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Guest Post: Adventures in Thai Dentistry

Special guest post by Janelle!

I am not an adventurous person, and consider myself to be overly cautious in most things. However, the promise of cheap dental treatment in Bangkok seemed too good to pass up. I read all the sites on the net. Relief from a niggling tooth that was the oral equivalent of a timebomb was a third of the price I might pay in Australia.  You also need to know that I have an unconventional interest in dentistry. I watch YouTube videos of procedures, always try to watch what’s going on during my procedures in the reflections of the dentist’s goggles, and, if I had my time over, would have loved to pursued it as a career. It just interests me, is all. 

Eric knows all about my tooth. Last time he visited me in Australia, we ended up in a Melbourne hospital waiting room well after midnight, he manfully holding my hand as I doused my gums with water repeatedly to try to numb the excruciating pain I was in. (Oxycodone, by the way, is incredible. Heroin must be awesome!) A course of prescribed antibiotics, and I was right as rain. Except I knew that the blasted tooth was going to blow, and the prospect of it exploding while we were stuck in some Indian, Cambodian or Sri Lankan border town… Well, it might make for a great blog post, but we figured we had to get this taken care of in civilized Bangkok. 

The internet has assured me that ‘going to the dentist in Thailand is exactly the same as at home’. Let me tell you- it’s not. The best way I can describe the experience is that it is like visiting the dentist back in 1978.  Don’t get me wrong, the care taken by these girls (and I do mean girls- more on that in a moment) is businesslike, but attentive. I was seen to promptly- as soon as I entered the surgery. No waiting for 45 mins after your scheduled appointment in Thailand, no sirree! I was pleasantly surprised. After filling in the requisite form with spotted small misguided translational mistakes (question -“what is your main dental concern”; my answer – “tooth needs to be fixed”), I was ushered through the corridor by a tiny masked girl in scrubs, wearing blue rubber crocs on her feet that were shaped like dinosaur claws. I mean, seriously, she looked 12. But, I held steadfast to my trust in the net- everything was going to be *exactly* the same. 

The surgery looked clean enough. If I squinted, I could ignore the dirty marks on the walls. There were all the usual things you might see at first glance in a dental surgery. I took comfort in the familiar sights as they presented themselves to me. Dentist chair, not plush, but fine enough; overhead light, check; computer, alright; spitty water bubbler thing, all in order; instrument tray, yep- *looks* sterile… Hmmm… That cloth under the instruments is kinda frayed… But it’s Asia, I’m sure it’s fine. Looked at the instruments themselves. Yep, there’s the pointy hook things, familiar drill thingys, cigarette lighter, dental floss, more sharp things…. Wait. Did I just see a freaking lighter?!

The dentist was talking to me by this stage, so I had to let that one go. She was young as well, and talked to me through her mask in broken, but polite English. I have to say, it’s much harder to understand broken English when you can’t actually see the mouth doing the breaking. I told her the story of my tooth, and she proceeded to have a look. I settled back into the chair, ready to be lowered into position. The tiny dino-girl nurse placed a bib around my neck, and then promptly lifted the edge to cover my face. I then realized there was a hole in the bib for my mouth. Obviously, they didn’t want to look into the eyes of those they were tormenting in this dental horror surgery. I started to worry. 

Five minutes of poking and probing, and the dentist sat me up again, stern eyes over her mask. “Have you used floss before?” she queried, deadpan. I stammered, “well, yes, I do know what floss is, and I, uh, have used it before”. “but no everyday!” she interrupted sharply. I had to sheepishly concur, and was then subjected to a gentle lecture about flossing. X-ray was then required. That involved me being ushered into another room, where dino-girl attached the little X-ray blocking piece of card to a plastic instrument that was not remotely mouth shaped, with what looked like a magnifying glass attached to one end. They shoved it in my mouth, said “bite!” and I did, as well as I could, considering it was a piece of centimeter wide plastic with a card stuck on it, shoved into the back of my mouth. This was the first of approximately 8 X-rays I would have that day, performed in the same way, with the same plastic thing, that I assumed was placed in everyone’s mouth. No sterilizing agent visible in the X-ray room! Argh!

