X-Ray c. 1996

New Teeth

This Christmas I have had a marvellous present. I have new top teeth. All of my life I have had trouble with my teeth. From an early age I had fillings and later even the fillings seemed to have fillings. The School Dental Clinic always featured heavily in my life, they were a source of dread. The clinics used slow foot driven drills, hypodermics had large, blunt needles, mercury was everywhere, pain and fear dominated, it was always known as the Murder House. Worries about my teeth dominated my childhood, and later in life, became an ongoing concern, as no matter how much care I took of them, my teeth, over the years continued to deteriorate. It seemed that I had a genetic weakness in that area, soft teeth perhaps, not helped by being raised at a time where there was no fluoride in the water and dental floss was unheard of.

Recently, when I began writing down as many of my biographical details as possible, so intense are my feelings about dentistry that it was one of the first of my memories that I began putting on paper. There I was writing my biography and I was starting with the story of my teeth. I made a pilgrimage to Taheke School to visit the very clinic where I had some of my very first fillings ever. I knew that the school had closed down, but I was quite upset to find that the clinic had been trucked away to another site. Oh how I would love to have owned that building. To have my very own dental clinic!

Years ago, when in London, I visited a dental museum. The history of dentistry intrigues me, I loved seeing Roman dental tools (they packed cavities with gold, using foil pushed in layer after layer by metal instruments). I saw false teeth made from Hippopotamus bone. I saw Victorian dentists surgeries, reconstructed, open fireplaces, spittoons on the floor by the chairs. So primitive. NZ has no dental museum although there are many items in collections around the country and where possible I seek them. Early X-ray machines are very photogenic although I have not yet managed to get an image.

As my teeth deteriorated over the decades, I had, first, one partial plate built, then a little later a bigger partial, and so on. There were many crowns too. Then last year I broke an upper tooth that was crucial to holding my partial in place, plus, under a crown a jaw abcess had started. Something had to be done. There were only two options, my remaining snaggle teeth had to be removed from my upper jaw, and I would have to wear a full plate of the pink plastic sort that old people often wear in this country, or, I would have dental implants. I chose the latter. This marvellous technology, invented in Sweden 40 years ago, involves screwing titanium posts into the jaw, then attaching ceramic teeth to them. It’s expensive, and takes time but that is the course I chose.

So 18 months ago I had all my remaining top teeth removed, I vividly remember them as a little pile of rubble in front of me as the surgeon took them out piece by piece. I grieved for some weeks over the sight. Bone dust of some description, artificial now, was packed into the sockets and the gum stitched to keep it safely in there. There was a time when this bone material was collected from the patients hip. This bone graft was so that the jaw bone could grow through it and give the titanium posts something substantial to screw into. It takes three or four months for the process to be complete. Then I had a CT scan to determine where the best bone was, so that the targets for the posts could be exactly determined.

Then I had an operation (under local!) to screw 6 large titanium posts into the jaw. Another 3 or 4 months had to be allowed for the bone to not only grow around the metal but to bond to its surface. Now, 18 months later, the process is almost over. No longer are my teeth tobe sitting in a glass at night.

You would think that with all this interest that I have in dentistry that I would have taken more photographs throughout my career. However, although I’ve tried, it hasn’t so far worked out. The only one that I have released is the x-ray photo on this page. At that time I was taking images with large splits down the middle, which without getting into speculative psychiatry, didn’t seem like a very healthy sign.

So, dear visitor, I hope that this description hasn’t put you off ever going back to the dentist, or cast a pall over your Christmas!