Teeth: Neglect and Guilt; an Offender Confesses, by Angela Caldin
Funny, isn’t it, how we take our bodies for granted until certain bits stop working for us, at which point we are swamped with regret for not looking after them better. This truism applies particularly strongly to teeth, which react to persistent neglect by crumbling away and eventually falling out. I am guilty of having neglected my teeth on and off over the years and it was therefore with great trepidation that I screwed up my courage to go to the hygienist the other day. As I sidled sheepishly round the door she enquired how everything was going. ‘Well,’ I replied, ‘I think I may have been neglecting things in the last month or so; I did floss and use the interdental brushes for quite a while, but then I kind of stopped.’ She sighed, installed me on the reclining chair so that she was looming over me in a position of power, put on her mask and her goggles as if gearing up to enter a contaminated zone, positioned the light, poked delicately round my gums and gave her verdict: ‘Things could be better; your gums are sensitive and bleeding and there is a big build-up of tartar.’ Then she added: ‘And if you don’t pull yourself together and start some proper oral hygiene, all your teeth are going to fall out.’ She didn’t actually say that last sentence, but that’s what she meant.
Learning how to do it Right
Then she asked me to demonstrate to her how I cleaned my teeth. I did so and she sighed again – it appeared that I’d been doing it wrong all these years, traumatising the already wretched gums rather than dealing with the teeth. She produced a special electric training toothbrush which changed its buzzing tone when you did your cleaning correctly. Four seconds on each tooth, back and front, twice a day would apparently do the trick. That together with interdental brush use once a day with the right colour (I am green mostly with one or two yellow-sized gaps) would ensure that my teeth would hang in there for a few years more.
An Unusual Career
As she leant over me, patiently attending to each individual tooth with her selection of special weaponry, I couldn’t help wondering how someone decides that becoming a hygienist is the career path for them. People’s mouths are not the most beautiful of places, especially older people’s whose teeth tend to be yellowing and full of dark fillings. Even young people’s teeth are taking a bashing, I understand, from fizzy drinks and constant sugary treats. It must be so disheartening to deal with people like me who have their teeth scaled and polished every few months and then come back a few months later with everything caked with gunge again. But people make that career choice and they spend all day scratching away in mouths of all different shapes and sizes. It must be lonely work too: just you and the patient who can’t carry on a conversation because their mouth is full of your gadgets and gizmos. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to my hygienist for the job she does and a very thorough job at that, and as I leave I always vow that this time I’m really going to make the effort every day so that next time I visit her she’ll be proud of me and she won’t have to sigh her disappointed sigh. We do take our teeth for granted, but when they start to disintegrate and fall out we miss them very much. If you’ve ever had to have a crown or an implant, you’ll know how horrendously expensive they are – thousands of pounds for a tiny tooth replacement for goodness’ sake, how do they work that out? So it’s in our best interests to look after our teeth from the point of view of both aesthetics and economics.
The Ultimate Comment on Teeth Care
Pam Ayres had it right in perhaps her most famous poem reproduced below:
Oh, I wish I’d looked after me teeth,
And spotted the dangers beneath
All the toffees I chewed,
And the sweet sticky food.
Oh, I wish I’d looked after me teeth.
I wish I’d been that much more willin’
When I had more tooth there than fillin’
To give up gobstoppers,
From respect to me choppers,
And to buy something else with me shillin’.
When I think of the lollies I licked
And the liquorice allsorts I picked,
Sherbet dabs, big and little,
All that hard peanut brittle,
My conscience gets horribly pricked.
My mother, she told me no end,
‘If you got a tooth, you got a friend.’
I was young then, and careless,
My toothbrush was hairless,
I never had much time to spend.
Oh I showed them the toothpaste all right,
I flashed it about late at night,
But up-and-down brushin’
And pokin’ and fussin’
Didn’t seem worth the time – I could bite!
If I’d known I was paving the way
To cavities, caps and decay,
The murder of fillin’s,
Injections and drillin’s,
I’d have thrown all me sherbet away.
So I lie in the old dentist’s chair,
And I gaze up his nose in despair,
And his drill it do whine
In these molars of mine.
‘Two amalgam,’ he’ll say, ‘for in there.’
How I laughed at my mother’s false teeth,
As they foamed in the waters beneath.
But now comes the reckonin’
It’s me they are beckonin’
Oh, I wish I’d looked after me teeth.