A Travellerspoint blog

February 2011

Foreign Country Dentistry

not the same as america.


You know the old adage "You pay for what you get"? It's true. Every time I find this statement verified, I'm surprised, though I never know why.

Teaching in public school, I have a LOT of vacation. I haven't taught a full day since December 15 (the week before Christmas, we showed "Elf" to the kids). February is full of downtime...the kids come to school for only a week and March starts the new school year. Weird, eh? That's one of the reasons why I decided to have my wisdom teeth taken out. They don't usually bother me, sometimes they're a little sore, but they haven't surfaced (I'm almost positive that's not the correct term but oh well) and they don't threaten the other teeth any more than normal. So why did I decide to torture myself this way?

A bit of background: Growing up, I never had any major problems with my teeth (I'm 27 and am going on 28 years with no cavities).....this is extremely fortunate because we always had little to no dental insurance. Teeth cleaning alone cleaned us out. I had to have dental x-rays as part of my Peace Corps application in 2005. The dentist said because the bottom ones are impacted, in the US it would be $1000 per extracted tooth. That equals $4000. FOUR THOUSAND DOLLARS. For non-threatening teeth. (Ha...from that sentence, I imagine them holding little knives to my other teeth.) Obviously, I didn't go through with it.

I've had my teeth cleaned twice since I've been in Korea (it had been a looooooooong time before that first one) and because I've gone to a....luxury dentist, it's been 60,000 won, or around $60. That's the most expensive I've heard of. My friend started the wisdom tooth trend, telling me hers would be a grand total of 20,000 won. Yep. 5,000 per tooth.

$4000? or $20? Hmmmm...I listened to other stories of friends getting their wisdom teeth out (in the US or Canada) and it didn't sound like it would be all that bad. I had a whole week to recuperate...so why not?

To reiterate: I decided to get it over with because it's cheap and I had a lot of time to recover. But doing this all in Korea is VERY different than what I heard about Canada and the US. Examples follow.

