lostnchina

…because not all of us have our Peking ducks in a row

Dentally Yours: An Adventure in Chinese Medical Misadventure

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.

When I first moved to China, I had nightmares about getting very sick and being treated by a doctor by the surname of MAO whose clothes smelled like mothballs and Tiger Balm.

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.


2.  There are “grades” of dentists with different price tiers.  (Just like hairdressers!) I went with the most expensive dentist, as the cheapest one probably doubled as a janitor during off-hours.

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.

“The Professor” took out a drill (not a DeWalt) and came towards me.

“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?”

“WHAAAAAT?!”

“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.

stick-man1After twenty minutes of absolute panic and fear, I had…

…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 $100.00the 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.


Love with a Chance of Drowning – A Memoir by Torre DeRocheThis 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

Find out more…


33 comments on “Dentally Yours: An Adventure in Chinese Medical Misadventure

  1. girlseule
    July 5, 2013

    That. Sounds. Terrifying. I’m scared of the dentist at home!! Great post and I can’t believe the glass windows with the poor patient right there for the world to see!

    Like

  2. Pingback: Your Fearful Adventures

  3. Jean
    June 1, 2013

    You really don’t want to hear this: my maternal grandmother in her late 60’s died shortly having procedure done by the dentist. This was in the early 1970’s. She lived in rural China.

    Like

    • lostnchina
      June 2, 2013

      Thank you, Jean, for sharing. I will now fast and encase myself in plastic saran wrap for the entire duration of my stay in China, so I won’t catch any diseases.

      Like

      • Jean
        June 12, 2013

        😀

        Like

      • Capn
        June 13, 2013

        That won’t do a damn thing. To avoid becoming ill in China is a careful balance of staying the hell away from air conditioners, ritually rinsing your dishes at the restaurant table, not washing your hair when you have your period, avoiding too much heaty or cooly foods (“Goody, I get to eat all the peanuts!”), hanging good luck totems on the door, and drinking hot water when it’s 34C. Inside. Got all that?

        Like

  4. bronxboy55
    May 31, 2013

    I wonder how common it is in China for personal services to be conducted in a window facing outside. The intent must be to attract attention, but I’d imagine it would cause most people to cross the street and walk on the other side.

    Just how big are chicken testicles? How do I find out without having to actually ask someone?

    Like

    • lostnchina
      June 2, 2013

      Let’s just say chicken testicles are larger than the size of my pea-sized brain, but a lot smaller than the god awful bunion I’ve got on my right foot.

      Like

  5. Capn
    May 26, 2013

    The bad news: In the space of 2½ years, I’ve broken a tooth four times in China (and just this weekend, found another stone in a dish. When the waiter told me it was bone, I waved it a few times over the screen protector of my phone, making deep gouges in it despite it otherwise not having a scratch after a year. I offered to test it on his phone too, but he settled for taking that dish off the bill. Should have cleaned off the whole bill due to mental anguish. I’m so over Chinese quarries masquerading as food).

    The good news: I live in Shenzhen, and there’s a Western-standard dental clinic at Luohu checkpoint. It’s aimed at folks coming from HK. They were very professional. Dr. Yang spoke English, they were doing all the western-style hygiene procedures like tray kits of tools, facemasks, cling film on touchable surfaces, and they had all the latest equipment. When I needed a filling, I researched the kind of filling I needed, and had a good talk with the doctor about it. He just said all the things I expected someone who knew their shit to say. I expected this to end up being expensive, but it was a quarter of the price I’d pay back home. Address: lovelytooth.com. A+, will open mouth for again!

    Like

    • lostnchina
      May 27, 2013

      Dear Capn (Crunch? At least the teeth, maybe): Thanks so much for the heads up on this place. Though I hope I may never have another tooth mishap again, I’ve bookmarked the dentist, just in case. And I’m sure your dish of rocks cost something like $1.99, still far less than what you had to pay the dentist for the filling.

      Like

      • Capn
        May 27, 2013

        Capn as in CapnKernel 🙂

        For those in Dalian, I went to this lovely lady in Dalian some five years ago. She did some pretty fancy work on a back tooth which involved dental impressions, a temporary filling, a custom-made tooth insert, and three hours to fit it. Also very good value.

        http://maxxelli-blog.com/2011/03/dentist-dalian-smile-dental-clinic/

        > I’m sure your dish of rocks cost something like $1.99, far less than a filling.

        It’s not even that. It’s that every time this happens, the dentist says “don’t use this tooth to chew on any more”. I’m rapidly running out of places to chew, and with an expected 30 years of my life yet, I’m feeling the finiteness of my teeth. What price that?

        Like

  6. jakesprinter
    May 22, 2013

    Glad to see your post once again my friend ,Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Like

  7. This has a bit scared or scarred me. Chicken Testicles :/. I dunno what to say, othger than man I wish i could give you a hug. Sounds like a rough ordeal how are your teeth now ?

    Like

    • lostnchina
      May 22, 2013

      Chicken testicles isn’t euphemism for anything else, MrM. My teeth are still working and waiting for their next adventure.

