Tooth ache

2013-10-31 00:00

I HAVE this aversion to dentists. Nothing personal, of course. A number of them are good friends of mine. It’s just a phobia I share with the bulk of the human community, an issue that stems from my childhood when dental science had just emerged from the dark ages, and which occupied space in my tiny mind normally reserved for Dracula, Frankenstein and other frightful experiences.

I still harbour memories of the smell of nitrous oxide (the most inappropriately named “laughing gas” — who wants to laugh in a torture chamber?), the wind-up porcelain, wood and leather dental chair and the pain. Oh my shattered nerves!

So I take great pleasure in telling my clients that my patients don’t get dental caries because we feed them good food, not buckets-full of refined sugar. If anything, they accumulate a layer of tartar as a result of the fact that they are generally not into diligent personal oral hygiene. I mean, can you imagine a cow brushing her teeth? Or Farmer Giles doing it for her? Not on your Nellie!

Then I was introduced to Napoleon. A great big lump of a bull, six years old, carrying nearly a ton of prime Limousin flesh and with an exceedingly sweet tooth. If he was a child at the mall, he would most likely have set up tent in Sweets From Heaven, or be found sampling Mozart’s ice-cream delights. His hang-out (when he is not courting the bovid girls) is a cosy camp close to the homestead on a cane and beef farm deep in the bowels of the Mid Illovo flats. Here he will usually be found in a sunny spot staring absently into the distance while chewing slowly and deliberately on the tops and leaf left-overs from the sugar-cane harvest, thinking languid thoughts or, more likely, basking in a contented vacuum where thought processes are foreign concepts. On these farms, the cane tops are very handy supplements to the normal bovine diet and all cattle will munch happily on the greenery, particularly in winter when the grass is dry and lacking in nutrients.

And Napoleon, as the herd sire, gets more than the usual share of the delicacy. He has also developed the ability to seek out the sucrose-rich stem pieces that have inadvertently been lopped off from the top of the cane plant and he will crunch happily on these, usually in preference to the leaves.

Then, the ever-observant Angela noticed a change in his eating pattern. His appetite had not diminished, but sticky wads of unchewed leaves and grass would sometimes fall from his huge jaws like sodden birds’ nests blown out of a tree in a summer storm. And, ever so gradually, he was dropping condition.

It took us a while to figure out what was happening. It is actually quite difficult to prize open the mouth of an unwilling bull and to illuminate the aperture adequately to see deep inside. So, various medications were attempted and with tranquillisation, tubes were inserted to exclude obstructions and the teeth were filed with a tooth rasp normally used on horses. Still the condition persisted and, in actual fact, appeared to be deteriorating. Furthermore, the usually placid Napoleon was getting grumpy. He no longer regarded me with indifference and was becoming more difficult to handle.

Enter Steve Clark, an animal dentist, specialising in horses. I arranged to meet him on the farm and, while he was setting up his equipment, I doped our patient and inserted my arm into his mouth to have a last attempt at a diagnosis before handing the patient over to one with superior skills.

To my surprise, I felt the first molar on the left side move. The tooth was rotten and had splintered, probably as a result of my energetic rasping a while ago. Same on the right! Very unusual. Cattle are usually put into pies long before they develop problems with their molars. So, with an appropriate gag, we winched the jaw open as far as possible and with heavy duty dental pliers and other equipment, Steve began the laborious task of extracting the teeth pieces.

Our surgery wasn’t exactly up-market dental premises on Umhlanga Ridge, with murals on the ceiling and piped music to allay the fears of the captives. It was actually a rustic crush with a sturdy neck clamp through which the head of the victim was firmly anchored. Nor did the open maw belong to that of a Durban North businessperson, teeth stained by a plethora of Gauloises and rotted by excessive cappuccino intake. Indeed, it belonged to the considerable mass of Napoleon, Mid Illovo cane-guzzler of repute, now doped and stoic, unstressed and uncomplaining.

And bit by bit, Steve extracted the various teeth fragments, until, eventually, the bull was released, spitting out bits of blood and debris, glad to be free of his confines and none the worse for wear.

He has now been put in with the girls and thoughts of eating have been banished from his mind by a sea of oestrogen. But, during breaks in his vigorous courtship routine, he might still occasionally be found in a sunny spot, chewing the cud and contentedly staring into the distance , and now, undistracted by toothache, no doubt dreaming bovine dreams involving pretty cows.

• The writer is a practising vet.

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