my barefooted dentist

One of my greatest fears while I’ve been living in India these past two years has been getting sick or needing medical attention. I had the same fear when I was living in Southern Spain for three years but I came to realize there was nothing to worry about. The few times I needed to go to the doctor, it was fine. There were some oddities in the examination process that differed from the States, but nothing too out of the norm.

I have, in fact, been to the doctor two times in India for stomach issues that wouldn’t go away…..surprise surprise! Welcome to India. Both times I went to the doctor I was in Varanasi and the treatment I received was very thorough and good.

However, this past May while I was in Varanasi which is in North India for a bit of a working holiday with my new hubby, Rahul, one of my back molars went crazy on me! At first I didn’t know it was my tooth causing me grief, the throbbing aching pain was in my sinuses and behind my eye on the left side of my face. When I kept complaining to Rahul and his family that my face hurt and I felt like my eyeball was going to pop out they just looked at me with curiosity.

Ibuprofen became my best friend….and, oh boy, did I make lots of friends during those days! Especially at night when I laid down and all the pressure built up, it was unbearable. I spent my nights sleeping (or trying to sleep) sitting up.

One useless doctor visit was made, providing no relief.

The pain started to shift south and finally revealed where the real problem was… my tooth……in my aching throbbing – “oh my god I wanna go home” tooth. So the reality of the situation sank in that I needed to have, I was sure, a root canal in India.

More than the unwanted extra cost….I was just downright afraid of infection more than anything else. If the procedure was painful I could handle that but I was really nervous about the treatment methods, tools and sanitary conditions. I had visions of roadside dentists you see on backpacker youtube videos as they traveled around India. Dentists with rusty implements and dirty fingernails, good god! That was the irrational side of my brain going a bit haywire but the rational side, of course, knows that there are great dentists in India who are fully licensed and practice safe treatments with their victims. (Oops, I mean patients!)

It was merely coincidental (unless it was contagious) that two friends, Guchu and Shankar, in Varanasi were suffering the same affliction as I was. Guchu opted to get his tooth pulled and Shankar got a root canal and both went to the same dentist. So, I waited with half my face paralyzed with pain and a tooth throbbing away to see how they fared with their treatment. They survived and their face didn’t fall off from infection. This gave me great hope and confidence. An appointment was made and, at this point, I was looking for relief no matter what the cost.

First visit. After a 20 minute ride to the dentist office in a bicycle rickshaw at high noon in 40 degree heat (that’s 104 Fahrenheit friends – hot) we arrived to the office. As is the norm, there was an assortment of flip flops outside the door. I can safely say that 80% of the places you go to in India require you to take your shoes off before entering someone’s home, shop, office or restaurant….and I guess the same goes for the dentist office AND the dentist himself.

Just so you know….the office was clean and nice – nothing like the roadside dentists like the photo you see on this blog post!

The room we entered had a desk, a dental chair with the usual movable light above and the swinging tray full of dental tools as well as maybe 5 or 6 chairs for waiting patients to sit along the perimeter of the room. Well, that was a surprise. My husband and I sat in our designated seats and waited while a female patient got worked on right in front of us. The dentist was busy at work with the drill and would occasionally ask the patient to spit in the bowl, which she did, and then proceeded to gargle water loudly…..oblivious to her audience.

My turn finally came around. I shyly slinked into the chair, quite aware of all the Indian eyes on me. The friendly and barefooted dentist gloved up (much to my relief) and poked around in my mouth and seemed to think my symptoms would require a root canal. But first I needed an x-ray to confirm the infection in my tooth. I was told to go down the street for my x-ray which, when we arrived, had no power. Ok…off to a good start.

Eventually I was able to show up with x-ray in hand (after 2 failed attempts). The verdict: root canal & crown needed. The cost: 5,000 rs. ($80 USD). The verdict sent chills up my spine because there was no way out now. The only saving grace was the incredibly inexpensive price which was a huge relief.

I was to come for 5 times, the first time being the most invasive.

