I have been reduced to driving to Mexico for dental care.
That’s right. Things have come to that.
I won’t bore you with the ongoing cross of my beloved, brave teeth which, over the course of my life, have undergone extractions, adult orthodontics, resorption (a supposedly incredibly rare occurence that has happened twice or maybe thrice, I’ve lost count, in my own mouth), bonded bridges, more root canals and crowns than I can possibly remember or count, scaling, periodontal surgery, and two implants (one of which, after about 20 visits, failed, and had to be unscrewed, at which point I learned that implants go in way easier than they come out).
Perhaps this is the place to say that I brush and floss (Dr. Tung’s) religiously, with Phillips Sonicare and a Water-Pik, have my teeth cleaned ever four months, etc etc and have for years.
Anyway, my recent experience was typical. I went in for what was to be a routine cleaning and after a second and third opinion definitively learned that I need to have an entire bridge removed in the upper right part of my mouth, possibly an extraction, and a new bridge made, to the tune of $5000.
When I mentioned this turn of an events to a friend in Tucson, he said, “Oh you have to come down to Mexico and I’ll turn you on to Dr. Pincero (I’ll call him). My wife and I are driving down next week and we’ll walk you through.”
The Mexican border is but 62 miles or so south of Tucson: a straight shot, it’s true, down the 19. Still.
There’s a Nogales, AZ and a Nogales, Mexico, right across the border, notoriously lousy with cartels and, according to a recent news article, “quickly becoming a hotbed of fentanyl smuggling.” There’s the whole getting across–and back across–which I imagined taking hours. There’s the dental accreditation question, malpractice insurance, the language barrier, etc.
“The border’s a breeze,” said my friend. “You park on the Arizona side and just walk over. The guy speaks perfect English. Lives in and educated in the U.S.” (This latter wasn’t true as I saw from the diploma mounted on the office wall, but whatever).
Anyway, the mouth situation has been hanging over me and I’m leaving for a lengthy stay in Ireland in a little over a month. So somewhat against my better judgment I went down a week ago Friday with my friend and his wife, and it really was a lot easier than I thought.
For one thing–who knew–they simply let anyone into Mexico! No ID, no passport. There’s a sign about fruits and vegetables but apparently, say, drugs, a criminal record, iffy citizenship status and I don’t know what all else are perfectly acceptable. You put your purse on a rudimentary conveyer like at the carwash and out it comes two seconds later and you’re in.
Mexico’s main products, in this neck of the woods, would appear to be prescription drugs (every other store front reads “Farmacia”); plastic bottles of vanilla extract, which are set out on tables in pyramids on the main plaza; brightly painted tin garden ornaments (I guess) of cacti, flowers, and birds; and colorful, teeth-rotting snacks.
We walked the three blocks to the office and my friend, his wife and I were buzzed in. They both had a checkup and a cleaning, which took about 10 minutes each (this is what a visit to the dentist consists of for normal people), and then Dr. Pincero called me in, shoved me down in the chair, and said “Open.” After poking briefly between the offending teeth, as if chipping ice with a pickaxe, he cried, “Poor execution! Kindergarten work!”
I’m used to having my teeth insulted by dentists so the words no longer sting (much). The last guy had taken X-rays, studied them in silence, then asked, “May I ask if you have a plan for your mouth?” A plan!? Not to be bankrupted? To continue to be able to eat?
Maybe the work was kindergarten–whoever had done it was lost in the mists of time—but guaranteed it was work that had required innumerable uncomfortable, angst-ridden, dread-saturated, nerves-stretched-to-the-breaking point visits to the dentist–just like this one; not to mention untold thousands of dollars scraped and scrimped and saved from my salary as a freelance writer which not to put too fine a point on it is subject not only to income tax but an additional 15.3% (on net) self-employment tax.
Visits during which my abiding prayer had been, Please let this thing last until I die, Lord, which will no doubt be prematurely from dental trauma.
“The whole bridge needs to come out,” the doctor was continuing. “We’ll take impressions for the temporary today and then you’ll come back and we’ll just CRACK THAT THING RIGHT DOWN THE MIDDLE!”
Weakened from fear and fatigue, and realizing I could procrastinate no longer, I found myself signing a check for $1071–what was to be the first of three installments–and making an appointment for 9 am the following week. “Two more visits only,” said the doctor, at which I inwardly howled with laughter (as I did at the estimate). Right.
Welp I made my way down the following Tuesday, and thanks be to God, the drive, parking lot and getting across the border proceeded smoothly and quickly.
I arrived on time. The assistant ushered me in. The doctor gave me a couple of giant shots of Novacaine or whatever they use, the second one directly into the roof of my mouth. Then the assistant snapped into place a kind of rubber balloon, evoking padded rooms and asphyxiation, the purpose of which was apparently to catch the giant chunks of tooth which were about to be blasted off.