  • In Canada and the US, dentists speak English. So do you. Therefore, you are told what to expect beforehand and given clear care instructions after.
  • In Korea, some dentists speak English. Mine didn't. Usually someone else working there will speak English. No one...NO ONE at my dentist spoke English. I chose this particular dentist because it's a 2-minute walk from my apartment and I thought the whole language barrier would be less frustrating than it was. It was way more frustrating than probably any other experience I've had so far. Should something have happened (it didn't), I wouldn't know what was going on. Fortunately, a very awesome friend of mine was available to translate. We spent a lot of time on the phone that day.
  • In Canada and the US, they will usually extract all of the wisdom teeth at once. This makes sense to me...why spend 2 weeks recovering when you can just spend one?
  • In Korea, they don't. When I made the appointment, the lady did a lot of miming and I understood "Which teeth do you want out?" I responded "All 4." She said OK. I came back the next week for the procedure, and as I was sitting in the chair, they mimed that they would only take out one side at a time, with 2 weeks in between procedures. We called my friend, he confirmed. I kind of already knew this was common beforehand, but because of that blasted language barrier, I thought they were making an exception when I made the appointment. Nope. That's not how they roll.
  • In Canada and the US, they sometimes put you completely under. They sometimes only give you local anesthesia. It just depends.
  • In Korea, they only give you local. You can prepare yourself mentally beforehand if your dentist speaks English and tells you how it's going to be. Mine of course didn't, so I brought along a friend who could make sure I got home okay in case they put me under. It was nice having him there anyway. For those of you who have never had this done, they stick a big needle into your gums. It sounds (and looks) scarier than it is. (And it's really odd that I freak out when getting poked by a medical needle, since I have 6 tattoos...and counting.) Eventually, your lip will go numb and you will start to feel like you're drunk (though...that may have just been mental). At some point, the dentist will come back in and he'll start. (All the waiting was due to the fact that there was ONE dentist on duty and several other patients that he had to attend to...also, I'm sure he's making sure you're completely numb before he starts.) Here's the thing though...you can't feel most of the pain, but you can definitely feel that something is going on. It's standard procedure that they break the bottom wisdom tooth and remove the pieces. You definitely can tell when he's doing this. You feel pressure, and it sucks feeling that someone is trying to literally break part of you. In Korea, they put a cloth over your face (with a hole for your nose and mouth) for most procedures (even cleaning) so you can't see what's going on (or into your mouth). I am really thankful for this, because I'm sure seeing it all would have made it worse.
  • In Canada and the US, I'm guessing if they give you local anesthesia, they give it to you all at once and do all of the teeth at once? I don't know, really. I do know that the whole thing is really fast.
  • In Korea, at my dentist, they numbed the bottom, took out the bottom tooth, injected the top, then took out the top. In between all of these things, they waited a loooooooooong time. That's why I was there for 3 hours. The actual procedures didn't take that long (the bottom took about 15-20 min and the top around ...5-10). It felt like I was there forever.
  • In Canada and the US, they put in dissolvable stitches, so you don't have to go back and get them removed.
  • In Korea, they don't. I have to go get mine out today, a week later. The bottom ones have already pretty much come out though (and are just kind of...there) and it's pretty annoying. Not painful, but annoying.
  • In Canada and the US, they realize that they are breaking part of you and removing it. It doesn't feel good. So they give you pretty strong painkillers as to make it bearable.
  • In Korea, they give you motrin. I'll let that sink in. MOTRIN. This is what I take for my menstrual cramps, not having teeth taken out of my skull. After all was said and done, I had to bite on that gauze for 2 hours before I could take it out. I was in...pain. Not excruciating...not the worst I've ever felt in my life, but definite, REAL pain. I had to wait 2 hours to take my pain medication, which I thought was stronger than your ordinary run-of-the-mill motrin. After 20 minutes of taking it and feeling it was doing nothing, we googled it. (Korean medications have different names than back home.) "MOTRIN?! Where's the vicodin? The codeine? The lovely little pill that is going to get me through this?" We actually packed it up and went back to the dentist. They said they don't give anything stronger for just wisdom teeth. Policy in Korea. If I was in too much pain, I could go to the 3rd floor doctor and get a shot. Fine! We went down and sat there while he finished up a phone call. I went in and described my pain (the dude speaks a bit of English) and asked for whatever he could give me. He told me I was being impatient and needed to wait the 2 hours it takes for the drugs to kick in. Wait...it takes TWO HOURS to kick in? So I'm sitting there, unmedicated and bleeding, for a full 4 hours? This has to be a joke. A very cruel...sick...joke. I think this was the worst part of the whole thing, because it really did feel like they couldn't care less about how I was feeling, about my pain.

[Sidenote: I hear it's common to under-medicate for pain here. We were wondering...is it because of the...war? Like...Koreans (and, whatever...I guess foreigners too) are expected to be stronger because they've been through so much? Or...kimchi helps? Or...the West just over-medicates? I don't know, and I don't care. When I know I need it, I want it available.]
[Sidnote #2: The motrin is really all I needed after the first day. I wasn't in too much pain for the rest of the week.]

There were a lot of tears on this day. My friend, who was coming to support me, and I had miscommunicated about where to meet and then he couldn't find it right away, so when I thought he wasn't coming... that was upsetting. I came in scared but, I thought, prepared and when nothing, no nothing, was how I expected it to be, that was upsetting. The bottom tooth came out and I was freaked out, but for me the top (and easier to remove) tooth was horrible. There was way more pressure and I completely tensed up, started shaking, started crying. Then, when I found out I'd be in pretty bad pain and there's nothing that anyone could (or in my mind, would) do about it, I cried. Maybe I had just needed a good cry.

This scared me probably way more than it should have. People get this done all the time. I always think I'm so strong, but when it comes to this I'm a huge baby. I'm supposed to go back and get it done all over again next Monday. But...I don't want to. Yes, I'm scared, even though I know what to expect. Maybe if I could get some better painkillers for the first day, I might consider it. Or maybe if they put me under, I might. As it is, the right side can stay put for now. Indefinitely.

Posted by lrbergen 19:27 Archived in South Korea Tagged dentistry living_abroad life_in_korea Comments (0)

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