Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Even the Dentist Asks

May 8, 2012 – Even the Dentist Asks

Apropos of nothing, one of my fillings falls out. Being the responsible adult that I am, and also realizing after a week that the hole won’t fill itself, I decide to put matters into a dentist’s latexed hands. On my way to meet up with Rodney and the guy who is handling the travel details for our upcoming trip to Nazca, I stop by a dentist office I had happened to notice the other day when I was leaving the grocery store.
Since I’d put “Go ask dentist how much to fix filling” on my To Do list there’s no getting around it.

I walk from the apartment, cross the streets, shake my head at the honking taxis and beckoning bus cobradors, pass the grocery store, head up to the second floor of the shopping center and come to a stop in front of the dentist office’s glass doors.
Although I’m within the hours painted on the wall outside and I can see a girl sitting behind the front desk, the door is locked. I peek in and peer around. This is not unusual. Most businesses do not have Doors Must Remain Open During Business Hours signs. In fact, everything in Peru is locked and double locked, especially when people are inside. While I’m spying in and rattling the handle, another girl dressed in a white smock comes to open up for me.

“Good morning,” I say. “Question for you (this actually sounds better in Spanish as Una pregunta) I lost a filling (I’d looked up the Spanish word for filling before coming over. I should be more thrilled for the chance to increase my vocabulary) and I was wondering how much it’d cost to have it filled.”
“It’s fifty soles if it’s an easy fix and eighty if it’s more difficult,” she replies.

“And how do I make an appointment?”
“Well,” she says. “We’re all booked up this morning. Would you like this afternoon?”

I’m taken slightly aback. I’ve never made any type of professional appointment in Peru and I’m still accustomed to the U.S.’s “We could maybe fit you in sometime next week” style of scheduling. Today is much too soon. “What do you have for tomorrow?” I ask.
She goes back behind the desk, slaps a daytimer down and flips through to find the day. “We’ve got some morning or afternoon times open.”

I lean over to look at the options. I try to remember if I have anything I’m supposed to do the next day. I think I’m free until my evening class. What I life I have. “How about ten o’clock?”
She writes my name in and takes my phone number and that’s that. There’s no ream of paper to fill out about insurance. No assurance that I have money to pay. No hassle about referrals. Not even a client sheet to fill out for personal info. She doesn’t even give me an appointment reminder before she unlocks the door and lets me out into the open air.

I stop at the head of the stairs and write down “Tuesday 10:00 AM Dentist Appointment” in my notebook. Then I go catch a bus to Miraflores.
All through the day I remind myself that I have an appointment in the morning and wonder if I should have looked for a dentist referred from someone I knew. To be fair to myself, I had asked Rodney about his dentist. “I’m sorry,” Rodney told me, “but his mother sold his dentist chair after a family matter and he’s not currently taking clients.” Well. Heck. I should have asked Katrina about her dentist friend, but for whatever weird reason I hadn’t. Sometimes I bewilder myself.

With my appointment made I’m asking myself the questions I should have thought of earlier: What types of fillings do they use? Do they follow sanitary measures? What if I can’t understand the dentist? What if the dentist didn’t even go to dentist school? Should I just wait until I go back to the States? Could I even afford to get my tooth filled in the States without insurance to buffer the cost?
I go to sleep and dream about a past employment. I must be stressed.

Tuesday morning I get up, do a quick exercise, eat my breakfast (in case I can never eat again), and break a coffee cup. I decide not to cry over spilled coffee, but only just barely. After I’ve cleaned up the mess, brushed my teeth, and made sure I have enough cash for both easy and difficult filling possibilities, I leave the house.
I arrive seven minutes early. The receptionist unlocks the door and lets me in, “It’ll be just a moment,” she says. I take a seat. A moment later, she tells me, “This way.”

I squeeze in through the door and past the dentist. I look at the dentist chair and the empty desk chair. The dentist points at the dentist chair. “Have a seat,” he says. The assistant moves some things around and I take a seat.
The dentist never introduces himself. But he does put on latex gloves. There’s one worry gone. “Are you here for any particular reason?” he asks.

