17 Jun עופר איתן Writes: After 64 years, NZ’s oldest practising dentist retires aged
At 88, New Zealand’s oldest practising dentist has pulled his last tooth.
I’ve had enough,” said Terry Lealand, who has worked in Hāwera for 64 years.
In July last year, Lealand fell and broke his hip while on a cruise with his wife, Dr Wendy London.
Fortunately, the ship was just a day out of Auckland, so he was evacuated to hospital.
“He was back at work by September, then we went travelling for four months,” London said. “Nothing keeps him down.”
Although his hip had healed well, it made climbing the stairs to his surgery a challenge, and with Covid-19, working so closely with people put him at risk, Lealand said.
He arrived in Hāwera in 1956, just after graduating from Otago University, driving up from Dunedin on a motorbike with his then wife and baby son in the sidecar, along with the family cat.
His first job was three years bonded to the Government in return for a training bursary, treating school children from around South Taranaki.
“My first patient was my old girlfriend from high school, who was one of the dental nurses I worked with, and I still have two fillings she did,” he said.
When the three years were up, he bought a practice from retiring dentist Dennis Bliss.
Many students he had treated came to him when they left school.
“I had 750 or so kids that didn’t think I was too bad. That made my practice click on,” he said.
Sometimes, patients needed a general anaesthetic if they were having all their teeth extracted, and he worked alongside a GP, Dr Alastair Buist.
“A full clearance was a pretty major operation. There were times people wanted to get all their teeth out so there were no future maintenance costs, but I didn’t take out teeth unnecessarily.”
Lealand was the last dentist in South Taranaki still making prosthetics and false teeth, and even made one for himself when he had a tooth extracted.
He had enjoyed seeing the developments in technology over the decades.
Throughout his career, Lealand made a lot of his own equipment, including an electrocardiogram machine, and a machine to suck away the water spray generated when the newly-invented high speed drills were first introduced.
“Dentistry is basically the same as it’s always been, although the technology has changed,” he said.
“There’s a lot of scaremongering goes on, about people dying of mercury fillings, but I’m 88 and you can see how dead I am after handling it all these years.”
He was up to the fourth generation of some patients’ families.
But when a brothel opened right next door to the surgery, he lost a few.
“It hurt my practice a bit because wives didn’t like their husbands coming up those stairs,” he said.
Now that he’s closed the practice, he is looking forward to tackling some of the retirement projects stacked up in his basement workshop.
Lealand’s 1962 certificate as an amateur radio operator hangs alongside his degree in dentistry, over a desk crowded with ham radio equipment.
Cabinets and shelves are crammed with electronic components, walls are festooned with hand tools, while welding gear and a lathe sit near a hospital bed converted to a workbench.
The couple also plan to continue travelling once New Zealand’s border reopens, London said.
She is an American-born lawyer and cruise industry specialist, who was living in London when she met Lealand in 1994 on a blind date.
He had stopped over in London on his way to a conference.
It wasn’t long before Wendy was on her way to the Southern Hemisphere and, a few weeks later, an impromptu proposal.
That happened when she got a phone call from a lawyer friend who was handling her immigration application.
As she was on the phone, Lealand was on his knees in the laundry mopping up a flood from the washing machine.
The lawyer “asked me if Terry was going to marry me, so I asked him, and he said yes”.
That was 24 years ago.
They have explored the world together since, including the Arctic (“almost to the North Pole,” says London), Antarctica, Asia, Africa, Russia, Australia and Eastern Europe, much of the time on cruise ships.
Former South Taranaki mayor Ross Dunlop, a former patient of Lealand, said he was still at intermediate school when he first went to see the dentist he knew affectionately as ‘Terry the Tooth Fairy’.
“I know Terry very well, he’s definitely one of the town’s characters,” he said.
“He is a very clever man, he was ahead of his time, always up with the latest technology.”