Now I’m out as an ex-inebriate, I can tell you all SORTS of stuff. Like about my trials with the dentist. (Bear with me, my dentist is an extraordinary character.)
My mum is going to get upset reading this, as she was militant about looking after our teeth when we were children. She took us the dentist religiously and always made sure we had squeaky clean pearly whites. It wasn’t until my sabbatical that I really considered the damage a few years of “self medicating” had done. Teeth cleaning hadn’t been high on my list of priorities and I’d been drinking a lot (did you know how much sugar is in a bottle of vodka? A SHITLOAD. I once heard Dr Gillian Mckeith, or to give her her full medical title, Gillian McKeith*, tell a crying overweight alcoholic on the telly that there are 12 TABLESPOONS of sugar in a bottle of Smirnoff. I’m not sure how scientific her measuring methods are though, what with her being a fake doctor and everything). When I eventually came to, a couple of years later, I was suffering from MAJOR toothache.
*This a joke by Ben Goldacre, as seen during his Ted Talk, “Battling Bad Science”. I am merely recycling it.
Naturally, I procrastinated for as long as I humanly could about booking a dental appointment. In fact I had no dentist as I’d recently moved to London. It was a Sunday evening of a bank holiday weekend when the real pain came and I’d never felt anything like it. It was like red hot mini cattle prods poking the inside of my molar, screaming through to my jaw, ringing through my ears. My newfound sobriety prohibited me from using any of my old methods of managing the pain ….so I was gingerly taking paracetamol and crying, praying for death, contemplating smacking myself round the head with a saucepan. The last time I had been to the dentist, I had hyperventilated in the chair and my poor mum who was with me spent much of the appointment trying to unlock my paralysed hands. I was terrified of that happening again. Eventually, I couldn’t bear the pain. I rang the out of hours service late at night and they told me to sit tight and a dentist would ring me back. About 10 minutes later I received a call from an unknown number. I picked it up, cradling my poor burning face. It hurt to speak.
Madman (thick Indian accent): Hello there! Is this the poor lady with the terrible pain in her tooth?
Me: Yes that’s me….
Madman (shouting with enthusiasm): WONDERFUL!! I am Dr Guffaw.
Me (incredulous even through agony): Dr Guffaw??
Madman: YES! It is Rachael is it not?
Me: it is….
Madman: You come see me two thirty tomorrow. We will fix your pain. That is my guarantee to you! (maniacal laughter)
Me (emotional wreck, remember. Newly sober.): Two thirty?
Madman: I know! YOU TOLD ME!! AHAHAHAAHAHAHAHA.
Me: (silent. continued to cradle face. Closer to tears. I doubted the veracity of his claims to dentistry at this point. This felt like a prank call.)
Madman: Forgive me Rachael. I made joke about Chinese dentist. 10am! You come, I fix your pain. That is my guarantee to you!
He gave me the address (of an actual surgery, which helped to assuage my doubts) and told me to take lots of painkillers and go to bed. I didn’t sleep. I had continuous flashbacks to that scene in Marathon man and Steve Martin in The Little Shop of Horrors.
The next morning I went to his dental surgery, still in agony and sleep deprived. There was a little plaque (hahaha) outside with the names of the residing dentists. I scrolled down it looking for Dr Guffaw, and wondered if the zany phone call we’d shared yesterday was indeed a prank. As I was studying it, Dr Guffaw himself arrived. As it was a bank holiday and he was seeing me out of hours, he strode purposefully towards me in jeans and a navy blue jumper, which made him look even less like a real dentist. “Rachael!” he bellowed. “I’m Dr Guffaw! That’s me!” he pointed to a larger sign that said “Dr Ghafoor”, which made more sense. He unlocked the surgery door and jangled in. “Come come!” he encouraged. He sounded impatient.
I got settled on the dentist chair while he put lights on. It was disconcerting seeing a dental surgery look like an ordinary building with lights off and junk mail on the floor. I tried through my letter-box mouth to thank him for seeing me out of hours. He waved away my pleasantries. “Never mind that!” he said. “Open wide. Show me the tooth that hurts….”