“I lost a filling,” I say. “The last tooth on the bottom.” I point at my cheek.
“A filling,” he repeats and says something else I don’t understand. Little mirror in hand he has me open my mouth and peers around. When he reaches up to flick the switch for the moving-arm dental light it doesn’t come on. He shouts for the assistant and a second later she comes inside looking put out. “Plug the light in for me,” he says. The assistant reaches over my feet and plugs the light in.

The bulb lights with a sad and half-hearted strength.
The dentist adjusts the issuing ray to shine into my mouth and looks and looks. “Where?” he asks me.

It feels like quite a gaping hole to me. I’m losing faith in him. Could I see some certification, please? “Bottom left. Last tooth.”
“Oh, bottom,” he says. His words come out muffled through the doctor’s mask he’s wearing. Then he calls for the assistant again and starts calling out teeth numbers to her. I begin to realize he thinks I want my amalgams removed and replaced.

When I can talk around his fingers and the mirror, I interject, “I’m really just wanting to get my filling replaced. For today.”
“Oh, okay,” he says. “We’ll just mark this down so that you can know for the future what it’d cost.”

He goes back to my problem area.

“You actually have three lost fillings down here.”
Shoot. I haven’t been responsible at all. I’d lost a filling a while ago. I hadn’t done anything because I’d remembered my U.S. dentist saying that these fillings fall out if you look at them wrong (which had annoyed me to know), but that I’d be okay if I brushed a lot and got back to their dentist office to have them fixed when I returned to the States. Also it hadn’t been sensitive to food, air, or temperature so I was ignoring it. I’d never even noticed the second one was gone. Poor little teeth.  

“One for fifty,” the dentist says, “or I’ll fill all three for one hundred soles.”
“Let’s do all three,” I say. One hundred soles is roughly thirty-five dollars and it’s a cost I can just afford.

He hollers at the assistant and she comes in and gives him a new mirror out of what looks like a toaster oven. I guess they’re sanitized in there. I’m having all my concerns knocked out one by one.
“Do you want anesthetic?”

“No,” I say. “I’m okay without.” I hope.
He sticks in some gauze, has the assistant plow the water sucker thing into my gum, and starts cleaning around the teeth. The second assistant hands him things (maybe a topical anesthetic, the filling material? the newspaper?)

“You’re not from here, are you?” he asks. “Where are you from?”
“The United States,” I reply.

“Oh, the United States.” He nods. Question one is out of the way. “What part?”

“Oh, Texas. Texas has a lot of places, big places, Houston, Dallas.”
I’d tell him I’m from Dallas only his fingers and a drill and a mirror and a water sucker thing are taking up all the talking space I have.

He puts a bit on his drill and I close my eyes and try to find a happy place.
He drills the holes and I try not to cringe. Poor teeth. He blows some air in to clear it all out and I cringe when the cool hits. Poor nerves. The dentist packs in some filler and uses the heater to dry it in place.

“Please use the water to rinse and spit,” he says, backing away to give me space to move.
I sit up and take the plastic cup of water off the sidearm of the chair, swish and spit.

The two assistants leave.
The dentist starts to smooth the fillings down. He removes his fingers and the buffer and says something that sounds like, “Okay, we’re all done.” Then he says something else and I nod. The words catch up to me with a jolt as he continues, “Your husband is Peruvian?” I’m still nodding. “Do you have any little children? Any little Peruvians?” Now I’m shaking my head. “No, no children.”

He’d asked me if I was married! And I’d accidently said yes. Which is all for the better. As he finishes sanding down my new fillings, his encircling arm seems awfully like a hug around my neck. His masked face close and his shoulder near enough to cry on. I wish I’d said I had a household of little Peruvian babies waiting for their now teeth-fixed mother to return home. But I’m too busy running my tongue over the new composites and wondering if I can pay and leave before he asks me how old I am.


  1. Wow. No Novocaine! You're a braver person than I am. Then again, all of my dental work is very severe. Rarely is it "just" a filling.

    Hope your teeth remain intact for your future ventures!

  2. So THATs when the cup broke!
    Wonderful account, Amanda!