The Root Of All Evil

Added on 03 February 2009

Douglas Lindsay is currently working on this year's comedy crime blockbusting sensation, The Final Cut. The following first appeared in his Letter From Belgrade on 28th November 2003:

The words "There's no need to be afraid" have their place. That place would be, say, when your child is worrying about monsters under the bed, or when the child is trying to tell the parent that Montenegro Air is as safe an air carrier as any of the multinationals. However, when you've just sat down in a dentist's chair for the start of a two and a half hour appointment, you do not want to hear the words "There's no need to be afraid." If there's anything likely to induce fear at this point, it's the dentist telling you that you don't need to have any. That is what the dentist said to me on Monday, and suddenly the decision not to have gin & tonic for breakfast that morning seemed foolish. To go back to the beginning, however...

The word 'root' of itself, is not a bad word. We all have roots; family roots, roots to towns and countries; there are plenty of tasty vegetables where you eat the root; root beer is a popular drink amongst that mob across the water. Canal is another perfectly acceptable word. There's not one of us has not at some time, sat at a table beside a canal, sun beating down from clear blue skies, pint of cider in one hand, bag of dry roasted nuts in the other, long boats puttering serenely past, the sounds of summer mixing with the distant hum of an overhead jet inching across the sky. Root; perfectly acceptable word. Canal; positively delicious word. But put the two of them together...

Firstly, for those of you out there who've never had the exquisite pleasure of a root canal, a quick run through the process. The tooth is drilled so that an opening is made to its innards. Then the diseased pulp is removed - this is called a pulpectomy. (It would be nice if I'd just made that up, but someone has already done that for me.) Then the pulp chamber and root canals are cleaned and enlarged, then filled with a tapered, rubbery material called gutta-percha, and sealed into place with cement. Sometimes a rod is fixed into the canal for structural support. At the end, a crown is usually placed over the tooth to restore your smile to its natural fabulousness.

Okay, sounds simple enough. Here's the thing. Notice the innocent sounding words, 'the pulp chamber and root canals are cleaned'. If this was done with a quick swoosh of water, like getting your ears syringed, it'd be fine. Or maybe a very, very fine toothbrush; that would also be all right. How about if they physically removed your tooth from the gum, stuck it into some hot soapy water, then re-inserted it back into your mouth. But it's none of the above. They do it with a series of long needles. Needles! I mean, seriously, they stick needles up into your flipping gums. What are they thinking? It's the third flipping millennium, surely there must be more advanced ways to clean your canals out than sticking needles into your gob. It's outrageous.

The first time I had it done was as a teenager in Scotland. I don't remember it happening, I only know about it because later dentists told me there was no root there, so someone must have cleaned it out. I'm pretty sure I would have remembered the needles, so the guy in Glasgow had obviously not even caught up with needle technology. I think he used a spoon, several items from his Black & Decker tool kit, and enough anaesthetic to down a mountain lion.

I next had it done by a Lebanese dentist in West Africa. Now, you kind of go to the dentist in West Africa with a little trepidation. Generally, compared to life in Africa, we're pretty namby pamby in the west. However, entering the guy's surgery felt like walking onto the set of Star Trek. This bloke had equipment, machines, gadgets, utensils, apparatus, paraphernalia and really neat looking stuff that you didn't even get in dentist's catalogues in the UK. I settled down, reasonably content with my lot, not realising the full horror of what awaited me.

He didn't speak much English and, after a brief introduction and a swift recce of the infected area, he proceeded to give me a root canal, by the previously noted, commonly used, 20th century method. He stuck needles into me. Lots of them. Long, sharp needles, which he brutally thrust repeatedly upwards in a vicious manner. This was a man who took to his task with gigantic enthusiasm. If Tom Cruise had given someone a root canal in Top Gun, he would've done it like this bloke. Furthermore, and this was fairly crucial to the event, the bastard - for no other word genuinely describes him - didn't offer me anaesthetic beforehand. It hurt. It was the whole Dustin Hoffman, Marathon Man experience. Lots of pain, lots of screaming. He kept speaking to me in some strange foreign tongue; well, probably Lebanese to be fair. 'Shut up and take it, son, you're in Africa now,' he might've been saying, but who knows? I lived, I overdosed on Nurofen You're Dentist Is A Bastard, I moved on, I finally got a crown fitted above the wasted tooth a couple of years later by a useless dentist in England, who I would now sue if I could remember his name.

So, our tale of endodontics comes to the present day. Still suffering pain, as I have done intermittently since my Lebanese/West African experience, I trundled along to a wee woman this week, to see what she could do for me. I had no idea that she had cleared her entire morning on my behalf. She passed me in the waiting room, she put her hand affectionately on my shoulder, she said, 'Come on, we're ready now.' Louis Armstrong was playing smoothly in the background, there was a delightful peace and calm and serenity in the air. I sat down in the big chair, I looked up trustingly into my dentists deep blue eyes, and she said, 'There's no need to be afraid.' Uh-oh. I thought at first that she was about to break into a verse or two of 'Do They know It's Christmas?',  but no, she was, unbeknownst to me at the time, referring to the fact that she was about to stick upwards of fifty or sixty needles into me. Still, I shrugged off the remark, she had the foresight to deliver a good dose of anaesthetic, and I settled back, still not aware of the forthcoming needle thing.

It was warm. As she removed the previously employed cement from the tooth, singing softly along to Matt Munro and Perry Como, I began to doze off. This is not so bad, I thought to myself. I sleepily opened a languid eye, somnolent thoughts meandering lazily through my head, the sounds of a warm autumnal morning drifting in through the window. She was leaning over me with a Needle Of Unrelenting Agony held between the prongs of a pair of forceps. 'Prepare to feel pain!' she screamed, 'You will pay for the illegal bombing of our nation!'

Okay, I made that bit up. She didn't say anything, she just exuded calm and tranquillity. Dentists clearly don't think it's that big a deal to jab needles into your gums. And so, for the next hour, I was subjected to the needle treatment. It was all right for a while, but as my mouth got rawer, the anaesthetic began to wear off, and she began to more intimately penetrate the very kernel of the infrastructure of my jawbone, the pain began to increase.

Her English was excellent, but with everyone not speaking their mother tongue, there's always the odd moment of comedy. At one point she asked me if I wanted more anastasia. I said, well you know, a Russian princess would be nice, but she's probably not going to do me too much good at the moment. And then, in less time that it takes to rebuild Iraq, she was done with the needles, and she was asking what type of crown I would like fitted. She described one of them as 'the most beautiful crown in all the world', which sounded expensive, and so it was. I settled for a Hyundi rather than a Ferrari, and she did the prep work. During this period she asked me to close my mouth, and when I did, she said 'Oh my God!'

Now that would be no.2 in the list of things you don't want to hear your dentist say.

An hour or so later I escaped with my life, and legged it for the nearest Crunchie bar...