Against the odds

Last January my life was turned upside down. I felt a little unwell but reported nothing really significant, and I had run six miles the day before – as I usually did three times a week – and also took my grandson to a Spurs match. The next day I still felt under the weather, but ran a day’s course for 22 dentists, and after that I spent the whole day treating a patient.
By that evening I felt very unwell and was unable to join my team for a new year’s celebration trip to Cirque du Soleil. During the night, I took a turn for the worse and collapsed in the morning.

I was rushed by ambulance to hospital and taken to intensive care, where I spent the next two weeks on life support. I was diagnosed with an invasive strep A infection, which lead to septicaemia and toxic shock, with total organ failure. At one stage, the family were told that I would not survive and were to say goodbye. 

My medical report stated: ‘This patient was dying and miraculously there was a sudden turn around’. I think this is a testimony to the power of the human mind – although I was in a heavily sedated coma I could hear conversations going on around me and recall thinking that I would not let this get the better of me, and fought to beat it.

When I emerged from the coma I suffered permanent kidney failure as a result of the toxic shock and the high level of life-saving medication, and required ongoing dialysis three times a week. I was in hospital for nine weeks and then returned home, unable to work.

Between October 2009 and March 2010, I returned to my practice for four months and also managed to attend my presidential meeting of the American Dental Society of Europe in Lugano, Switzerland, in June 2009. Many of my international colleagues supported me by giving their time to lecture and the meeting turned out to be highly successful.

In November 2009, my wife’s cousin came forward as a potential kidney donor. Following extensive testing, she was accepted as a suitable donor and a live donor transplant was carried out in March this year.

I have made an excellent recovery and returned to normal health. I will return to my practice this month, where I will be able to accept referrals, particularly of complex restorative cases and of patients with aesthetic problems of dental origin.

I have always had the view that there should be a work/life balance, but dentistry does tend to creep up on you and can easily distort this. Having been so ill, it reinforces my view of the importance of life and the family and that the balance should be tilted more towards that than anything else.

I keep playing over in my mind a poem entitled Leisure by WH Davies which starts with: ‘What is this life if, full of care. We have no time, to stand and stare.’ How true these words are and how easy it is to lose the meaning of life when burrowing away in someone’s mouth and trying to comply with all of the regulations that have been imposed on us.

It is going to take a while to get back into the routine and initially I shall start my days a little later. I plan to practice fewer hours per week, but my aims and objectives are the same as those that I had before my illness.

Luckily, my journey to work is wonderful – I walk from the bedroom to the surgery in 10 seconds! Once the family had grown up and left home, my wife Priscilla and I decided to remove the commuting and lived four nights per week in the flat in Wimpole Street where the practice is located.

I love the mornings. In the autumn and winter jogging in Regent’s Park at 6am, watching the sun come up is magnificent, and in the spring and summer, with the early light, the park is beautiful and puts me in touch with nature, even though it is in the centre of London. I found this a tremendous way to start a day and as a fit person, the demanding day of dentistry became much more manageable. I am also told that my fitness played a major part in helping me survive the toxic shock. Since my illness, I get up at about 9.00am and after breakfast get on an exercise bike for 50 minutes most days. I am gradually building up my fitness and am determined to get back to the level that I was at before.

Running a specialist practice is most definitely difficult and working to very high standards in dentistry is demanding. We work in a small, wet and confined environment, often treating anxious patients who do not want to be with us. With the explosion of cosmetic dentistry and the marketing that goes with it, it is difficult to discern what it is that a patient really wants, and often they don’t know themselves. However, when somebody tells you how happy and grateful they are and how it has changed their lives, it has an amazing effect, not only on me, but on the whole team.

I find the job extremely rewarding. It is a remarkable privilege to be able to transform a human being from someone who is perhaps in pain, cannot speak or chew easily and is dissatisfied with their appearance, to someone who is free from these disabilities and delighted with the outcome.
I have always found teaching an inspiring activity and I take great pleasure in imparting my knowledge to colleagues. It has given me satisfaction to have helped so many dentists over the years with problems in their lives, not necessarily related to dentistry.

On the other side of the coin, the explosion of requirements for running a practice has placed great pressure on the practitioner. I often wonder whether the people drawing up these lists with which we have to comply have ever worked in a practice and understand the implication of having to meet these requirements. Please don’t misunderstand me, I think that as a profession we need to be working to the highest of standards, but these need to be carefully thought out together with their impact when all of them are implemented.

My practising days differ a lot. I am a specialist in oral surgery and restorative dentistry so my treatments are quite varied. Also I teach one day per fortnight. Currently, while in recovery, my days vary between walking, reading, playing the piano and listening to opera – Wagner is one of my passions. I also see friends and family and spend as much time as possible with my five grandchildren. They are a great source of joy.

Once a fortnight I go to Spurs with one of my sons and frequently with Priscilla – sometimes also with a grandson. For many years supporting Spurs was a bit of masochism, but they have come good and that makes it all worthwhile. I used to go with my father and then with one of my sons, so it is very much a routine.

Obviously the dentists who were referring patients to me realised I was not in the practice and therefore stopped. However, my team did a wonderful job of keeping the practice together – they are exceptional people and I am very grateful to them for their support. The patients too have been tremendously supportive and most of them have stayed. I hope that once the profession knows that I am back, they will want to offer their patients the quality of care and expertise that my team and I can offer.

It may be strange for my team to have me back and we will have to go through a transitional period. We will need to let our patients know that I am here and also inform the profession that I am available to accept referrals and will be recommencing the courses in September.

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