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15 Jan Written by  Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

A Day at the Dentist's

I frequently bite off more than I can chew.

So in the spirit of change, in the spirit of the new year, I decided to visit the dentist.

Okay, that isn’t true. It was nothing so lofty or clichéd as the spirit of the new year; it was only an opportunity, one that came in the form of a friend visiting a dental clinic for scaling and polishing.

Scaling and polishing. I turned it over in my mind. Not a terribly bad idea, I thought; actually it sounded like the results would be quite impressive. Polished shoes come out nice, how bad can polished teeth be?

Then there are those procedures in films featuring a gruesome murder, where dental records help trace the identity of victims. This, to me, suggests man’s closest chance at achieving immortality may be located in his mouth: if the soul were as hard as teeth, we would live forever.

(The internet may be the other way. Upload your picture, upload your life work, and upon death instant celebrity may come to mean instant immortality.)

But well, a lot of us would take any kind of living, breathing existence over that kind of immortality. A Woody Allen character may have spoken mankind’s mind when he said, "I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve immortality by not dying..."

Me too, Mr Allen, me too.

Maybe death is a little too much. But I was worried about pain. I am always worried about pain. In my head, hospitals and pain go in hand, and if a screen could somehow reproduce what lies in my head upon approaching one, childhood injections would feature prominently.

An undue paranoia since there was no indication that a procedure called polishing and scaling, mechanical and non-invasive as both sounded, could be painful. Still a fact every child learns the hard way may tarry into adulthood: never trust medical professionals. If they can't understand pain, saying "it won't hurt" before jabbing you viciously with needles, how can you trust their grasp of the English Language?

We arrived at the hospital bright, early and paid for hospital cards. It was electronic; the cashier handed us a printout like we had just bought chocolate at Shoprite. The card itself was the usual flimsy thing with Patient's Personal Card printed on red cardboard. Yet it seemed the gap between check-ups and check outs has reduced.

We were told to wait, soon we would be called. The waiting took a while, a long while, long enough for us to get tired of looking at our phones and notice that right in front of us was a huge Servicom sign informing everyone of maximum waiting time.

It was hard to be sure, but it felt like we had passed the stipulated duration for waiting.

“Let’s go and report,” said my friend.

And we both laughed. Does anyone use Servicom? Aren’t we all used to terrible service, enough to be frightened into fleeing if a service provider offers courtesy? We sat put. 'Siddon look na dog name,' and we are a country of dog names.

My friend was summoned first not long later. And then it was my turn.

A female dentist, she asked me so nicely to lie on a well-cushioned recliner for some preliminary examination. She was young, a House Officer. I did some preliminary exams of my own, and found she was from my part of the country, we shared the same state and language.

I asked the generic ‘how are you’ in our shared native tongue. She responded, smiling. But she looked like she could compose lengthy letters in the language, so before a foul breeze, strong enough to uncover this reclining fowl’s rump, blew, I switched to English and answered her questions.

“Are you asthmatic?”


“Are you diabetic?”


“Do you react to any medicines?”

“None that I know of.”

“Are you from a polygamous family?” (Uh? Is this a matchmaking site, I thought. How long till I’m asked, Are you in love?)

“I’m not sure”

She frowned. “Just answer”

“Are you Christian?”

“What does that have to do with my teeth?”

“Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t allow blood transfusion.”

Wait a minute. I'm smelling injections in the air.

“How is it possible that I may need blood?”

“Some people may have tumours and require surgery.” She was long-suffering, a good Christian.

“But do I need one?”

“No, but we have to ask.”

She asked me to open my mouth. I did so meekly, feeling vulnerable as she did things to my mouth with a wooden instrument that wouldn’t look out of place dipped in a cup of ice cream. I retracted my tongue as she used it to count my teeth. This felt like a reverse historical moment in philosophy: Bertrand Russell saying Aristotle might have avoided the error of thinking women had fewer teeth than men if he had counted those belonging to his wives.

“You could have asked me how many,” I thought.

Not having counted my teeth with my tongue since childhood, I am not sure how many of those things lie there, immovable. But I like to be asked.

I couldn’t make up my mind if this preliminary examination was invasive; what it is, is intimate. No one, without an ulterior motive, has ever been in my mouth.

My thoughts: "I should feel violated." I didn’t. "I should check Servicom guidelines." I didn’t.

She withdrew the thing, disposed of it and I missed it. I contemplated asking her to give me the thingy, as some sort of first-dental-procedure memento. I didn’t. Then almost nonchalantly, she sent me back out, informing me the real procedure was to take place upstairs.

Getting back to my seat, I found my friend had left. As I waited, someone tapped me on the shoulder.

“Are you Oris?”