The result of the dentist looking at the picture was that she confirmed what I already knew. Root canal for Janelle. She asked me when I was leaving Thailand, and oohed and ahhed that maybe I would have no time to do the procedure as our tourist visa runs out in 7 days. It was decided that she would go in, clean it up a bit, and refill it temporarily, while they checked to see if I could have the operation in time. The next 60 minutes were pretty standard as far as dental visits go. Maybe a bit more drilling than usual, but no pain, and the dentist seemed very good. One hour later, I was strolling calmly out of the surgery doors to Eric, looking cool and collected. I had done it. Yeah. I rock. He was suitably impressed by my bravery, and we laughed about the lighter I had seen on the instrument tray. I felt good. And it was only 470 baht for the treatment I had. That’s about $16 AUD. I almost giggled.  The receptionist told me that I could come back at 5pm that day to have the root canal done. Balloon bust. Oh. Sure! Great. Dread filled, we traipsed home to our guesthouse room for a nap. 

We returned dutifully at 5pm, Eric setting himself up for the wait with his trusty kindle, and an assurance that he may go for a walk, but he would be back by 6pm to pick me up. The wait to be seen by the dentist was again, non-existent. As soon as I showed, dino-girl was ushering me in again. I thought it was sad that she and the receptionist had obviously been there all day, and were still going strong into the night. Maybe 8 hour days don’t happen in Thailand. I was met by a different masked dentist who went through the procedure as best she could. I just nodded, and wished it to be over. I lay down in the chair, and waited as they tied a piece of rubber over my mouth hole. Started to panic when they didn’t leave me a space to breathe through my nose, but this was soon relieved by a snip of scissors. That’s right. They cut me an airhole. Weird. The rubber at least gave me something to rest my tired open jaws on. It’s actually kind of painful and stressful to have to keep your mouth open that wide and for that long, with strange tooth root filing sensations going on. At the risk of sounding like a baby, I felt like I wasn’t going to get through it. 

And then, I just let it happen. Like I had gotten to the preverbial ‘wall’ like a marathon runner. Periodically, I was sat up and ushered into the x-ray room, rubber and cloth sticking out of my mouth, drool spilling down my front. ‘Please not to close mouth as instruments are still there’. My mind started to wander to other things than what was happening to my oral cavity. Drilling, sawing, filing.  My mouth was agape and numb, I was mentally exhausted, and then- off came the rubber! It was over. I had been in the chair for nearly two and a half hours. I saw E’s face, he looked so relieved I was finally finished. My tooth felt fine and we made plans to eat as soon as the doc came out to give us the bill.

We waited. About 20 mins. I figured they were letting me wait to see that I wasn’t going to keel over before going home. Then- another dentist came out. ‘which one is the patient?’ E quickly gestured to me. I’m sure he didn’t want to be next in line. ‘you come in’. I was bemused, but followed her in. ‘ok, so now we going to put post in, you want to eat first?’ I was surprised, so I asked how long more. ‘oh, one and one half hours at least.’I was devastated. They had filled my tooth, but now they were going to dig out the filling they just put in, in order to put in a post. If I was stronger by this stage, I would have asked why they filled the tooth, when they were just going to rip the filling out 20 mins later, but I was weak, man.  I pleaded with them to let me go out to tell E to go out and eat, and felt terrible that he had such a long time to wait. Poor thing, he said he would be back at 9pm. 

The amount of drilling done during this stage was frightening. I prayed it would be quicker than she said. The nurses had been there all day- and it was now almost 9pm. They seemed chirpy, though, as they chatted in Thai throughout the procedure. It was a Friday night, and the surgery is closed on a Saturday, so I busied my mind imagining their patter to be about what they were getting up to later that night. “I’m wearing… Oh nice!… He’s gorgeous… Oh I know!…”. That sort of thing. 

Then. I was done. The dentist asked me what kind of crown I wanted. I have no idea, so  I pick the second cheapest option, using the same technique I use when choosing unfamiliar wine at a restaurant. Well, it always seems to work at dinner. I need to go back on Wednesday to have the crown fitted. All up the procedure has cost me 23,220 baht. This is about 850 Aussie dollars, once you factor in exchange rates and fees. I started to feel better about the whole thing. I saved a fortune! The cost was just the last of the differences between dentistry here and at home. It was not the same at all, like the Internet promised me, but I think I can deal with it. It was an experience, that’s for sure.