I obliged. He put his white gloves on and shone a light in my mouth for a second, before clicking it off again with a dramatic intake of breath.
“Holy GOD!” he exclaimed, putting a hand on my shoulder. “You are a pretty girl, but your TEETH!” he said. “You look like the BRIDE OF DRACULA!! AHAHAHAHAHAHA” the maniacal laughter was back. I was in too much pain to be insulted. He snapped off his gloves, sat back and looked at me.
“Tell me the story of how this happened”, he said, smiling kindly.
“Well, my tooth started hurting the other day….” I began, preparing to tell him about the last three days of hell.
“NOT THAT!” he shouted, impatient again. “How did your young mouth become like this?”
I was upset then. I was ashamed of my poor mouth and the last couple of years. Who was this lunatic telling me I was the Bride of Dracula?
I was tired, emotional, in searing agony, and as of the last twenty seconds, pissed off. I was moments from leaving this sociopath dentist and demanding a nice, business-like proper one, with a brusque and intimidating bedside manner.
“Bulimia?” Ghafoor interrupted my sulking.
“Because all that vomiting might make you look skinny but it has ruined your teeth”, he chided.
“I haven’t got bulimia….”
“Anorexia then? No calcium? I’ve seen young girls’ teeth shatter straight out of their heads.” He shook his head ruefully, visibly upset.
So I told him about the last couple of years, lisping and spitting with pain as I went. I kept it brief and only gave him the edited highlights. I finished with “I’m not drinking now. I stopped a few months ago.”
There was a silence. He looked at me as if he was quantifying something. All was quiet. Then he said, “Ok. You are a GOOD girl. We will fix this.”
He pressed a button that made the chair I was in decline until I was horizontal. He shone a light in my face and examined my mouth. Alarmingly, Dr Ghafoor seemed entirely without an internal monologue. He almost never stopped speaking. He poked and prodded my teeth, chuntering under his breath as he went. It was oddly comforting. Eventually he reached cattle prod tooth. He touched it. I screamed. “Sorry sorry!” he exclaimed, contrite. “I hate causing people pain.” he said.
“Really?” I said in disbelief.
He got a bit haughty at that. “I am a dentist, not a torturer!” he huffed.
Initial examination over, Dr Ghafoor said, “If you had come to me earlier, I could have saved this tooth. But now…..” he sighed, shaking his head regretfully, “I have to take it out.” He sounded like he was telling me he had to amputate my leg, such was the gravity of his announcement. I couldn’t have cared less. I just wanted rid of the pain. “Fine, fine, take it out.”
“It is a small tooth, I can use local anaesthetic…”
“Grand…on you go.”
He tutted sadly and started to prepare his tray of scary looking instruments. He was putting a blue paper bib on me when my old friend Mr Panic paid me a visit. He was a frequent caller at that time, what with me being unmedicated and out in the world. The adrenaline came and I started to shake. This was also the moment that Dr Ghafoor, whoever he was, really came into his own. He took one look at me and said, “You are frightened. Let’s breathe together shall we? Nice and slowly, in through the nose, out through the mouth….breathe with me.” The last dentist who had witnessed my panicking had been seconds from sending for the men in white coats (even though he himself was a man in a white coat.) Ghafoor on the other hand was a clearly a dab hand at dealing with nutters like myself.
“Trust me. I am not here to give you pain. I will not do a thing until you are totally numb.” We sat together quietly, breathing in and out, like he was my birthing partner. After a few minutes, he said, “Tell me Rachael, what do you do?”
“I play the cello…..” I was about to explain that I was having a “sabbatical”, but he was busy gasping melodramatically and gushing, “The cello! Like Jacqueline Du Pre! How WONDERFUL.” He started humming the Elgar Cello Concerto with gusto. I tried to keep breathing normally as waves of adrenaline threatened to make me leap from the chair screaming. His singing ceased abruptly as he said, “of course, poor lady, she was STONE MAD! It is often the case with talented people.”
