When I worked in a dental practice near Portobello Road in west London, I met a lot of ‘colourful’ characters, many of whom I might have avoided had I saw them approaching me by chance in the street. One fellow, Ted, a large patient whose nose had been broken at least once and been badly fixed, said to me once: “If anyone ever causes you trouble in the street, just say you’re a friend of Ted. That’ll warn them.”
One day while I was standing in a queue at a takeaway counter waiting to order lunch, someone standing near me, a patient of mine, said: “Need a motor, doc?” I answered that I did not need a car at that point of time. “No problem, Doc,” he replied, “when you need one, just tell me what you want, whatever colour and make, and I’ll get it for you.” Not willing to sound ungrateful, I thought that when he said “get”, he really meant “steal.”
I had many patients who had been in and out of trouble with the law. Often, I would be told: “Look what the prison dentist did to this tooth, doc. Bleeding butcher, he was. Ought to be put behind bars.” I never asked why my patients had spent time ‘inside’. I felt it would be better not to know.
The last patient before one lunchtime was an aggressive young man. He was accompanied by his friend, a slightly older man. Before I had time to ask the young fellow what was wrong, he told me. Pointing to a lower left premolar tooth, he said: “Get it out. It’s f…..g killing me.” I looked at the chap. His mouth did not seem to close properly. “Don’t just stand there. Get it out, man”. I looked at the tooth. It looked alright. It was neither decayed, nor wobbly, nor tender. That strange mandibular posture bothered me.
“You’ve broken your jaw,” I said. “Don’t give me that crap. Just take it out.” I said: “If I take it out, you will still be in pain. You need to go to a hospital to fix your jaw.” This only angered the patient more, and I began to fear for the integrity of my jaw. “I’m not leaving until you take it out.” “Then,” I replied, “I’ll ring for an ambulance.” The patient’s friend said: “Come on, mate, let’s go.” Reluctantly, the patient allowed his friend to drag him out into the street. I locked the practice for the lunch break, relieved to see them leave.
Some days later, I met the patient’s friend in the street. I asked him whether the young man had been to hospital. He did not answer my question. Instead he said: “He’s gone away.” “On holiday?” I queried innocently. “Yes, on holiday.” “Long holiday?” I asked, beginning to understand what he meant by ‘holiday’. “Yes, very long holiday”.