I sat in the chair, a nervous wreck, as my barefooted dentist shot me up with novicane using an outdated instrument that looked a bit questionable as he picked it off the cluttered tray. Did I mention my audience of 4 people sitting around me watching? What a crazy scene.

I cringed and gagged periodically during the procedure and looked at Rahul with wide eyes (yes, he was one of my spectators) trying to send telepathic messages about my anxiousness. It wasn’t painful, I was plenty numb. However, it was just downright uncomfortable feeling so anxious about everything in an already high stress situation.

Happy thoughts, just think happy thoughts.

Finally it was over and they filled the hole with a temporary putty to keep it closed and stop which the foul tasting and smelling liquid oozing into my mouth coming from deep inside my infected tooth . But the liquid still oozed out and made for a most terrible 24 hours until I came back to the dentist. I dragged myself into the rickshaw to go back home and slept for hours after the traumatizing event.

The realization came that I did sleep…and slept well. Why? My tooth was not causing me any pain. The pressure had been released and I felt immediate relief. Going back to the dentist 4 more times didn’t seem so awful now.

Each time I went back the barefooted dentist would repeatedly insert a variety of 1″ metal needle like posts that were dipped into an antiseptic into the hole in my tooth and swirl it around. I couldn’t feel a thing. It was a curious way to treat the infection and certainly not at all like the root canal I had over ten years ago in Los Angeles which was completed in one day with the help of a lot of power tools.

After five days of this everything was great and I was fitted for my crown…..we were nearing the finish line. I had also gotten to really like my barefooted dentist and gotten to know the fellow patients (my audience) who were also coming back for repeat visits like me. I got to the point where I didn’t mind waiting while the person in front of me was being treated and, in turn, I didn’t mind them watching me. Funny how you can aclamate to situations that are so foreign to you at first.

On my final visit I was fitted with my new crown and was as good as new.

It’s now about 2 months later and I haven’t had any problems with infection or a badly fitted crown. My barefooted dentist knew exactly what he was doing and I would recommend him any day. His practice was exceptional, it was just the setting that is a bit off-putting at first.. but cleanliness was never an issue. I think some of the instruments may look old simply because the average dentist can’t afford to buy costly new medical equipment frequently and so they use them as long as they can.

I have a new understanding for medical holidays now. If you can combine a holiday and taking care of a dental or medical issue. Why not? I saved around $2,400 USD (150,000rs). That’s a lot of money. That’s a round trip plane ticket plus about $1,000 spending money if coming to India from the States.

I remember this old skinny Italian guy named Marco who was staying in Goa during monsoon time last year. Palolem Beach is pretty deserted during that time, with few foreigners coming through. He had gotten all of his teeth pulled out and was waiting for his “new teeth”. Every day we’d see him at one of the only local spots open for eating and drinking in our neighborhood ordering his “soft” food. I never really talked to him, other than a polite hello and good-bye but I wonder if he came to Goa just for that purpose. I am sure he saved tons of money by doing this, a small fortune in Italian standards I imagine.

I also have one American friend who, like me, is 45 and uninsured in America. As an artist and yoga teacher she always worked independently and couldn’t afford health insurance or heath treatment when it wasn’t absolutely necessary. She has been coming to India for years and spends much of her time here teaching yoga. She tore a muscle in her shoulder and required surgery and opted to get it fixed in India, in Goa. She did her research meticulously and got some good recomedations and referrals. The operation was a success and about one tenth the cost of doing it (without health insurance) in the States.

Why did I feel the need to share my achy tooth story with you? I want people to know that India has modern dentists (and doctors) using modern procedures that are safe and honest. If you are travelling and find yourself needing to see a dentist, don’t hesitate or be afraid. Important: Ask a few people (guest house owners, shop keepers, etc) for recommendations. Don’t just trust the first one you hear about. Try to get referrals from people who have actually used the dentist.

There is nothing worse than having a tooth ache and trying to wait until you get home to get it fixed. You can get great treatment here in India!






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