Everyone I spoke with this week had some issues with teeth and dentists. Perhaps it is a result of eating too many sweets and snacks during the many lockdowns we experienced in the past two years. Or perhaps it was because both my husband and I had dental appointments, and so we brought up the subject. When we arrived in Canada over 50 years ago, our family joined a new dentist who had graduated at the top of his class, and was the gentlest and kindest person. Our children loved going to him even when they had to have a filling or extraction. When they grew up and left home, they sometimes came back to him for treatment, or just to say hi. When we grew older and went to him for a treatment, he always asked about them. My teeth were never great, and I lost one with every pregnancy. In fact, even as a child I had rotten teeth, since I had a calcium deficiency. I remember one time when I was 6 years old and suffering terrible pain from an infected tooth, my mother took me to a dentist whose clinic was on the ground floor. He had decided to extract my tooth, but lied to me about it. I saw him holding a big plier behind his back. When he approached, I drew my legs to me and kicked him in the stomach with both legs, jumped off the chair, and out the window.
Until I met Peter, I hated going to dentists. He and I have a long history together of bridges, crowns and implants, and he never let anyone else clean my teeth. He even made sure that my fangs were extracted and replaced with normal teeth. You see I was born in Transylvania, and people were always asking about Dracula, so I would jokingly show my bridges which had “replaced my fangs.” Regrettably, Peter retired, and sold his practice to a very competent female dentist who then took in another female dentist, so the practice is now very woman-friendly. My husband, to my delight, felt good with the dentist assigned to him, even though he needed to have some fillings replaced. For me it was the first time that there were no issues with my teeth: only cleaning, and another appointment in 9 months! This never happened before.
I realize how fortunate we are to have a healthcare program that covers dental care. It is a perk we have from our workplace, and continues even in our retirement. Most people are not so fortunate. Some are able to take out private insurance to cover dental care, but the vast majority of the world’s population is less privileged and cannot afford dental care. It is ironic that archeologists find perfectly healthy teeth in men and women over 6000 years old, and today a large segment of the world’s population suffers from rotting teeth. A pediatric dentist, who visits the indigenous population in northern Canada regularly, has told me horror stories about children with massive infections and rotting teeth because they are put to bed with a bottle of fruit juice or even worse, coca cola. It is known that if you want to clean some rusty nails, you can put them in a glass of coca cola, and soon enough the rust will be gone. Imagine what it does to the teeth! This is a direct result of abandoning the old ways of living, nutrition, and lifestyle. Healthy, good food has become expensive and even unavailable in some places in the world. We see more and more people reduced to living in poverty, and certainly not having money available for dental care.
I remember campaigns in schools sponsored by toothpaste companies who generously donated toothbrushes and toothpaste, and had dentists and dental hygienists volunteer to teach about brushing teeth. The well-educated and middle-class population did not really need the handouts, and the poor could not afford to buy a new supply of toothpaste when the free one ran out. This is a serious matter; we see today relatively young people who are missing teeth – this, in turn, affects their entire body. They are unable to chew raw vegetables, unable to eat hard crust, and therefore subside on soft food and drink. Ironically, a hamburger with soft bread and a Coke costs less than fresh vegetables, whole wheat bread, cheese, and milk. No wonder we see a tremendous rise in obesity, diabetes, liver and heart disease. Of course, it is linked to nutrition, but if a person loses the ability to chew food, and is too poor to be able to fix the teeth that will do so, it ends up costing society a great deal. Not only in health-care bills but in social and cultural divisiveness and upheaval.
It is time that we included dental care in our universal health-care basket. It does not have to be fancy, but at least the basics should be included: infection prevention, filling of cavities, and education to prevent cavities. Free dental care in core-area schools and free walk-in clinics in poor neighborhoods would be a good start. I realize that politicians are more motivated to allocate of large amounts of funds for seemingly more important things like military or election spending, but if we do not spend now on the oral health of our citizens, the price we pay will be the collapse of our ability to handle the health needs of our society. I imagine there are not too many among us who have never suffered a tooth ache. And those who did will remember that it was the most excruciating pain, which drove them to the dentist as soon as possible. Those who are unable to do so, take out their own teeth. The cycle goes on.
Why, pray tell, am I talking about teeth when there are floods, fires raging and humanitarian crises in Afghanistan? Perhaps because the media is bombarding us with information about climate change and refugees. Perhaps because of the fact that all I can do with those global issues is feel compassion for individual cases, and marvel at the resilience of people who have lost everything. Or perhaps because I feel that this seemingly small issue of teeth and the relatively easy way it can be tackled may be a pivotal point that can make a huge social difference in the world. Mahatma Gandhi said that the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.
Even though I am not enamored with the person of Mark Twain, I really appreciate his wit and wisdom when he says: “Life is short, break the rules. Forgive quickly, kiss slowly. Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably and never regret ANYTHING that makes you smile.” Smiling is one of the healthiest things we can do, it actually increases the production of oxytocin which is connected with well-being and feeling great. But it takes a lot of courage to smile with rotten teeth. So, let’s face it, we need to fix the world’s teeth, for even Mother Teresa said that “A Smile is the beginning of peace.”