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Frank McNally on Dentists

An Irishman’s Diary

I know they get paid well, but sometimes I feel sorry for dentists, says
Frank McNally .

Because apart from the fact that they can talk to patients for long
periods during which the patients are not in a position to interrupt,
theirs is a profession that allows very little in the way of

Woody Allen summed it up – indirectly – in a classic sketch: “If the
Impressionists had been Dentists.” This takes the form of a series of
letters from tortured dental genius Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo
– describing his daily struggles with such philistine patients as Mrs
Sol Schwimmer, who has sued him just because he made her bridge
“enormous and billowing, with wild, explosive teeth flaring up in every

One letter explains: “Now she is upset because it won’t fit into her
mouth! She is so bourgeois and stupid, I want to smash her. I tried
forcing the false plate in but it sticks out like a star burst
chandelier. Still, I find it beautiful. She claims she can’t chew! What
do I care whether she can chew or not!”

I was reminded of the sketch by a current lawsuit in the US, in which a
patient called Brandy Fanning is suing her dentist. My apologies if
you’re reading this in a waiting room before undergoing root canal work.
But, basically, Ms Fanning was having an emergency procedure involving a
molar when she ended up with a broken-off drill bit in her sinus cavity.
She now claims negligence by the dentist, whose name – adding poignancy
to the case – is George Trusty.

Mr Trusty is not an impressionist, nor even a performance artist. Not
according to reports, anyway. His only eccentricity is that he was –
allegedly – “dancing” at the time of the incident. Or as the plaintiff’s
lawyers put it: “performing rhythmical steps and movements to the song
Car Wash, which was playing on the radio.

Presumably these were small steps. Even allowing that the defendant was
merely drilling the molar to break it up prior to extraction – a job
that allows for some imprecision – it would be a challenge to do this
while dancing with anything like vigour. Either way, one emergency led
to another, and Ms Fanning spent three days in hospital having the drill

Again, my apologies to any readers who are about to have their molars
looked at. Here’s another extract from the Van Gogh/Allen letters to
take your mind off drills: “Toulouse-Lautrec is the saddest man in the
world. He longs more than anything to be a great dentist, and he has
real talent, but he’s too short to reach his patients’ mouths and too
proud to stand on anything. Arms over his head, he gropes around their
lips blindly, and yesterday, instead of putting caps on Mrs Fitelson’s
teeth, he capped her chin.

“Meanwhile, my old friend Monet refuses to work on anything but very,
very large mouths, and Seurat, who is quite moody, has developed a
method of cleaning one tooth at a time until he builds up what he calls
a ‘full, fresh mouth’. It has architectural solidity to it, but is it
dental work?”

One can’t help feeling some sympathy for Dr Trusty, who faces damages of
$600,000. Having a radio in his surgery was probably intended for the
benefit of patients. But at 57 – just four years older than John
Travolta – he was in the high-risk category for responding involuntarily
to disco-era songs.

Besides, Car Wash is particularly catchy. I defy anybody to listen to
the opening verse – “You might not ever get rich/ But let me tell ya
it’s better than diggin’ a ditch. . .” – without making rhythmical
movements. And even if you can withstand that, the chorus will
definitely get you: “At the car wash/ Whoa whoa whoa/ Talkin’ about the
car wash, girl/ Come on, ya’all and sing it for me/(Car wash) Oooh oooh
oooh! (Car wash, girl). . .”

My suspicion is that the patient was moving as well as the dentist, and
that their rhythms converged violently at an unfortunate moment
(probably on the “ooh ooh ooh!”). In any case, I think Dr Trusty’s
lawyers should plead reduced culpability on the grounds that the music
made him do it. This was a common theme in disco-era song lyrics, after

None of which will be any comfort to you if, as I say, you are about to
enter the dentist’s chair – especially if he has a radio playing. In
which case, my advice is that, before the drilling starts, you should
ask him to switch over to Newstalk. In the meantime, to top up your
anaesthetic, here’s some more Woody Allen: “Dear Theo, Gauguin and I had
another fight and he has left for Tahiti! He was in the midst of an
extraction when I disturbed him. He had his knee on Mr Nat Feldman’s
chest with the pliers around the man’s upper right molar. There was the
usual struggle and I had the misfortune to enter and ask Gauguin if he
had seen my felt hat.

“Distracted, Gauguin lost his grip on the tooth and Feldman took
advantage of the lapse to bolt from the chair and race out of the
office. Gauguin flew into a frenzy! He held my head under the X-ray
machine for 10 straight minutes and for several hours afterwards I could
not blink my eyes in unison. Now I am lonely. – Vincent.”

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