The poet Philip Larkin wrote words to the effect of "They mess you up, your mum and dad." They may very well do, but I think dental school has exactly the same effect on dentists.
Dental School. The Worst Days Of My Life
My laze, since retirement, disgusts me. But I do have an excuse.
I thought before I finally gave up dentistry, that my post-retirement time would be worry-free and tranquil – that my inner world, my thoughts, would be like Claude Monet’s water garden - calm, serene and unruffled like a lily pond. Instead, the garden is filled with squawking children and fee-paying adults demanding to know why they have to sign another bloody blue form and why do I have to fill in another medical history? “You already know I’m prone to severe angina and frequent epileptic seizures!” As for the pond, some kid has thrown a Skittles packet over the Japanese bridge parapet and there appears to be alginate impressions floating just under the surface and dancing on the surface of the pond, quizzical dragonflies are suffocating and dying after inhaling Mikrozid spray.
That was actually the dream I had last night – a fairly innocuous example of my dreams as they go. Since I retired in January, I would say that 50% of the dreams I’ve had have either involved a dental theme or dentistry has seeped (oozed is a better word) into them. Consequently I have had quite a few disturbed nights - frequently waking and then struggling to get back to sleep. Fortunately I have an iPhone and AirPods, so I’m able to catch up with what drivel Jim Jordan has been spouting in the US Congress and the polling figures for Joe Biden.
But my dentistry-laden dreams and niggling background thoughts are not what I expected my retirement to be. I thought retirement would be dominated by sitting in the sun in the back garden reading the papers and force-feeding the odd grandchild that visited, Werther’s Originals. Instead it’s been pretty much dominated by overwhelming tiredness (not helped by going down very heavily with a two month-long virus on my very last day at work) as a result of sleeplessness. Consequently today (a weekday) I woke at about 11.15am. My first thoughts were (which I tweeted), ‘By now I’d have normally done a dozen exams, a couple of extractions, a crown prep and refunded a patient some money.’
A recurring dream I had over the whole of my dental career was one where I had been working in practice for two years or so, and then I received a letter that said that the GDC didn’t recognise my qualification and I had to go back to university again and resit my final two years at dental school. I would say I had that dream every week for 30 years. I found it disturbing and it usually woke me up. The only thing I can think is that triggered the dream is that I actually took the Royal College of Surgeons Licenciate in London before I took finals and was a registered dentist at the time I took final BDS. Why that happened I’m going to keep to myself for the time being, but I had always been plagued by the inner feeling that I didn’t quite come up to scratch as a dentist, even though there were no reasons for that to be so. That dream has come back.
This week, I was looking through my Twitter feed and came across a user I follow, who I gleaned from what she tweeted, looked as if she’d been trained at my old dental school. I directly messaged her and it transpired she did go to my old dental school. Although quite a bit younger than me, she knew a lot of the lecturers I knew and in general, she agreed that they were in the main, misanthropic sociopaths who hated students in particular. This texting session stirred up a lot of horrible memories for me, and that night I had the recurring dream. I didn’t enjoy dental school, nor dentistry for that matter, and I realised with the response I had to my blog on mental health in dentistry a couple of weeks or so ago, that a lot of dentists are suffering from mental health issues related to stress and anxiety more than I ever suspected.
This made me wonder whether our dental anxieties and stresses actually originate in dental school. I didn’t go to dental school straight after school – I had a career before I went to university so I entered at the age of 29 – but I find it hard to imagine how it must have been to have gone to dental school at about 18 or 19 years old and suddenly being confronted by the vicious shower that taught us. It must have been like being thrown into a bear-pit. I can’t say that EVERY dental lecturer was a git – but my estimate is that 90-95% of them were.
The night I messaged my younger dental school colleague, I decided to Google images of some of the lecturer’s names that came up, and I was transported instantly back to the 1980’s, where I spent most of my time just before dental school clinics in the lavatory, quivering and sometimes quietly sobbing. As I Googled, one particular lecturer’s face appeared on my phone and I instantly recoiled.
She was one of the younger members of the prosthetics department and she injected the fear of Lucifer himself into me, despite the fact I was probably twice her height and was at least seven years her senior. From the off I appeared to be in her bad books and I have no idea why, but half the members of my year had similar, though not as intense problems with her. I don’t know whether I was merely being overly sensitive but I could do nothing right – from taking primary impressions to taking a bite, she was on my case and she made me redo everything at least a couple of times. If ever I went up to her on clinics, either to get her to sign my notes or ask her advice, she would make a point of finishing her chit chat with other lecturers before turning to me, clenching her teeth and muttering “WHAT??” with a concomitant rain of Aberdonian spittle.
