Pete Farrage is the founder of Enhance Dental Care in Yarm.
Pete shared his story with me recently and I immediately asked his permission to share it with you.
Why? Simply because it contains the echo of so many stories that I hear and, this morning, it might bring a rosy glow to your heart and put a smile on your face. You are not alone.
p.s The blog is taking a week's vacation - and will be back on 9th November.
Why did I become a dentist in the first place?
Short answer: Caribbean beaches, women, rum and Ian Botham. And Radio One.
Long answer: I was always a bright kid at school, but I was terrible at P.E. I was thoroughly incompetent in every game except cricket, where I was a poor batsman and a halfway reasonable bowler for a primary school kid, so by default that was “my sport”.
At that time, the nation was gripped with the maverick antics of cricketing superstar Ian Botham, who quite recently had single-handedly saved the world from Australian cricketing domination, and he became my sporting hero. I even wrote a poem about him when I was ten. My primary school teacher kept it and showed it to my parents thirty years later at her 80th birthday party. It was that good.
My family were living in Yarm, a town in the north east of England at the time, in fact they still are. Our local dentist was very much of the old school even then, and he was an absolute bastard. I remember one time being dragged into the surgery kicking and screaming when I grabbed hold of something to pull against. That “something” was a radiator on full heat. I remember my hands burning and being pulled by the waist, so I must have reasoned that the pain in my hands was preferable to the pain I was about to receive.
We happened to visit a different dentist in a different part of the country at some point in time, probably the late 1970s. My uncle lived in Birmingham and as a family we would visit him once or twice a year. I think it was my dad who developed a dental problem on one such occasion, so he had an emergency appointment with my uncle’s mate – Dave the Dentist. It was a different world, and we liked it.
So, it came to pass that every time we went to visit my Uncle Russ, the whole family would go to see Dave the Dentist, and he was great. I remember sitting in the chair, listening to pop songs interspersed with the Radio One jingle and marvelling at the rapport he had with his attractive dental nurse. I liked being there a lot.
We never visited the old bastard of Yarm again.
Looking back, I wonder about my tale of two dentists. If I hadn’t had two such extreme experiences of dentistry, would I have had my interest piqued? Would I have thought to myself, “This is how it should be” at Dave’s place? I suspect not.
Then, my uncle, who was a teacher, exchanged jobs for a year with some poor sod from Trinidad and Tobago (who ended up in inner city Birmingham) and we didn’t see him or Dave for about 18 months.
How is this for an accolade: My entire immediate family made the 500 mile round trip to visit Dave the Dentist, at least once per year. That level of patient devotion is something to aspire to, isn’t it? Even my Grandad used to go, and he had all of his teeth removed on board a ship during the Second World War.
He was full of great stories, my Grandad: Like many young men of his generation, he was part of the war effort. He joined the navy and saw parts of the world that would otherwise remain unexplored by a working-class lad from Teesside. When my parents went out for the weekend, my brother and I would get dropped off at my Nanna and Grandad's’ house to be picked up at some point on Sunday when presumably they had sobered up.
My Nanna used to fill me a glass of lemonade, which my Grandad would then turn alcoholic with a splash of Newcastle Brown Ale, much to her annoyance, and he would then tell me and my brother stories from far flung corners of the world; Australia, South America, North Africa, South Africa, New York and more. I remember thinking that I would like to have travelled the world and have stories to tell my grandchildren.
When my uncle returned from his year in Trinidad and Tobago, he regaled us with stories from his time in the tropics: the beaches, the women, the rum, the jungle. It sounded incredible to my eleven-year-old ears.
However, it was our next visit to Birmingham that proved to be pivotal. We asked if we were going to see Dave the Dentist, and my uncle said that he wasn’t here. Why? Because he had taken a month off to go and watch the England cricket tour of The West Indies. I thought to myself that was incredible, the best thing imaginable: Month off work. Cricket tour. West Indies. My dad and uncle were similarly impressed and envious, with my dad calling Dave “a jammy so-and-so” (I paraphrase), and my uncle replying, “Well, you can do that when you’re a dentist.” That was my lightbulb moment.
Why did I want to have my own practice?
Short answer: Excellence in restorative dentistry, clinical & financial freedom and Oscar.
Long answer: Turning 30, I found myself in a long-term (for me) relationship with a mental case woman who was about to become my first wife, and “bashing the nash” for a micro-corporate. It was slightly depressing, but in each case I thought that this was about as good as I could do. The practice owners were ok in so far as it was cool for me to take a 2 month holiday each year to go off travelling, but the actual job itself was dreary: uninspired staff working in a drab surgery churning out amalgam fillings, extractions and plastic dentures, with only the occasional excitement of a “Britesmile” procedure to break the monotony.
I’d only been working in the UK for two and a half years and psychologically I had reached my limit: I thought about leaving dentistry altogether on several occasions. Something had to change.
Normally, I hate opening a magazine and having half a dozen leaflets drop out of it, but on this particular day, something dropped out of the BDJ which caught my eye. It was an advert for a one-year Excellence in Restorative Dentistry course run by Paul Tipton. Having witnessed my clinical standards gradually slide in the wrong direction, I knew I had to improve or quit. I chose to improve and signed myself up. This was the best thing to happen in my career by far, and Paul Tipton was an inspiring leader and knowledgeable tutor.
When the course finished, I immediately signed up for another year with him, this time focussing on aesthetics and cosmetic dentistry. I was so in love with learning that I followed that with a year with The University of Warwick studying how to place and restore implants. That’s when my son was born. I called him Oscar.
Astonishingly, my dental odyssey was not particularly well appreciated by the practice owners.
During a conversation, I happened to mention to one of them that I was doing a restorative dentistry course. “Why? Shouldn’t you KNOW how to do it already?” she said and laughed in my face. This is the same woman who assigned to me “dental homeopathy” for our peer review session.
The other owner was slightly more receptive but didn’t want me to do any dentistry that was above his skill level because he didn’t want to be liable for replacing it if it failed. I felt constrained, unsupported and undervalued. I wanted out.
In addition to this, it is a truth universally accepted that having a child is a bind: An expensive ball and chain that robs you of your sleep, your dreams and all of your disposable income. That’s what I say to him, anyway. (Not really!) You can’t exactly climb the Atlas Mountains, sleep in a Bedouin tent in the Sahara and trek across the desert with a newborn baby.
I had to wait until he was nearly five for that.
Clearly, I was having no crazy adventures anytime soon, and then he would have to go to school. I had to go out and work as there were now three mouths to feed from my sole income. I was trapped by family life.
However, if I am to be bound by fatherly obligations, I may as well be tethered by other responsibilities as well, and that potentially included practice ownership, the idea of which I had always shunned for adventure and high-risk behaviour.
For now, the crazy times were over. I started to look around to see what was on the market, but there was nothing remotely suitable. That’s when I had the idea of setting up a squat. I found my ideal location, which happened to be my hometown of Yarm, and I put in offers on several properties which sadly came to nothing.
Then, I heard through the grapevine that the owner of a practice on Yarm High Street was struggling and thinking about selling up. Sensing an opportunity, I rang him, introduced myself and made him an offer.
I had my own practice before Oscar’s first birthday.