thing worse than a tricky dentist and that’s a tricky dentist’s receptionist. With one dentist I would phone and ask for an appointment with Mr. Nameless. In a supercilious tone his receptionist would immediately say something like: ‘Dr. Nameless is booked up until October 2047. Please hold the line.’ She would then come back and say: ‘Dr Nameless has a cancellation on Friday.’

The moral of the story is: guard carefully your teeth. That’s why boxers and rugby players wear gumshields. Bear in mind too that they are the second most private part of you.

I now return to my first dentist, Dentist Doyle, who would have been highly amused to be called ‘Doctor’. At the age of 90 he filled his last cavity. According to the photograph, he’s still at it!

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