Monday, August 17, 2009

La Dentista

It wasn’t exactly a vacation, but my Mexican dental experience was pretty darn nice, all things considered.

What with the debate on healthcare in the United States these days, there’s been a lot of talk about border runs to Mexico…not of the Spring Break variety, but of the medical variety. The trend is called Medical Tourism, or Medical Vacations, and the rationale is that you can get yourself fixed/cured/face-lifted/treated/boob-jobbed/whatever for a heckuva lot cheaper in the Philippines/Cuba/Malaysia/Mexico/wherever than you would in the good ol’ USA. And then you can take the money you’ve saved on your root canal or heart valve replacement and go sip fruity, umbrella-embellished cocktails on a beach somewhere in said country.

But my recent trip to the dentist didn’t come about in a pursuit to save money. Heck, when you’re earning in pesos, spending in pesos doesn’t exactly represent big savings. Instead, my dental experience came about rather serendipitously, as most things seem to happen here in Mexico.

I ended up at the dentist because I was apartment hunting on behalf of two new gringo teachers who will join our department later this month. Follow that?

The teachers need a place to crash, and it is my job to find them one. So I was wondering the streets of Huajuapan last week, looking for places for rent, when I came across a veritable goldmine: a sign advertising an entire building of furnished, rentable-by-the-month rooms located in “downtown” Huajuapan. The sign directed me to get more information…at the dentist office of all places.

So I wondered over to the closest dentist office to inquire. (If you’ll indulge the digression, I want to add that dentist offices are to Huajuapan as Starbucks are to Chicago…there seems to be one on every corner, and one wonders how there can be enough bad flossers/coffee drinkers around to possibly keep them all in business.)

Upon entering said office, I remembered that I, uh, hadn’t visited the dentist in over two years, given my globehopping tendencies and resulting questionable insurance coverage. So I inquired about a room for the new teachers and a tooth cleaning for me. Talk about a two-for-one-deal.

And there was good news and there was bad news. The good news is that both new teachers will have a place to live for the next month until they get their bearings here in Oaxaca. The bad news is that the cleaning revealed that I had a big, fat, ugly, black cavity in one of my molars.

(Yikes. Somebody needs to lay off the Diet Coke.)

So this morning, I requested off work to go see what all this “medical vacation” fuss was all about. I dutifully showed up to my dentist appointment, confident that I knew what I was getting into. How different could Mexican dentists be from American dentists? The dentist office seemed pretty standard: Olive-green chair. Soothing music on the CD player. Spit bib. Lots of scary sharp instruments lying around.

The dentist, a nice lady named Maria Inés, smiled reassuringly at me, pulled on her rubber gloves, and then said: “Well, if it’s OK with you, I think we’ll work without anaesthetic today, OK?”

Um, what?!?

Apparently, this is where the Mexican-dentist-versus-American-dentist differences began. Is this how these Mexican dentists keep their prices so low, by cutting out the numb factor, by hoping for patients with high pain thresholds?

I asked her if anaesthetic (or a bottle of strong mezcal) was available nearby if needed. She laughed, pulled on a face mask, and began drilling away.

Funny thing was, there was no pain. And there was no pain when the bill came either: The entire procedure cost 350 pesos, which is about $27 bucks in the United States. That’s just enough to cover the insurance co-pay for a dentist visit where I come from!

So, heck, the experience was so pleasant that it was almost like a vacation. The only thing missing was a couple of those fruity umbrella-embellished cocktails. But they’d probably give me more cavities, anyway, so it’s just as well.

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