This woman walked onto clinics with the same attitude as 60’s wrestler Mick McManus and her voice was reminiscent of a straight handpiece attacking a vastly overextended denture flange with a coarse cross-cut acrylic bur. In any interactions with her, there was always the undercurrent of a threat that she would put you on report if you uttered a word out of place and like a good number of my peers, my heart sank when I saw her walk on to clinic sucking, I kid you not, a purple glycerine based mouthwash tablet. This was her daily habit.
The woman got me so on edge, I got to the point that I wouldn’t go and ask for help or advice if I was not sure of anything. One day she was so abusive, I got so confused, I ended up greensticking the periphery of a denture then relining it with a functional impression material and sending the patient out wearing it, greenstick and all. That lunchtime, I saw her sitting across the dining room pointing in my direction, openly regaling the laughing house officers sitting around her, with my sorry tale.
But she wasn’t the worst. On clinics we would occasionally come across part-time lecturers. These were dentists who, fancying a couple of days away from the practice, came in to ‘help’ on clinics. For ‘help’, read ‘ritually humiliate the students.’ One of them was a particularly nasty piece of work who used to deliberately look you up and down if you went up to him to come and check your cavity (sometimes you didn’t have a choice), as if you had just trodden something nasty into his new carpet. One day I realised that he was the only lecturer available and I was forced to ask him for help. I was trying to put a pinned MOD amalgam in an upper six that had lost the whole of the buccal wall and most of the lingual wall. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get the matrix band to stay on or stay in shape when I tightened the band. I went to the lecturer and explained the problem. He stood there with his mouth open in mock incredulity. After probably 30 seconds, he said in earshot of the patient, “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as stupid as you in my life.” He held the matrix band up and said “You twist this little thing here to tighten it” and he then strode off. That of course, wasn’t the problem. Fortunately, another senior lecturer – one of the very few gentlemen I met at dental school – walked on to the clinic. He told me I’d never do it with a matrix band and patiently showed me how to use a copper ring (yes, those things existed in the 80’s).
I seemed to get on a lot better and was much more comfortable in the children’s department and the teachers there were generally much more approachable, apart from the head of department who would have been more at home running Guantanamo Bay. Somehow at the end of the 4th year, I found myself up for the department’s annual student prize and I duly turned up for the prize viva along with a handful of other hopefuls. Unfortunately, none of the staff from the department were conducting the viva, but a couple of orthodontic lecturers, one of whom I had had a run-in with, a few weeks earlier.
I was so put off by having him in front of me, I turned to blancmange internally. The lecturer in question was pretty edgy in his interrogation and then he threw this one in:
“When lower 6’s first come through, what stops them from growing and growing.” Pretty easy huh? It wasn’t. I went blank. He was fixing me with a steely glare and I could see his masseters flexing as he swivelled in his chair. After about half a minute, I finally needed to break the silence. “Gravity?” Apparently, it isn’t. I could see the children’s prize running away from me as fast as the Tory leadership escaped Andrea Leadsom. I heard laughter as I left the room.
As I mentioned above, a few weeks ago I wrote an extensive piece in GDPUK.com on mental health in dentistry and admitted I am normally a seething bag of stress and anxiety. I have always been like that to some extent, but it was increased tenfold while I was a dental student and during my career as a dentist. Part of the reason for my worries was the fact that I was a secondary modern school product and had to get my A levels for dental school at evening classes while I was working as a journalist. For some reason, my secondary school education background left me with a lifelong feeling of inadequacy. You need to know this to fully comprehend the next bit.
As I write this, I’m becoming aware I’m giving the impression that I went through dental school upsetting dental lecturers left, right and centre. Anyway, another teacher I didn’t get on with was my tutor. Unfortunately, where I trained, we were saddled with the same tutor all through the clinical years and to give this chap responsibility for dispensing any form of pastoral care was as imbecilic an idea as giving me an archwire and telling me to fix a gross Class III. This chap had no empathy with students whatsoever and he knew as much about sarcasm and humiliation as he did about stellate reticulum, which was quite a lot. We were introduced to our tutors with one to one chats. The idea being that the tutor could get to know you and your background. The chat touched on schooling, my previous career and my attainment of A levels at night school. He SEEMED interested in that at the time.
One day, it must have been around 4th BDS exam time, we were in a lecture given by my tutor on embryology or something remotely related to teeth and he stopped, got off the lecturn, walked over to me and said: “So what do YOU think, genius?”
No reason for that that I can think of, other than pure spite. I assume he got something out of it.
As I say, I’m left a writhing back of neuroses. I wonder if Ovaltine will help me get to sleep?