I was visiting my periodontist Dr Bannon today, a man of my age in his early fifties well versed in matters dental and who takes good care of me. The appointment was a routine maintenance and inspection one to keep the periodontal inflammation of my gums at bay. During the course of my visit, I was telling him about the oral surgery I had had nearly 30 years ago on my jaw to correct a dento-facial deformity.
‘Who did the operation?’ Dr Bannon asked, checking over my x-rays.
‘Dr Mackellar’ I told him
‘Dr Geoffrey McKellar, from Westmead Hospital?’
‘He passed away not long ago, it was very sad’
I sat back in the dental chair, stunned. Dr McKellar was a well-known and very reputable oral surgeon who had only been in his sixties. I knew that because as a Customs Officer I had processed him a couple of years ago as he was going overseas to a conference and I had seen his passport. That was so young and he’d seemed so healthy, an early 1960s movie-star handsome dark-haired man with a square jaw and a serious gaze, in the days before everybody went mad dancing around in cheesecloth with flowers in their hair and singing about love. I can’t remember whether his eyes were light or dark, but that busy afternoon he had looked fine, dapper and conservatively dressed and not much changed over the decades before.
I asked Dr Bannon for more details, but there were few: that he had died unexpectedly, that he had a daughter, that he was deeply mourned by his colleagues. The work of a surgeon was very stressful, Dr Bannon opined, oral surgery particularly so for some reason. He had heard of the loss of another oral surgeon in similar circumstances.
I had reason to be very grateful to Dr McKellar. Back in 1988 I was back from the brink of a serious mental illness, but this good fortune was tempered with the difficulties of finding accommodation, getting my life back on track with education and training, getting into the workforce and off welfare and of learning to manage my medical condition.
Back then my jaw was giving me hell. My bite for some reason had worsened considerably as my 20s progressed and so my jaw was painful, the sockets clomping and clicking every time I ate. Often I would wake up with my jaw locked and stiff and it would take some time for it to work again. The lower jaw was wandering, unable to find a place to rest and I was told that without an operation to correct the dento-facial deformity I would have severe arthritis in my jaw by the time I was 40.
Dr McKellar fixed all that in a major operation where he aligned my jaws to the correct position, drawing the lower jaw forward. The recovery process was slow and painful, especially since my jaws were wired together for six months. But throughout he was no-nonsense, supremely professional and competent and took care of my every need.
As a result, I felt comfortable at last and eating was no longer an issue. I can’t express how much of a difference that made. A year later I finished my TAFE courses and armed with these, got my first full-time job. There were still problems, but I could manage them and muddle through. I no longer felt like a freak with a painful, restless jaw. A happy, productive life as an adult had begun.
Governments in this country pay scant regard to the necessity of resources for oral and dental health. Good dental health is crucially important for the heart and the brain. If they don’t want masses of people clogging up the health system and adding to costs, they would do well to make dental and oral health services refundable on Medicare. But all we have is costly private health cover or a run-down public health system staffed with brilliant, kind but over-stressed professionals. This needs to change.
And above it all, the silent, lightning strike of death in the midst of life shocks, frightens and bewilders just the same way the artist Hans Holbein depicted The Dance of Death more than four hundred years ago. Now the old, old Death steps implacably into the 21st century and takes a surgeon working on the operating table.
I had sent him a letter thanking him and telling him how well I was doing after our chance encounter at the airport not that long ago. He wrote back saying that was wonderful news. So I mourn Dr McKellar’s tragic, untimely death and will remember his great gift to me for the rest of my life.