WE’VE been told that dental practices may re-open from June 8 ‘with suitable precautions in place’. Not a moment too soon, and they should never have had to close in the first place.
What follows is not a very pleasant read, but my story is just one small example of the impact of this appalling policy. No doubt many others had similar or worse experiences.
It started with bleeding gums and pus coming out around a molar tooth. The filling fell out, revealing a blackened stump. I was in a great deal of pain.
In normal times, I would have called our dentist here in Kent. An emergency appointment would swiftly have been arranged and the tooth would have been removed. But we are not in normal times. Instead of a speedy end to my agony, there began a two-day odyssey ending with a resolution that owed more to the seventeenth century than the twenty-first.
Not knowing where to begin to access the dental treatment ‘hubs’ which were supposed to have been set up, the first call I made was to my regular dentist. A recorded message told me that all dentistry was suspended and another number was given for ‘emergency treatment only’.
Eventually my call was answered. I explained my situation: I was in considerable pain, I said, a molar on the lower left jaw had lost its filling and was badly infected; the tooth could not be saved, I opined, and extraction was the only realistic course of action.
The dentist at the other end of the line seemed initially sympathetic. She explained that she needed information from me to carry out ‘an assessment’. So for about 20 minutes I gave her my personal information. Then she came to the final requirement.
‘A photograph,’ she said, succinctly. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked. I was a little surprised by the absence of an immediate offer of an appointment. ‘I need a photo of the tooth. So I can assess it. You can email it to me. I’ll then call you back.’
I rang off and proceeded, with the family’s help, to photograph the tooth. This wasn’t easy, especially when you’re in pain. Eventually, a reasonable close-up of the blackened stump was obtained. We emailed it to the dentist. She rang back.
‘It’s not clear enough,’ she said. ‘What?’ I replied. ‘The photo needs to be sharper,’ she said, ‘I can’t make out the detail of what’s wrong. Please try again.’
She rang off. I felt very frustrated; but once again, the family engaged in the contortion required to take a ‘sharp’ photograph of the deep interior of my mouth. Loss of temper was again narrowly avoided, and a second photograph of the stump was obtained.
The dentist pronounced herself satisfied with the photograph, but the relief I felt was momentary. ‘Clearly,’ she said, ‘you need treatment for this. We can’t do the extraction, because we’re closed due to the lockdown. I’m pleased to confirm that we can offer you a private prescription for antibiotics to get rid of the infection. That’ll be £25, please.’
‘But what about the extraction?’ I said, aghast. ‘Antibiotics aren’t much use, the infection will simply return after the course is complete, and anyway I’ll still be walking around with a blackened stump where my tooth used to be. I’m in pain,’ I continued, my voice rising, ‘I told you at the beginning that I needed an extraction, you’re meant to be the “regional emergency centre”, you’re where patients go to at this time when you’ve got a big tooth problem. Why did you make me go through this interrogation, why did you make me take this photograph, when you knew I wanted and needed an extraction?’
‘We’re closed,’ she said, ‘for that kind of dental treatment. You can only get antibiotics from us. Extraction only when normal service is resumed.’
I rang off. An hour wasted for no progress. I then remembered that there was a one-man dental practice in our village. I phoned, hoping that someone local would be more helpful.
I described my situation and asked about his fees. He said that I would need to pay £55 for ‘consultation’, £18 for an X-ray and the extraction would cost around £150-180.
I thought about it. More than £200. We had no money coming in as my and my husband’s businesses had closed in the lockdown, but this was about my health and I was in a great deal of pain.
‘That’s OK,’ I said, feeling financially poorer, but sensing an end to this dreadful situation. ‘When can you see me? Any time today if possible or tomorrow at the latest?’
His answer made me cry. ‘Unfortunately due to government regulation, I cannot see you at this time. You need to wait till the restrictions are lifted.’
I asked when he would be able to open his surgery. ‘Nobody knows,’ he said, ‘we just have to wait. I can always prescribe antibiotics!’
On the third day of continuous pain, in desperation, I tried to find any dentist or dental hospital that would be willing to treat me; anywhere, any time, private or NHS. I learned that Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital Trust in London might be seeing some dental patients. A glimmer of hope! A straw at which to clutch!
