On Monday, I had the dubious pleasure of testing out Colombia’s dental care industry. I had broken a tooth and it was hurting, so we extended our stay in Popayan by a few days so I could get it taken care of. The hostel recommended two dentists, so first thing Monday morning I presented myself at the office of the first one.

Immediately upon entry, I was impressed. The receptionist greeted me with a bright, genuine smile and asked what the problem was. She gave me a prescription for an X-ray and carefully described how to get to the radiology clinic. Eight dollars and ten minutes later, X-ray in hand, I was back in the dentist’s office waiting to see the dentist.

Within a few moments of meeting the dentist herself, though, she managed to completely negate the positive first impression given by the receptionist. The dentist glanced at the X-ray, grunted, and told me she’d fix it. She said it’d take eight days and cost 800,000 Colombian Pesos – about $500. When I asked her to explain the procedure, she became aggressive and started yelling at me. “We’re the best in town, it’s a lifetime guarantee, I know my job! You listen to me!” and so on. She lost my business right then and there.

I took back my X-rays and went to the second dentist. This experience was almost completely the reverse of the first. When I rang the bell of the locked office, the receptionist greeted me with “what do you want?” rather than a friendly smile and a “how can I help you?” I explained the problem and she sat me down. After twenty minutes of waiting, the dentist sat me in her chair and had a look. She clucked, murmured, and hummed to herself as she checked out my tooth and examined the X-ray. Afterward, she asked me about how it had happened, how much pain I was in, and how much time I had planned to spend in Popayan for treatment.

After ascertaining the problem, the dentist slowly and carefully described how my tooth was broken and what treatment was needed. She explained the time, cost, and procedure of each step, and told me that if I wanted to be in Ecuador on Thursday, I had a window of a few hours to make up my mind. She then suggested a couple of appointment times I might consider if I decided to proceed with treatment.

I went back to the hostel to consult with Ellen, check my travel insurance, and google the prices to make sure I wasn’t being taken for a ride. I also looked up everything the dentist had told me in Spanish, and discovered that what she had described was a root canal, which WebMD said was standard procedure for a broken tooth. With much trepidation, I decided to get a root canal at the nice dentist’s office.

When I went in for the root canal, the dentist was her usual friendly self. I told her I was afraid of getting dental work done, and she told me not to worry, and that I was in good hands. Her demeanor made me feel better, which is more than can be said for her office environment. My dentist’s cellphone rang non-stop, and she kept pausing the procedure to answer it. The place looked clean, but I couldn’t be sure – I heard a tool drop on the floor and get picked up, and never saw where it went. I just hoped it didn’t go back into my mouth after that. The dentist had two drills, and one of them stopped working mid-procedure. She called over an assistant, who made a phone call, and within minutes a repairman had appeared and taken it away. Later in the root canal, he turned up again and returned it to her. It went straight from the repairman’s hands to the dentist’s hands to my mouth. I couldn’t see how dirty his hands were, but I wasn’t thrilled at the thought. I hope at least the head of the drill was clean.

As for the procedure itself, well, it hurt. She injected me with anaesthetic, but I tend to need more than the usual dose to numb my nerves. Over the course of the two hours in the dentist’s chair, she anaesthetized me again and again, and within a few minutes I was in pain again. She eventually sent me home with a temporary filling, with instructions to get an X-ray and come back in the morning for the next step in the root canal.

Bright and early Tuesday morning, I was back at the dentist, not quite so afraid. I figured the worst was over, and today she was just putting in a longer-term filling to re-build the tooth. Apparently I was mistaken – when she started poking around, she found plenty of exposed nerves that needed removing, and this time I couldn’t have anaesthetic. She explained that if she numbed my mouth, she might miss a nerve and not know about it. In that case, I’d need to have the filling removed and re-do the root canal procedure.

After what felt like hours of poking and prodding places that hurt, the dentist declared the root canal finished and started to fill in and rebuild the tooth. I have no idea what reconstructing a tooth is like in Canada, but in Colombia it’s weird. She had these flexible plastic things that looked like a cross between a toothpick and a hair, and she curled them up into my broken tooth. After she’d placed two or three in there, she held her metal pick over a cigarette lighter until it was red hot, and then touched it to the inside of the tooth. I presume she was melting the stick things, to serve as a kind of glue to hold the filling in place, but I really have no idea. After she had repeated that procedure about six times, she took a tube of white paste and used her pick to put tiny amounts of it into my mouth. After two or three tiny scoops of white paste had been put into my broken tooth, she put a laser-like device into my mouth, and turned away before switching it on. The one time I dared a glance at it, it glowed blue. This she repeated, again and again, until I had a perfect-looking white tooth in place of my broken molar.

Finally, by noon on Tuesday, my root canal was done, and Ellen and I hit the road. We didn’t have time to waste, because we’d committed to being in Ecuador on Thursday morning – 16 hours away on a road that was dangerous at night. All day on the bus, my face ached and it hurt to even contemplate eating, and all I could think about was whether she’d screwed up and I’d have to get the whole procedure done over again in Ecuador. As I’m writing this on Wednesday night, it’s much less sensitive, and I can only hope that the root canal was successful and that my travel insurance will cover it. Getting dentistry done anywhere isn’t my cup of tea, and getting a root canal in Latin America is certainly something I recommend you avoid if at all possible. On the bright side, at least it was a quarter of the price of a Canadian root canal.

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