And with that, he injected my gum with Novocaine. As he pushed down the syringe the freak out began in earnest. My adrenal glands stepped it up a notch. I was doing the weird breathing, sweating, bug eyed terror stricken face, the whole bit. Ghafoor was unfazed by the change of tempo. “Breathe slowly, no need for fear. I don’t like to…” snigger… “blow my own trumpet,” he joked, “but I am a good dentist. See, I made a musical joke!” I smiled as best I could under the circs. “I don’t really play the trumpet,” he clarified, just in case I was planning to hire him for duets.
His phone rang. It was another patient calling for emergency out of hours treatment. I was pleased to note that he was just as whacky and un-dentist like with other patients; he used the two thirty Chinese dentist joke on the poor bastard on the end of the phone. I could almost hear the tumbleweed blowing across the room as he said disappointed, “Forgive me. I made a joke. Come at 1pm.”
He returned to me. I was trying to curb the mounting panic by breathing as he’d advised. He said, “Rachael, try to relax. Are you numb? Open wide…” he gently touched cattle prod tooth. I flinched. I could still feel everything.
He injected me again. And again. After the fifth injection, he tapped the aforementioned tooth. I yelped. The only thing numb was my nose. I was starting to hyperventilate again, cowardy custard that I am. Dr Ghafoor watched me through kind eyes, entirely unbothered by my display.
“There is an antidote to fear,” he said.
Valium? I thought.
“It is not pharmaceutical,” intoned Ghafoor, reading my mind. “The antidote to fear is FAITH!” he clapped his hands for emphasis. I remember this because his surgical gloves squeaked. “Have faith Rachael! Everything is as it’s meant to be.”
I was clearly not myself, as usually I’d be rolling my eyes and thinking “For fuck’s sake. I can’t take dentistry AND spirituality on the same day. Who is this fruitcake?” As it was, his kindness nearly brought me to tears.
After injection number six, I was getting desperate. “Why won’t it go numb?” I asked, frantically. I was on the verge of smashing the tooth out myself, anaesthesia or not.
“Your system is used to lots of chemicals, am I right?” Dr Ghafoor asked carefully.
“Well then, you are harder to numb. Be patient, it will work eventually. In the meantime, I will get to work on your other teeth…..they are TRULY DREADFUL!” he exclaimed, diplomacy personified.
Forty minutes and one more injection later, he’d given me two little fillings, scraped off Christ knows what from my choppers, and eventually, once I’d started to calm down, he took out the little fucker that had brought me there in the first place. It wasn’t easy. He’d practically had to climb on the chair to get enough leverage. Afterwards he was sweating and complaining that he knackered his shoulder. Bear in mind, the whole time, he was dealing with a wriggling, freaked out, hyperventilating crazy person. He stopped at least three times to breathe with me, he hummed cello tunes, he swore a bit in different languages when my tooth wouldn’t come out…he put on a show so distracting, I calmed down in spite of myself. When the stubborn bastard tooth eventually came free, he actually high-fived me. Spirits were high….Dr Ghafoor seemed jubilant. Just as I was getting in the celebratory mood, he drastically changed his tune.
“Let me tell you Rachael. That is the last tooth I am removing from your mouth. Do you understand?” He looked cross.
I couldn’t speak, on account of my recent ordeal. I felt like a freight train had run over my face. I nodded remorsefully.
“Your new healthy life must include your TEETH!” he said. “Do you have a dentist?”
I limply shook my head.
“You do now”, he said forcefully. “You come see me every 6 months. It must never again come to this.”
At the time I thought he was being a drama queen. Now I know that he just really really cares about teeth.
Afterwards I went to pay and braced myself for a whopping great bill that would take me a month to earn back. (I was temping at the time.) Dr Ghafoor said, “Forty pounds.” I expressed surprise with exaggerated facial movements and odd gutteral noises, like Scooby Doo. Then he said, by way of explanation, honest to god, “I am blessed to have all the money I need.”
I have seen him many times since then and he is one of my biggest fans. No one is more excited than him when I get a good gig. Last year I was on the George Michael Symphonica tour and when I told him, he was so excited, he ended up singing the whole of “Careless Whisper” in his thick Indian accent to a waiting room packed with patients. They’re clearly used to him. No one batted an eyelid.