Why I’ve lost my childhood fear of dentists – Jim Duffy

Dentistry has come a long way since Jim Duffy's childhood (Picture: Jon Savage)
Dentistry has come a long way since Jim Duffy's childhood (Picture: Jon Savage)
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A trip to the dentist brings back horrifying experiences of his youth, but Jim Duffy finds he is pleasantly surprised.

It doesn’t matter where you live in the world, a trip to the dentist is always fraught with stress.

Only this week, I had to visit the dentist for some work. Even the mention of the word “dentist” strikes fear into me and many of you too. Even with today’s fabulous technological developments in dentistry, pain management etc, it still makes me nervous, anxious and I wish I had been blessed with stronger teeth.

For me, it all stems from my initial experiences with the dentist when I was younger. I recall having to go get a tooth out when I was about five years of age. The dental practice was in Partick in Glasgow. It was up a close on the first floor of a grey tenemented building. The ground floor housed a shoe shop and a newsagent. As soon I started to climb the stairs, I could smell the dentist. It had a clean, but weird smell. Not antiseptic or a pleasant soap. No, more a strange, gaseous-clean smell. Let’s put it this way, I knew something terrible went on in there and they were probably trying to hide smell of the bodies with cleaning fluid of some sort. Not a good start.

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Then there was the colour scheme. Green, green and green. The waiting room was painted green. The dentist’s lair was painted green. Heck, even the dental assistants were wearing green uniforms.

It resembled a council office in East Germany in the 1960s. Austere and cold and green... And the waiting room did nothing for a young boy’s nerves. There were a few old magazines for my mum to peruse. And a broken fire engine toy for me to “play” with. This didn’t exactly instil a sense of calm and fun.

Would Dr Who save me?

But, the worst part on this initial touchpoint with the dentist was not the decor. It was the sounds that emanated from the dentist’s room, where I just knew he buried all the bodies of young children like me. I could hear high-pitched whizzing noises coupled with gurgling, sucking noises. Then the occasional aaaahhhhh as whatever went on in there was getting serious. I knew from that moment forward that I didn’t want to be there.

I entered the room and was met by, yes you guessed it, a man wearing a big green apron. He looked like Billy Connolly. He lifted me into a big chair, the type of chair with stuff on it that I had seen on Dr Who on a Saturday night. It was brown leather with tubes and pipes sticking out. There was big bright light shining down into my eyes. Headlight technology was not on the LED scale yet. And a pink drink was fizzing away beside me. Ah I thought, some colour at least that was not green. Then my world collapsed as I saw gas masks, needles and aliens. I was indeed on a Dr Who set and I hoped that John Pertwee would come quick with his magic pen to save me.

Well that was then and, in modern times, things have changed. But those first vivid memories still cloud my head when I enter my current surgery. This week I needed three crowns on each side of my upper teeth as my smile needed widening. It’s only taken 50 years for them to work that out mind. But, here we go again, I thought. However, I was ‘pleasantly’ surprised at the experience. Firstly, no one was dressed in green. It was all crisp ice-whites with a dash of colour here and there. No funny smells apart from the clever use of air fresheners to make it all lavender and apple. Already my sensory perception was telling me good things.

A deposit on a new car

The waiting room was most pleasant. No more crap toys and out-of-date magazines. No, this time there were recent publications on cars, boats, fashion and a whole lot more. A bit of marketing on private insurance for dentistry and what high-tech zirconium crowns looked like. Dentistry, it seemed, had gone all high tech. There was a water fountain and a bowl of apples on the table. Then my name was called.

Upon entering the dentist’s room, I was met by David. I know that was his name as it was stitched into his shirt. There was a big window looking out from the fifth floor filling the room with natural light. I was asked how I was, how life was and how I was feeling. My stress moved from overdrive to high. All good. David said he wanted an x-ray. I was ushered to an adjacent room and within five minutes we were looking at a 3D X-ray of my mouth showing years of fillings, crowns and general wear and tear. David explained what he was going to do and how he would do it all in two visits. I was impressed.

Three weeks later I have my zirconium crowns in place. Was it all plain sailing? No, I would be lying if I led you to believe that. But, everything was so much better. The approach by the dentist was working with me and not simply on me. The technology was impressive – I hardly knew a needle was penetrating my gums and my crowns were 3D printed. All so much more refined. Of course, this all comes at a cost. While my first encounter with ‘Dr Death’ in Partick was free and on the NHS, this visit cost the same as a deposit on a new car. But, that’s progress I guess. And long it may it continue.