…because not all of us have our Peking ducks in a row
Ask anyone who’s traveling to a developing country her number one fear and it’s usually either:
a) getting robbed, maimed or killed (after which she would most likely end up in a healthcare facility); or,
b) ending up in prison (after which she would most likely end up in need of medical assistance); or,
c) getting so deathly ill that boarding a plane and going back to her home country is not an option, so she’d have no choice but to go to a healthcare facility.
We’ve all heard the stories about getting scammed by Chinese hospitals. A woman goes to the hospital with a mild scrape on the back of her head and is forced to stay for weeks, as she’s paid a deposit of several hundred dollars which the hospital won’t return to her and would rather have her use up. Another patient buys a bottle of medicine only to find that it’s already been opened and half-used. And then there’s me – someone who’s so fearful of getting sick in China that the anxiety in itself would be enough to land me in a Chinese mental institution.
I arrived in China armed with half a suitcase of medicine – acetaminophen, Allegra, sinus decongestant, Maalox, multi-vitamins, calcium pills, anti-nausea medication, melatonin, probiotics, B12, Lactaid, Tylenol Sinus and Cold tablets, oregano oil, Emergen-C, Immodium (my dear, old friend) – to prevent myself from getting sick and ending up in a hospital.
So imagine my dismayed surprise when I found myself in a dentist’s chair in…China! I was given a piece of wretched caramel (made in China) and after chewing it for a bit, my tooth (back left molar) chipped off.
I was deeply disturbed. The chip was about 8mm (I measured it with a ruler) and nothing hurt. But I figured I should get the tooth temporarily capped, so that I could later have it permanently taken care of in a country whose dentists believe in numbing the affected area before a dental procedure, instead of allowing the patient to work herself into a paranoid frenzy then passing out in the dentist’s chair, so that she could be oblivious to the pain.
Someone had mentioned that the dentist I was seeing was the best in town, but being in a town where one could count the number of years left in her life by the number of missing teeth in her mouth, I wasn’t holding holding my breath.
Here are some interesting tidbits about dentists in China:
1. Instead of giving their patients privacy, dentist offices often have glass walls, so that any passerby on the street can see an unfortunate dental patient sitting in the dentist’s chair sweating like a pig with her mouth wide open for the whole world to see.
3. Dentists don’t give shots or gas you up during a dental procedure, even when
Susan the patient becomes a raving lunatic.
After paying my registration fee with the receptionist ($0.12), I was asked whether I wanted to see “The Professor”, who was in the back room.
“The Professor” turned out to be some 60ish year old woman in an ill-fitting puffy Mao suit, who had black, myopic glasses that constantly fogged up. (I was pretty much sweating and hyperventilating by that time, having forgotten to take off my winter coat that was shedding like a feral cat with an exotic skin disease.)
The dentist’s office – with the glass walls – was equipped with a chair, some instruments and an old style spittoon, which I hadn’t seen since the 1980s. There were no happy tooth pictures nor over-sized toothbrushes here. There were instead pictures of terrifying rotted teeth and gums mounted on moldy walls splashed with suspicious smudges, which I knew were the blood of the patients who had agonizingly died a terrible dental death before me.
“The Professor” gestured for me to sit in the dentist’s chair then completely ignored me for the next five minutes, as she moved somethings that looked like little nails from one glass cup to another glass cup and cleaned the instruments furiously with cheap cotton puffs that kept coming off in bits and pieces on my face.
After moving the last of the nails she finally peered at me over her thick glasses and asked, “So…what’s YOUR problem?”
I explained to her the whole incident with the sticky candy, after which she tsk tsked, looked into my mouth and declared:
“MY GOD, WOMAN! HOW DID YOUR TOOTH GET SO DECAYED?!”
She then asked her assistants (two of them) and a random patient in the waiting room to come in and take a look at my sorry excuse for human teeth.
“HEY, HEY, HEY! Wait, wait! Shouldn’t you give me a SHOT…or something first before drilling? I mean… at least…uh..CLEAN…my teeth first?!”
“Now, why should I do that? If I gave you a shot, then you’d be numb, and how would I know what’s hurting you?”
“The Professor” put the drill down, squinted, and looked at me closely up and down for a long time through fogged-up glasses, “You’re not from around here… are you?”
“Look, I don’t understand. Why can’t you patch things up WITHOUT drilling first. Do you HAVE to drill? Can’t you just stick a piece of…of wax, or a cotton ball…or something, in there?”
“The Professor sighed and pointed her drill towards the wall, “Now look. If I spackle that hole in that wall over there, don’t I first have to clear the debris around the hole, so that the spackle will stick? Well, it’s the same thing with your tooth! You gotta clear the surrounding stuff away to get enough traction for anything to stick to your chipped tooth!”
I was floored. This was the first time a dentist had ever compared fixing my teeth to spackling a hole in a moldy and blood-stained Chinese wall. Now I wondered what “The Professor” did in her spare time.
…the MOST AWFUL FILLING known to man.
It was as if, instead of putting a prosthetic arm on a one-armed patient, the doctor cut off a dead, gnarled tree branch two inches too short with a few dead leaves on it, tied in onto the patient’s arm stump and told him to use it. The filling was a massive, shapeless blob the size of chicken testicles. I couldn’t bite down on my teeth properly, and even though my face wasn’t frozen it was lopsided when I smiled. It felt like a bag of marbles had been jammed up the left side of my face. My mouth had that terrible taste of filling residue. If I didn’t die in the next 48 hours from mercury poisoning, the locals would probably stone me to death for looking like a creature from another planet.
When it was all over, I asked “The Professor”, “So, uh…is this a temporary thing…or should I get a permanent…cap?”
“The Professor” looked at me sternly and sniffed, “This filling is perfect, you don’t need to do anything else to it! You’re really not from around here, ARE YOU?”
The final bill was about $100.00 – the going rate for someone who so obviously wasn’t from around THERE.
This post is dedicated to Torre DeRoche’s challenge for all of us to describe what we find fearful in our lives, and how this fear inspires and moves us to do something that will “change our world”. And, while having my teeth *fixed* in China (and I use this term in the same way that a doberman pincher would “get fixed” so he can’t reproduce) is one of the biggest mental hurdles I’ve had to overcome during my stay there, I realized that, in the end, I still overcame it. I still own all of my teeth, people don’t call me Gummy Sue, and life goes on – dentally and otherwise. Maybe I didn’t climb Mount Everest in the winter, trip over my Sherpa and break a leg, or work with Jane Goodall in rehabilitating wayward gorillas, but I realized that fear is only as big as my brain allows it to be. That sometimes the best experiences are borne out of the most fearful ones. And frankly, how many among us can boast of a filling the size of a chicken testicle? Not many. I can assure you.
This post is part of the My Fearful Adventure series, which is celebrating the launch of Torre DeRoche’s debut book Love with a Chance of Drowning, a true adventure story about one girl’s leap into the deep end of her fears.
“Wow, what a book. Exciting. Dramatic. Honest. Torre DeRoche is an author to follow.” Australian Associated Press
“… a story about conquering the fears that keep you from living your dreams.” Nomadicmatt.com
“In her debut, DeRoche has penned such a beautiful, thrilling story you’ll have to remind yourself it’s not fiction.” Courier Mail