      Like

      • I figure as much, but chicken testicles dont come up much it blew me away:-) I hope you dont have too many more of those adventures 🙂

        Like

  8. americantaitai
    May 21, 2013

    OMG… so… uh, no more hard OR soft candies and no more dentist visits for you in China, I think. Hope your tooth is ok for now, or until you cross the border into HK to visit a western-style dentist. Chew with care!

    Like

    • lostnchina
      June 2, 2013

      I’ll take my meals in the form of old-lady gruel from now on, I think.

      Like

  9. Lin
    May 20, 2013

    I didn’t see a dentist until when I was 20 during my college years in Chengdu, China! First I went to a dentist on campus. He couldn’t find anything. Because I was so much in pain, he prescribed me painkillers. Painkillers didn’t kill my tooth pain. Luckily, one of my schoolmates recommended a dental clinic in downtown to me. A dentist of the clinic fixed my teeth. Susan, there are competent dentists in China. But you have to know where to find them.

    Like

    • lostnchina
      May 20, 2013

      I totally believe you, Lin. But I guess I just haven’t found one yet 😦

      Like

  10. expatlingo
    May 20, 2013

    Ha, ha, ha, ha!

    I was lucky enough to avoid visiting the dentist in China. Though I did delight in passing by the glassed in dental offices and rubber-necking the patients! How long did you have to last with that filling?

    Like

    • lostnchina
      May 20, 2013

      Fortunately, the near disasters I had with teeth (twice) occurred right before I was leaving China and going back to the States. The last time I did something to my teeth while eating something innocuous like rice (there was a pebble or somebody’s fingernail inside). Went to a dentist in the “best hospital” in the Chinese city I was in. Waited over an hour and these two yahoos spent 2 minutes looking in my mouth and said they couldn’t see anything like I was describing (chip or hairline crack). They didn’t even have an overhead light or use any instruments, they just looked inside. I kept asking them if they had a “magnifying glass”; they said they didn’t use any. Went home and emailed my regular dentist, he looked at my xrays and said there isn’t any decay in that area, so I shouldn’t worry, it might be temporary. A week later the problem had resolved itself. My dentist’s the only man I’d suffer a week of excruciating tooth pain to see.

      Like

      • expatlingo
        May 20, 2013

        Hey, so next time you have a dental problem in China, just take a picture of your open mouth with your phone, send it to me, and I’ll analyze the problem from Hong Kong. It’ll save you waiting an hour at the hospital for the dental geniuses. 😉

        Like

  11. becomingcliche
    May 20, 2013

    UGH! I guess I shouldn’t hate on my dentist so much then.

    Like

    • lostnchina
      May 20, 2013

      You should immediately send your dentist flowers or go over there and give him/her a big hug. (Though he/she might charge you through the nose for that visit.)

      Like

  12. My family is from HK and I’ve heard many stories about discounted dentistry available on the mainland. My grandpa would go over to Shenzhen and pay a couple dollars to have a tooth removed. Oh the things we do to save money. Your experience and “chicken testicle” fillings sound terrifying. I feel for you.

    Like

    • lostnchina
      May 20, 2013

      HI Farah, I’ve never liked going to the dentist, even under the best circumstances, so going to one in a small town in China was doubly worse. I think the ‘older generation’ of Chinese, like your grandpa, have a stronger stomach for these kinds of things. But they also have far less teeth than we do! Thanks for reading!

      Like

  13. outforalonglunch
    May 19, 2013

    Oh dear, looks like you need another trip to the dentist to get the filling fixed! very bad..

    Anyway, I broke my leg while trail running in China a few years back, I was sent to the hospital but I refused to get an x-ray because of all the horror stories that I’ve heard – overcharging, negligent operations, so I beared with the pain and made it back to the HK hospital…

    Like

    • lostnchina
      May 19, 2013

      Yikes, sorry to hear about your broken leg! I did go to HK for another *tooth accident* (this time, it wasn’t my fault. There was some rock or pebble in this lunch I was eating). I thought I’d chipped my tooth a little since it was feeling swollen and infected. The HK dentist said it was “really bad” and was going to do a whole root canal with cap. The pain went away in a few days and upon returning to the States my regular dentist couldn’t find anything wrong with me. But glad the HK doc fixed you!

      Like

  14. WSW
    May 19, 2013

    In Maine, where I grew up, we just dropped by the blacksmith and had the compromised molar yanked out. My dad once actually had a root canal with NO anesthetic, and my grandpa spent the last fifty years of his life without a tooth in his head. Think you can’t gum steak? Wrong again, Susan. China sounds like a vacation in paradise to me.

    Like

    • lostnchina
      May 19, 2013

      Actually, Wendie, come to think of it, when I asked the dentist which part of China she was from, she said. “The part that’s closest to Maine.”

      Like

      • WSW
        May 20, 2013

        You’re lucky she didn’t use the lobster crackers on you.

        Like

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This entry was posted on May 19, 2013 by in China, Humor and tagged , , , , .
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