I tried to call Guy’s and St Thomas’. I got a recorded message asking callers not to leave a message. The glimmer of hope faded, the straw fell from my clutch. I went to the Guy’s and St Thomas’ website and found a statement that dental appointments could be arranged with them (hooray!) via the NHS 111 service.
Well, I’d tried everything else, I felt I might as well give this a shot. So I rang the 111 service only to be told by a machine that there is a long wait to speak to an operator, and that instead I should go to the 111 website. Obediently, I went to the 111 website, and spent ten fruitless minutes searching for something useful about dental treatment. Nothing. No possibility of arranging a dental appointment, not even information about what to do in cases of acute dental infection.
I went back to calling 111. After a very long wait a lovely lady answered. She asked about my symptoms; it was obvious that she was following a script. She asked if my temperature had risen. I said no. She asked if I was bleeding, I said yes. Now her main concern was how much blood there was.
‘Was it a half cup of blood?’ she asked. I reassured her that it most probably was not although I was not measuring it, just spitting it out on tissues, mixed with pus. She said nothing to this. I have, to this day, no inkling as to the significance or otherwise of the ‘half cup threshold’ quantity of blood I had spat from my mouth.
Next her main concern was about the possibility of my taking an overdose of painkillers. I reassured her that I was not in danger of overdosing on paracetamol. I felt that the conversation was going a bit ‘off the point’ and so I cut to the chase. I asked her about arranging an appointment with a dental hospital or any emergency dentist. The 111 lady paused; I had gone off her script and she obviously now had to decide what to say. ‘I cannot arrange such an appointment,’ was her reply.
At that moment, I was spitting blood (literally and metaphorically). Staying as calm as I could I insisted that she had the power and opportunity to arrange my appointment with a dental hospital, ‘it says so on the Guy’s website,’ I said.
The lady went away to consult her supervisor. She came back with an answer. ‘We can’t do it,’ she said, ‘based on your address, you would be out-of-area for Guy’s. Sorry.’ I asked for any dental hospital or any dentist ‘in my area’ but she wasn’t able to refer me anywhere.
Brightly, she tried to give me some good news. ‘Here’s a telephone number for an emergency dentist.’ She read out the number. ‘Call any time after 6pm. They’ll help you.’
I called at 6.15pm only to be told that all the slots for a dentist ‘telephone consultation’ for tonight were already taken! At least this shows that I’m not alone in my suffering, I thought bitterly.
Time for drastic action, I decided. I put my finger in my mouth and gingerly wiggled the tooth stump, interrupted only by the occasional sharp pain and by the need to get blood and pus out of my mouth. After a while, the first bit of ruined tooth and root came away in my fingers, followed soon after by the second root.
It looked horrible, but the pain had already lessened. And the next day, I woke to no pain at all. When I examined my mouth in the mirror, the process of healing was under way, and so it continued.
I had successfully carried out the required extraction. All by myself. No ‘consultation’ by a dentist, £200 not spent. Doc Holliday has nothing on me, I thought proudly.
And then the anger started to come. My husband and have been taxpayers all our lives, and yet as soon as we needed the public services for which we’d paid, they were out of it faster than a rat up a drainpipe.
Emergency dental treatment for extractions should have been kept going. I cannot understand why dentistry has been permitted to close in this way. Every time I see that Boris giving us some silly faux-Churchillian ‘father of the nation’ speech on the telly, I feel like throwing a cup (or at least half a cup) of my dental blood and pus at the screen.
To cap it all, at least one part of the medical industry has been allowed to re-open: IVF clinics. Having been through IVF myself I understand the value of it. But my infertility was not life-threatening, whereas my dental infection, which could easily have developed into sepsis, potentially was.
So why was this one corner of medical services allowed to open, while a critical service such as emergency dentistry remains firmly shut? I think I know the answer. The IVF industry is mainly private and owned by multinational companies, so they have a lot of financial muscle which they used to persuade the government to let them open up. Obviously dentistry has not such ‘persuasive power’.
My experience has made me extremely bitter and disappointed in the government. Their inability to protect the citizens of this country is abysmal. I will never vote Tory again.