I wrote this piece while living in California. As a sidenote, I should add that my own dentist, Mr. Tofukuji, was wonderful.
Have you ever considered how hard it must be to get started in dentistry? Who is going to trust you? How will you get round that vicious “experience cycle” common to all trainees? No job without experience but no way to get experience without working. Except it’s worse in dentistry. Much worse. Short of donning make-up, applying gray hair dye and stooping a little, a new young dentist can’t hide that fresh-faced youthfulness that can strike terror into a person with toothache. One look at the plaque that shows the dentist has been qualified for less than five years, and customers are filing out of the door nursing their jaws while fumbling for their car keys, thinking, “Less than five years, it’s too dangerous, I can’t trust the guy.” “But you’re so young….” means one thing. You don’t know what you’re doing!
No, it must be tough to get started in dentistry. And soul-destroying. How many young dentists have begun their careers by marching in confidently to the waiting room on their first day to find a room full of cowering people? Phrases like “the pain got too bad, so here I am, what can I do? I have to risk it. I gave birth, surely I can take this” waft from the corners of the room as people throw frightened glances towards the eager young dentist. “Mr Wiggins!” announces the new dentist and everyone turns to stare at the fearful man with the swollen jaw. As he gets up slowly from his seat, Mr Wiggins looks around the room and smiles nervously. The assembled company offers pained looks of sympathy. A couple of the women reach out to grasp the small man’s arm as he shuffles towards the door. He appears not to notice their touch but with head bowed, he makes his way towards the Chair Room. Once he has gone, the remaining customers look at each other with blank stares. They are all thinking the same thing: “Will Mr Wiggins ever be able to chew gum, smile, drink cold drinks again or is this the end? Will he have to book an appointment with a reconstructive dental surgeon, be fitted for dentures? What is his future and more to the point, what is our future?”
Some new dentists probably try setting their prices at bargain basement level but surely this cannot save them. “Four fillings and a cleaning for $19.99, that’s got to be good value, honey. No hold on, this is dentistry. Cheap isn’t a good sign. Let’s drive the 300 miles we normally do to Dr Podborski. He’s half blind and has Parkinson’s but hey, he’s been a dentist for 50 years so he must know what he’s doing.”
So how do they do it? Apparently, some of the poorer folks in our world have no choice but to try them out. It’s similar to the hairdressing salons filled with students. The difference is that hair doesn’t contain nerve endings, something greatly in its favor. You may need to wear a hat but that’s nothing compared to spitting out bits when you brush. Who would willingly choose to try out a new dentist, then? I don’t care how poor I get; I’m not sitting in a dentist chair with a twenty something holding a metal fork above me. Never. It will never happen. Ever.
Of course, if everyone were like me, it would be the end of dentists. Eventually, there would be no more dentists in the world. As they began to die off, the older ones would be able to charge more and more until the only people in the world with their own teeth would be rich celebrities. In fact, you would begin to be able to tell how much money a person had simply by looking at their teeth. First, the poor would begin losing their teeth, then the middle classes and finally the rich as the last, hugely rich dentist died amidst desperate cries from the rest of the world. There would be obituaries about the last few dentists who would become the most famous people in the world. The last one would have a customer list consisting of the world’s leaders, the Pope, Bill Gates and Michael Jordan. Dentistry books would be studied in a way that we study historical documents on herbal remedies from the Middle Ages or ancient anesthesiology from the Middle East. We would pick them up and open them tremulously, wondering if we would ever dare to allow someone into this dead profession ever again. But then the older members of society – those who could remember what it was like to sit in The Chair – would snap the books shut. Not a chance. “You don’t know what it’s like,” they’d plead with the younger ones, their voices rising. “They have knives and forks and they don’t know how to use them. They need experience and there’s no way to get it except by sacrificing people and we live in a decent society nowadays. We don’t do that!”
But gradually, toothache would take its toll. The youth, who had nothing to remember, would get hold of the books and they would learn. Late into the night, in basements across the land, they would practice on mannequins. Then they would start practicing on their friends and this would go on for years. Eventually, they would improve and start to build an underground reputation. It would be a secret that no one would admit. We would all know that dentists existed but no one would confess. Catalogues selling dentistry implements including the notorious drill would appear and they would be circulated in secret. As people began to get work done on their teeth, it would soon become clear that dentists existed but we would deny it. We would say things like, “Cleaner teeth? No, not really, I just brush a lot. Fillings? What’s a filling?”
But eventually the truth would come out and so would the dentists and we would begin the cycle again. Once again, dentists would inhabit our world and our teeth would improve until one day that critical balance would shift again. We would again begin to fear the “new dentists”.
I think perhaps that shift has occurred just recently. How many of your friends go to a dentist in their twenties? Just ask around. You may find you can’t find anyone at all and you’ll know it’s just a matter of time before once again … there will be no more dentists in the world at all.
© Richard Collins