Ecuador dentist disaster a lesson in medical tourism dangers
Lying back in the faded green 1970’s dentist chair I looked right and smiled at Laura and her mother, la signora, who were sitting across the room. Next to them was an old green desk cluttered with a mini city of disorganized paper piles. The dentists stood up from his desk and walked past them across length of the room. Watching him from my chair I decided there was no freaking way I was going to get any dental work done in this place, but it was already too late.
It all started during a dinner conversation the night before when the cost of medical work came up. Somehow it was mentioned that getting your teeth cleaned in Ecuador costs about thirty American dollars, and filling cavities ranges from twenty to forty dollar per filling.
Now, I’m not a medical tourist and I don’t travel to save money on medical procedures, but to save $200 for a teeth cleaning (the average cost in Canada) I decided to give it a try. It would be my second cleaning overseas, the first being a professional yet disappointing dental cleaning experience in Tokyo, Japan.
Guayaquil is Ecuador’s largest city with a busy population of about four million people. On the day we set out for the dentist, an early morning rainfall turned to light drizzle leaving the Sunday morning streets quiet and traffic free. Visiting the dentist and barber seemed like a perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon so my Couchsurfing host family booked two appointments and brought me to the city centre.
Parked on a street lined with shops and low-rise apartments we walked towards the dentist office. As we walked, I pictured a modern dental office with snazzy new chairs, LCD screens, marble floors, and lavishly decorated with tropical office ferns. But soon after we started walking my pre-conceptions of a first class dentist in Ecuador were shattered when we turned left down a dark alleyway.
As the rain dripped from the decrepit and rusting tin awning above, I tried not to slip on the shadowed alleyway’s rust stained tile we walked along. After a few meters cautiously walking like a high beam acrobat we arrived at a stairwell, buzzed up, and entered the building.
The wooden stairs that lead to the main landing were poorly lit and the light at the top blinked like a dying star’s last flickers of life. As we walked up I noticed the old brow paint that covered the stairwell walls was peeling to reveal blotches of lime green hues beneath. Optimistically, with a traveler’s spirit, I resolved to at least follow through with the teeth cleaning and consider the cavities after. I mean, la Signora went to a lot of trouble to book my appointment and I didn’t want to be rude.
Dr. Boris met us at the top of the first floor, greeted me with a handshake, and guided us into the waiting room before gesturing us to sit. The tiny waiting area seemed normal with a small mahogany coffee table topped with a few magazines in the centre, and four leather sitting chairs lining the walls. Perhaps I was wrong to judge the alleyway.
As we flipped through the magazines la signora showed me pictures of things I should see in Ecuador by pointing at the images of volcanoes, mountains, and pristine beaches she recognized in a local travel magazine. In no time I was up. Dr. Boris led us from the waiting room and into the dental office as he said goodbye to his last client. Once we entered and the old wooden door closed behind us I finally confirmed my worst fears, this wasn’t Canada and I was not prepared for this.
The first thing I noticed was that there was no visible sterilization equipment. On the right side of the room were two worn out and faded dental chairs that looked like they belonged on episode of the walking dead rather than a dental office. Wishing I could turn around and walk out, Dr. Boris ushered me over to the far right corner of the room and into one of the decrepit dental chairs located next to to a large window that overlooked the street.
Once I was seated and comfortable, Dr. Boris sat down between the chair and the window then looked over at Laura and la signora who were sitting across the room. Not being able to communicate, Laura translated that I was interested in getting my teeth cleaned. Spinning his chair to face the window, underneath which his dental tools were located, I freaked! The lady who finished just before me had left the tooth gunk from her recent work sitting in a little bowl beside the chair I was sitting in. Not only that, but I noticed Dr. Boris had only one set of tools and there was no sterilization equipment in sight.
Calming myself, I realized that I was probably over thinking the situation so I gave Dr. Boris benefit of the doubt and tried to relax in the chair. Turning back around, Dr. Boris laid a piece of brown paper towel across my chest, picked up a water pic, and without any protective eye wear or that suction tube dentists use to get rid of access mouth water, pulled the overhead lamp above my face and started spraying.
Water and plaque sprayed in all directions as he cleaned. Like an innocent bystander standing too close to a street puddle, as an unaware car drives by, I got soaked. Every few minutes the water boarding would stop and I’d get a chance to spit into the bowl beside the chair with everyone’s tooth gunk looking back at me like frog eyes in a swamp..
Finally the torture ended as Dr. Boris walked across the room, giving me a chance to catch my breath and clean myself with the brown elementary school paper towel that absorbed the water like tree bark. Staring at the ceiling I wondered what the heck I had gotten myself into. Now that the he was done with the water pic I figured Dr. Boris was going to get sterilized dental equipment to finish cleaning the hard plaque that the water pic missed. Wrong! Instead he opened a black cabinet located across the room, bent over, and took out a tattered shoe-sized box that looked like it hadn’t been sitting untouched for a decade. Sitting back beside me he opened it and pulled out a giant silver gun that looked like the mini laser weapon Will Smith used in Men in Black.
“Don’t worry, it’s for teeth cleaning,” Laura translated in a thick Spanish accent. Comforting as those kind words were supposed to be I was not at ease. What was I thinking getting strangers to set up a dentist appointment in a country where I couldn’t communicate because I didn’t speak the language or had any idea of the medical standards. But it was to late, loading the gun from beneath he inserted a CO2 cartridge, handed me another paper towel, leaned over, aimed the weapon at my face and pressed the trigger.
A fine dust blasted my teeth dispersing a cloud of particles like a military flashbang into my mouth, nose, and eyes. I closed my eyes tight and held my breath hoping that whatever I was getting a dose of was good for my teeth and free of any long-term side effects. Eventually, I cracked as the seconds passed and I took in a big breath of the powder that was suffocating me. There was no way of stopping Dr. Boris because I couldn’t communicate with the dust like chemical choking me, so I kept my eyes closed tight, tried to breathe as little as possible, and accepted it.
When it was all over he gave me a chance to brush the scratchy fine particles off my face before grabbing a dental mirror to check my mouth for cavities. When he finished searching Laura translated that I had I had four cavities and that two of them should be addressed immediately. After my traumatic cleaning experience I decided to politely decline any further dental work, paid my thirty dollars for services rendered, and headed off to a wonderfully uneventful haircut.
Back in Canada, first thing I did when I got home was visit the dentist where I paid the $200 for a professional cleaning, had x-rays of my mouth taken, found out that I actually had 10 cavities (5 of which needed to be filled) and that the four cavities Dr. Boris suggested I get filled were just stains.
In the end, I paid $1100 to get everything taken care of in Canada by a professionally licensed Canadian doctor and came out with an important lesson in medical tourism. If you’re planning on going overseas for medical procedures you should probably do some research, know whom you’re working with, and be able to speak the language.
Have you had any crazy medical experiences while overseas??