After that the doctor started up a machine that sounded like a combination leaf blower/buzzsaw and started grinding away at my bridge. This went on, as I had fully anticipated, way way longer than either he or I had hoped. After about fifteen minutes, I heard above the roar, “This is hard bridge!” Stick around, Sonny, I thought.
Finally the bridge came off and then came the next step: the step when the damage is surveyed and inevitably turns out to constitute the absolutely worst case, most expensive possible, scenario–plus a little fillip for fun.
Sure enough, right off the bat: “That back tooth needs a root canal.” Why of course it does! Luckily, for me a root canal is nothing; the equivalent to someone else of an X-ray. Down here it would only run me 400 extra bucks (his buddy down the hall would do it) plus of course another visit. Ok, what else?
Dr. Pincero doesn’t say much. He determines upon a course of action, I grasped quickly, then follows through at once. Back went the balloon mouth guard. Out came a “block” of the kind shoved between the jaws of mental patients in 40s movies like The Snake Pit before the patient receives electroshock therapy.
Bite down, the doctor ordered so I bit down for what seemed like a truly unbelievable amount of time as he and the assistant engaged in some esoteric process that involved endless grinding, sucking, blowing, and the application of an evil-smelling liquid during the whole of which the two of them jabbered away saying God knows what to each other–probably joking, I imagined–in Spanish.
After a while my entire body, nerves screaming, went into rigor mortis mode, and my lower lip began trembling with the combined effort of biting down on the block and the pain shooting through my clenched jaw.
Around Minute 40, again I again heard a word from the dentist: “This VERY HARD for ME!”
I have an unfortunate tendency to try to bond with every random person I meet: the CVS cashier, the woman bending over the smell a flower, the guy I’d just seen selling peanuts on the corner: “Hola! Buenas!” No-one will disabuse a person of this habit quicker than a dentist–who clearly views the person in the chair not as a human being but pretty much as Michelangelo, chisel in hand, viewed a block of granite.
Finally, finally, the doctor was done. The second the assistant took the block out I shot up from my seat shouting, “My God, that hurts!! My jaw is killing me!”
Utterly unmoved–not once during the ordeal had either of them asked whether I was okay–the two of them gazed impassively out the window waiting for my histrionics to subside. Then Dr. Pincero jerked my seat upright and more or less forced me to look up at the ceiling-mounted screen.
You would have thought he was showing me the image of a Fabergé egg instead of an object that looked as if it should have been in a jar of formaldehyde in the Mütter Museum.
“I built up your tooth!” he crowed, waving off the quantities of dark liquid pooling around what looked like a sawed-off elephant tusk with an airy, “Just blood.”
“Good work!” he congratulated himself. “Another dentist would have pulled but you have no bone” (this is another phrase that runs thematically through my dental history–You have no bone–meaning an implant wouldn’t “take” and making me feel, while I’m already at my most vulnerable and exposed, that there is something defective about my very skeleton).
Here’s another fun thing about Mexico: they employ none of the pesky FDA rules that hamper our own distribution of helpful anaesthetics. Just in case the raw nerve that was now exposed gave me trouble the assitant gave me a little box containing four pills: 30 mg Mavidol, which I googled the second I got back to my car and learned is not narcotic and not habit-forming but does require a prescription in the U.S. and is I gather like a nice strong Alleve.
My mouth was fine and I had hardly any pain even though Dr. Pincero had to drill under the gum as he’d mentioned several times, an event I chose not to picture. I drove home listening to Glenn Gould and, once back in Tucson, filled up the car with gas, stopped at Babylon Market for feta cheese, olives and red lentils, and even went to the gym.
Later I took a Vespers walk, said Evening Prayer, played a Haydn sonata on the piano, and read some more of Hemingway’s Boat.
I woke in the middle of the night with a start to voice a question that had apparently been roiling around in my subconscious for hours: “Why do I have no bone, Lord? Did you just forget?” The two of us laughed our heads off. And then He helped me go back to sleep.
CODA: I returned to Mexico two days later for a root canal (“Oh!” the guy said when I opened my mouth), followed by two more hours in Dr. Pincero’s chair filling cavities and neatening up (utterances here included “Nothing is easy with you!” and “If you could see your teeth right now, you would cry”). Turns out I may need a second root canal and if I really want the bridge to last, should get an extra crown, teh all around upshot adding close to $2000 more dollars and what I’m certain will end up being three or four more visits to this particular little dental interlude. I actually like the guy a lot and might think he’s trying to rip me off if not for decades of similar such experiences.
So that will be the month of June. Good news: the drive to Nogales and back is kind of spectacularly beautiful. I’ve discovered, at long last, podcasts. And it could be a lot worse. Troublesome teeth aren’t tumors, for example, or ALS disease, or any of the zillions of other things that can go wrong in a human body. So thank you!
And a Blessesd Solemnity of the Holy Trinity to all.