Did I ever tell you about the time that I went to the Russian dentist in a third world African country? I didn’t? Huh, could have sworn I did. Anyway, I’ll tell you now, it’s a good one.
I was expatriated to Angola in Africa a few years ago. Somehow, aside from the normal Africa stomach that everyone has, I made it through the first few months of being in a new environment, a dirty, dusty, rubbish strewn third world environment without being sick. I had a head cold not long after I arrived, but that was short lived and only really gave me some post nasal drip. No big deal.
Sometime in March 2009 my gum between on the upper right side of my mouth got irritated between my incisor and canine teeth. I didn’t think much of it, at first I thought I’d gotten some food stuck up there or something. So I brushed, and flossed and brushed and flossed, but the irritation continued. Eventually after about a week or so of this, I’d been brushing so vigorously, I’d irritated the gum even more and it became raw. Well I let it have a rest and the rawness went away but the irritation persisted. By this time, it even began to swell up a bit. I didn’t really know what to do, I even thought maybe it was because I was drinking too many soft drinks, after all, Fanta is pretty acidic. Since I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do about it and I didn’t want to go to the dentist in Angola, I did what any reasonable person, particularly a man, would do. I tried to ignore it and hope it would go away.
In early April, I went to to Singapore to see Roxana, while I was there; I brushed twice a day, flossed a few times and drank fewer soft drinks that I normally drink at home. The irritation began to get better and the swelling even went down. Excellent news, it was not for long though, because not long after I returned to Angola, the swelling returned and so did the irritation. It never really got to the point of bothering me, just something that was there that wasn’t totally pleasant.
I let it drag our for another month, on sometime into late May. By then though, the swelling had increased to the point where I had something bigger than a BB but smaller than a pea that became noticeable and made me self concise when I smiled. This made me noticeably uncomfortable in social situations to the point where I deliberately didn’t smile. Something had to be done.
The next day at work, a Monday or a Tuesday, I talked to our administration lady, Ana, about getting an appointment with a dentist. It took a day, but she had the receptionist call the clinic the company uses. I could have a dentist appointment the next Monday, half a week and a weekend away. That was not acceptable to me since although I’d waited a month to go to the dentist, I decided I wanted to go, so I wanted to go tomorrow, not next Monday! I remembered that Ana had recently told me that she had had some dental work done so I asked her if she could get me an appointment with her dentist. She said that it wouldn’t be a problem but I should know that he’s Russian. Ok, your dentist is Russian, if he worked on you, that’s fine by me, please just make me an appointment?
Well I got an 8:30 appointment for the next day. Driver picked me up and across town we went before the morning traffic rush. We rolled up early, just as I was hoping we would because having an appointment in Angola doesn’t actually mean much of anything. It’s just sort of general guidance as to when you should show up and you’ll be seen eventually. I signed in and sat in the plain waiting room with a few other people waiting my turn. The waiting room was clean enough with a few scattered copies of days old Jornal de Angola lying on a table in the middle of the room. I picked one up and leafed through the state sponsored newspaper to see that indeed everything was rosy and modern and progressing as they rebuild Angola. Every now and then women dressed in scrubs would come by, but it was hard to tell if they were technicians, hygienists or just cleaning staff.
Eventually I was ready to be seen and I was told I could go up and go to door number two. I went up a flight of stairs to find a small landing with three doors. Choosing door number two I entered to find exactly what you might think a Russian dentist’s third world dental examination room to look like. There was a not quite straight calendar hanging alone on the wall, it was from 2008 and by this time we were well into 2009. In the corner of the room, over by the window, there was a pile of dental drugs and medicines in plastic bottles and jars all labeled in Russian. In the middle of the room sat a dentist chair that looked like one that my mother probably sat in when she was a young girl in the early 1960’s. There was not a single piece of recognizably modern dental equipment in the entire room. Gulp.
