The meeting room was packed with dentists in white smocks — men and women, interns and doctors nearing retirement — about 30 of them sitting in front of a screen and another 20 standing along the sides of the room. The lights go out and on the screen appears an X-ray of hippopotamus teeth.
“What we have here is an abscess,” says Dr. Murakami, using his pointer to circle the gingivitis under the left mandibular canine tooth. “We will do surgery today at 2 p.m.”
The doctors are filled with excitement and curiosity. These dentists have never worked on a hippopotamus before. One thing is for sure, this is going to be one learning experience!
The dentists have just a couple of hours to prepare. They get out their hippopotamus handbooks and brush up on the details of the hippopatamian oral cavity. “Did you know that hippos have ivory canine teeth?” says one dentist. “Do you know how hippos brush their teeth?” says another. “They open their mouths and let birds walk in and peck at the leftover food between their teeth.”
“Avian dental floss!” responds another. “Hippos are mostly vegetarian,” reads out another.
At 2 p.m., the hippo is brought into the dental clinic by a veterinarian. Everyone’s head turns as the vet leads the hippo to the back of the clinic. The dentists smile and bow to the hippo — it’s so cute! And a lot smaller than they thought it would be.
A dental assistant looks at the hippo’s dental history. Name: Marsha. No record of allergies. No previous hospitalizations.
A senior dentist, in his 50s, washes his hands. He washes his arms too. Dr. Murakami stands in the corner watching. He has booked the patient in and wants to make sure everything runs smoothly. The senior dentist looks at Marsha’s dental chart and puts on his rubber gloves. He turns to the hippo and says, “Arrrhhhrrrrr.” Everyone is stunned. Not only does the dentist speak hippo, but he’s fluent!
Marsha doesn’t say anything, but follows the dentist’s instructions. She opens her mouth revealing four ivory canine teeth and three pairs of incisors. The dentist focuses on the canine tooth of the left mandible. The tooth is so big, he could make five inkan stamps and a netsuke out of the dentine, but he tries not to think about this. After all, he has taken the Hippocratic Oath.
It’s a bad abscess. He may have to extract the tooth. The vet and the other assorted dentists and interns gather around. The hippo, now heavily sedated, has cotton tucked between her tooth and cheek.
“Arrrrhhhrrr arrrhhhhhrr,” says the dentist. (“I will make an incision.”)
A dental assistant stands on the other side of the mammal, holding a vacuum tube to suck up saliva. “Oh, it’s really coming out,” she says, alarmed at all the hippo pus draining from the incision. She moves the tube around the affected area to suck, suck, while the vacuum goes blip, blip as the nozzle occasionally adheres itself to the hippo’s cheek choking off the air supply. Marsha’s pus, blood and saliva is carried away via the vacuum tube to the pus repository. Perhaps they should have emptied it before the hippo appointment.
Dental hygienists flitter in and out of the room taking turns peering into the gigantic abscess. It’s a rare opportunity to see inside the mouth of a hippo. One person takes photos of the hippo’s oral cavity during every step of the surgery.
The dentist decides he must remove part of the tooth in order to reach more of the infected cavity. The dentist turns on the drill: wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! The drill is powered by a foot pedal that works like a gas pedal controlling the speed of the drill. It clunks as it engages, wheeeeeeeeeeeee!
Marsha groans as the drill whirs on. The hippo is growing impatient. She has been in the dental chair for three hours now.
“More anesthesia!” cries the dentist. The assistant loads more plastic tubes of the clear liquid. The long needles look more like tiny straight pins once inside the hippo’s mouth. They’re inserted into Marsha’s fleshy gums. The hippo is quiet again. The hippo is pacified.
The dentist continues drilling, scraping and pulling on the tooth. Clunk. Wheeeeee! He moves to the other side of the dental chair and drills, scrapes and pulls. Clunk. Wheeeeeeee! Finally, the drill stops. The room is silent.
“Arrrrhhhrrr wa ar arrrhhhhhrr,” says the dentist. (“Lastly, I will put in the stitches.”)
Soon, the hippo is finished with her dental treatment. Luckily, the dentist did not have to extract the tooth. Everyone is relieved the surgery went well. Still, the entire procedure has taken four hours.
The vet led the hippo back out to the front desk where Dr. Murakami gave him a prescription for painkillers and antibiotics.
The vet then paid the bill and came back to where the hippopotamus was sitting. “How do you feel?” asks my husband. I didn’t answer. I just held my jaw and groaned, wallowing in self pity.