The lady straightened and smiled. She was chubbier, older (who isn’t?) since I last saw her, and was wearing a lab coat, looking formidable but I remember her: university, many years ago, and girlfriend to a friend. I couldn’t remember her name so we talked around it. She had become a House Officer.

She tried to expedite my session. I am not sure what Servicom says about this, but I didn't care. Sadly she didn’t quite succeed, so she came back, we talked a little more and she left. She didn’t ask about my old friend, thankfully. I don’t know where he is.

Called a while later, I followed an attendant up the stairs and into an examination room where she handed my folder to a dentist. I was asked to wait outside. But before I left, I saw my friend being administered to by a lady, her lower face obscured by a face mask, and in her hand and his mouth was a device making a whirring sound. He didn’t seem to be in pain.

Minutes later, I was called.

It's a male voice. I looked up from my phone and followed him inside. Three recliners were present, but only the middle one was vacant. My friend lay on one, an old man in another, occasionally spewing a coloured liquid into a sink on the arm of his recliner; two ladies man both occupied chairs. I was stuck with the male one.

We got off to a great start. He introduced himself and we navigated through pleasantries. Then he told me he would assume I hadn't answered any questions prior before handing me a thick apron for my frame. He would clerk me again, another round of Jehovah Witness questions fired at my inclined head. I shrugged. Before he began, perhaps as we had turned out to be friends or seeing me as a potential customer, he told me he used to be an engineer, put a flyer featuring his self-made products in my hand and urged me to check YouTube for his videos.

He is a House Officer; the place is crawling with them.

After the second inquisition, he found the light attached to the recliner had gone out. So, he said I'd have to wait for one of the other dentists to finish with their patients.

He disappeared and I went back to waiting outside.

While he was away, a technician entered the room and fixed the recliner's light. But the male dentist took his time to return and I spoke to another dentist. She is a youth corps member, somewhat superior in rank to House Officers. I asked if she could take over.

"Only if I have your folder," she said. She scoured the place for it but apparently the ex-engineer left with it.

Thus the wait continued: my dental destiny is purgatory.

She went to look for him. I met them downstairs, and he was unhappy. I could understand. It seemed his dedication to duty was in question. He looked at me.

“We’ll go upstairs and I would scale you.”

Just then a superior, possibly a consultant, passed.

“How can you scale him?” he asked.

“Good morning sir.”

“How can you scale him? Say it correctly.”

“I’d scale his teeth.”

“Better.” The consultant looked at me, “are you fish?”

We entered the examination room. And by now his insistence on performing the procedure had irked me enough to make me insist on anyone but him. The argument continued and then he said he would have to inform their ‘chief,’ which is how many medical professionals refer to their superiors.

The chief, female, came in later.

He pointed at me and said, "he says he wants a female touch."

Hell hath no fury like a dentist scorned.

"I just want someone else."

The chief granted me my wish, performing a little examination herself before leaving my mouth in the hands of the corps member. But before she left, she tried to find out what had happened.

“Nothing. I just couldn’t imagine paying for a man to be within kissing range.”

The joke went well, she laughed and left.

The corps member put on a mask and transformed into a ninja, complete with sharp weapons. I opened my mouth and for the first time in my life underwent a dental procedure. It was mechanical, manual,  unlucky as I was to have missed using an ultrasonic scaler. My friend had used it, but it belonged to a dentist and not the hospital.

First the light, and then the equipment. A commentary on our country’s healthcare was playing out before my eyes— or perhaps before my mouth.

“Your dental hygiene is good.”

I nodded, taking the comment as a compliment.

“How often do you brush?”

I give the theoretical answer, “twice.”

She continued the scratching and scrubbing with two strange implements— my friend would later identify one as a miniature mirror. A nurse poured water over two tablets of mouthwash in an aluminium cup by the recliner’s sink. This I used at intervals to rinse whatever substance may come undone in the process. Luckily no tooth came undone.

Shortly after the procedure, I was asked by a dental philistine, "what is different?" the underlying idea being I had wasted money. I didn’t know. I still don’t know. I’m not sure my teeth got whiter, apparently the polishing bit is a bit of semantic swindle.

But I did notice a difference during the procedure, a difference I should have known portends trouble when, pushing my tongue against my lower front teeth, I discovered never-before-felt spaces between them.

In alarm, I inquired of the dentist what happened to my well-packed teeth.

“You had plaque filling the space between your teeth, making you think there were no spaces,” she laughed. “I have cleaned those spaces now. It’s okay.”

It wasn’t bad, the explanation; it did seem okay…

Well, until a few days later, when, after helping myself with a plate of cow-meat peppersoup, I discovered I was in discomfort. I traced the cause: several strands of 'shaki' had lodged in those now exposed spaces.

I had been deceived. “It’s okay,” indeed. Liars! Though it may not be the kind of pain I expected, that lesson still rings true: doctors cannot be trusted.

Follow this writer @catchoris