There was a technician cleaning up a bit from the last patient who had occupied the seat. I looked around taking a visual inventory of the room. Small basin for spitting, check. Dental equipment, teeth grinders, drill bits all lying on the work station next to the seat, check. Russian label drugs in the corner, check. Sanitation equipment, no check. Just then Dr. Sergio himself came in wishing me good morning. I told him good morning and told him my Portuguese was not so good, did he speak English. Nope, he only spoke Portuguese and Russian. I proceeded to inform him I was here for a cleaning but I also had a spot I was interested in him looking at for me.
I showed him where it was and he set straight to work, poking on it. At least he was wearing latex gloves. He poked a few times and thought deeply with a puzzled look on his face. He muttered something that I didn’t understand and turned around. After a few seconds he whirled on his spinning stool back to me with a very large needle in his hand.
I’m not sure how you feel about the dentist. I generally don’t mind going for cleanings every six months, but anything beyond that that involves novocaine, drilling or heaven forbid more, I’m not interested in. Let’s just say it was less than encouraging when the first thing he did was shoot me numb.
In the few minutes it took me to numb up, I nervously ran through scenarios of what I might be in for next. I’d done some research online and figured out that I probably had a spot of gingivitis. Online articles suggested it could be treated with antibiotics, why would he be numbing me then? The time for thinking passed and my emotions quickly turned to outright panic when I saw him unwrap a scalpel blade and ask me to lay back. He was going to cut it out! Oh God, oh God, oh God. I’m letting a Russian dentist in a third world African country use a scalpel to cut something out of my mouth. Just then I realized Ana, our administration lady, doesn’t have the best teeth. Wait a minute, Angolan teeth and dental health in general aren’t that much better than well, someone with poor teeth and dental health.
Visions of him cutting too much and the gum atrophying into a shriveled mess exposing my roots ran through my mind. That was just enough to distract me until the warm taste of blood dripping onto my tongue snapped me back to reality. The actual procedure didn’t hurt much, he did do a very good job of numbing me up. He used the hard enamel of the teeth as a way to form and make his cuts to cut the flesh out. Before I knew it, he was done and blood was dripping rapidly. Cotton was pushed onto the fresh wound in an attempt to stop the bleeding. Cotton, cotton, more cotton, all blood soaked. After two or three minutes, the blood flow slowed and he put something foul tasting onto the area to stop the bleeding.
Then he said something. I didn’t make out the full sentence but I did get the only word that mattered. Cauterizar. Now, after cutting on me, he was going to burn me. Burning, in dentistry, in a mouth, well at the time I don’t think I could have thought of anything worse. Was this a dentist visit or a torture session? He lit a match and lit a candle on his work station. I looked over and sure enough, he was warming some piece of dental equipment up on the candle he’d just lit. Another wave of panic. Should I just get up and make a run for it, dumping the content of my wallet as I sprinted down the stairs, out the door and to the safety of my car?
I think I must have let out something of a whimper and must have looked really nervous when he came back with his hot instrument because he said something I didn’t get but interpreted as, ‘Oh for Christ’s sake, be a man.’ He stuck the instrument into my mouth and burned the wound shut. The smell of fleshy smoke wafted into the air as whisps of white smoke wafted into my line of sight. Then he put some medicine on the wound and a type of dental cement cap, making me look like I’d smushed a big wad of chewing gums on my teeth and just left it there.
I rimmed the inside of my teeth and gums to feel what the damage was, sure enough the swelling was gone, but shouldn’t there be more gum there? Is that a hole between my teeth? He said to leave the medicine on and return tomorrow, he wanted to put more on. I was free to go. I hurried downstairs, paid my almost 100 USD bill and left as quickly as I could.
I was glad to be out but worried what the dental cement cap would reveal when it came off the next day. I was so nervous, yet so relieved to be out I tried in my best broken Portuguese to tell Nascimento what happened. I don’t think he understood the full gravity of what I’d just been through. So, I called Roxana, the best person I could think of, the first person I go to today in these type of situations. I told her the whole story over the phone.
A week later, everything was healed, the gingivitis was gone and my gums looked good as new. I would say that going to the Russian dentist in Angola wasn’t so bad after all, but it was. At least in the end, he did a good job and didn’t mangle my smile.