Dentistry can be a pretty cut and dry kind of profession. You see, you drill, you fill. The quintessential image of a dentist has been that of a middle aged man of slight built, with a back that is hunched at 45 degrees to the rest of the body (the more hunched the better the proof that he is a seasoned veteran at extracting very stubborn back teeth), spectacles balancing at the tip of his nose and a very serious disposition. So serious in fact, that he discourages any conversation between him and the patient. Thus in earlier days, the dentist would enter the room, open your mouth, figure out what the problem was, fix it and send you on your way without there being a single exchange of words between you and him.
To be honest, this was pretty much the way I worked when I was doing my Dentistry at Mangalore. There was no point me listening to what the patients said about their dental problem for the simple reason that I didn’t understand a word of the language. So, irrespective of what was said, I would open their mouths and figure out what the real issue was…I had a far better chance of providing accurate treatment this way than by deciphering all the various local dialects of Kannada, Tulu, Konkani and Malayalam.
Today, I am happy to state that things are very different. Now there are days I do a lot less clinical dentistry and a lot more talking with my patients. Ofcourse we do talk about teeth. Thankfully we also talk about things that really matter to people – health, family, finances, interests. I even have a few brave patients asking me for relationship advice. Much as I love doling it out (and I really do, ask me for advice and you’ll see), I have warned them to follow my advice at their own risk.
It is in these many conversations about teeth and other things that lie little nuggets of inadvertent humour so funny, that despite appearing to keep a straight face thanks to a very large mouthmask, I am actually grinning from ear to ear.
The following are conversations or incidences that have taken place between patients and myself
A Sensitive Issue
Mrs. Raman sits on the chair. I ask her if all’s well with her teeth.
Yes, she replies, but this last tooth is a bit sentimental!
I walk into the room to see Mrs. Nair on the chair. She is a sweet 75 year old woman who insists on speaking English with me. She already has the good judgment to realize that my communication skills in most other languages, gets her gender all wrong.
I ask her that the matter is.
My lower teeth are hilling, she replies.
Never in 10 years of Dentistry, or in my many other years of life, have I heard this phrase. So I think maybe she means they need a filling. I take a look at them and by gosh, they are definitely ‘hilling’ - shaking and literally rotating in their sockets!
Mr. and Mrs. Shah are visiting us from the UK. They have been living there for about 2 years. They have just about reached the stage where they have adopted the British pronunciations without the fluency. So happy are they with their treatment that Mr. Shah returns the next day with a box of sweets.
To thank you from the bottom of my heart, he says smiling, and from my wife’s bottom.
That was one thank you I sincerely hope he did not mean!
Mr. Harry Wright is a top guy at one of the consulates. He weighs 110 kgs and his stomach generally makes an entry before he does. The first time he comes to me, just before he sits on the dental chair, he says he needs a minute. Then right there before my very eyes, he starts to loosen his tie and belt. He then removes both. He proceeds to remove his shirt from the waistband of his trousers. He unbuttons his shirt to expose his vest (thank God). He then starts to unbutton his trousers. I feel that I urgently needed to stop him at this time but am completely stunned. I had never had anyone feel the need to strip in my clinic before. Is he angling for a discount, I wonder. As he lowers his trouser zip, I finally find my voice.
Mr. Wright, I say as casually as I can, what are you doing?
Oh, gas, is all he says. Cannot lie down with tight clothes.
I am so relieved. My clinic is not turning into a strip club after all. And if gas is a problem, I will gladly help him kick those trousers off! Needless to say, my assistant gets the shock of her life when she walks into the room to see Mr. Wright stand there in his vest and boxers and socks. She gives me a dirty look. So does the next patient waiting outside, who sees Mr. Wright when he steps out to use the washroom. As for Mr. Wright, I have never seen anyone dress more comfortably for the dental chair. There are days when I even have to remind him to put his clothes back on when he leaves.
I had just started work. It was my first day as an associate at a well known dentist’s clinic. I was going to show him how good I was and how great my patient management skills were. My very first patient walked in. A very fashionable woman called Mrs. Makhijani.
She speaks to me in Hindi and unwisely I reply likewise. She says that there is ‘sujan’ on the outside, looking at me suspiciously. (No one has faith in a new doctor in my experience.)
Now ‘sujan’ was another word that I had never heard before. To me it sounded very much like a first name. Perhaps someone who had come with Mrs. Makhijani and who was waiting outside, I concluded.
I take off my gloves and walk out into the waiting room and loudly call out for Mr. Sujan a few times. I then walk back in and confidently inform Mrs. Makhijani that there is no ‘Sujan’ in the waiting room. She looks at me shocked and asks for Dr. Arora, my boss.
Needless to say that for the next 4 years that I worked there and pretty much took care of the entire practice, Mrs. Makhijani never once let me treat her.
(To those of you, who like me, are not very familiar with Hindi, sujan is the Hindi word for swelling. Something every dentist needs to know before he sees his first patient!)
This happened at the previous practice where I used to work. The conversation was again all in Hindi and very, very strange.
She walks in with her mother. Both are looking rather scared, but this is to be expected in a dental clinic. I make her sit on the chair and she spends a while adjusting her sari. She works as a domestic help and has taken time off for this very important visit. I am impressed with her dedication to her dental health. She is very shy and speaks very softly.
So, I ask in Hindi, what’s the problem with your teeth?
She says there is no problem.
I am perplexed. Do you have pain in your teeth, I ask her.
She’s looking at me just a bit strangely. No pain in the teeth, she answers.
So what is the problem with mouth? I ask again
She’s beginning to look worried, thinks really hard and then says, no problem with my mouth.
I decide to use my age old method. I ask her to open her mouth and peek inside. After doing a thorough check up, I have to agree with her. Her teeth are in sparkling good condition. By this time mother and daughter are in the midst of a conversation, rapid sentences going back and forth, and quick furtive glances being stolen at me and at the door.
I finally ask, why have you come here?
Because of the itching, she says.
I’m thrilled to finally have an answer. But wait a minute, itching in the mouth?
Itching down there, she says.
I take my gloves off and refer her to the VD clinic next door.
In case you are wondering, all of these stories are true. To make them up would require more imagination than I possess!