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The International Writers Magazine
:Open Your Mouth - Dental Care Indian Style

Dental Healthcare Tourism
Colin Todhunter

Many people from the West now indulge in “healthcare tourism” – visiting India for healthcare in order to avoid waiting lists or costly services back home. I thought that I would get in on the act. I didn’t visit India for this purpose, but found myself requiring dental treatment while here.

Like many westerners, I am always a bit dubious about receiving health treatment in India mainly because horror stories abound, some real but most imaginary, about standards of hygiene and care. Some other traveller had recommended a dentist, so I attended just to check it out. I looked through the window and all seemed to be in order. It was fairly clean, had a waiting room, and had various certificates of qualification framed and hanging on the wall. So I told myself that I would visit for treatment the next day based on my in-depth analysis and evaluation of the place. It’s amazing just how much comfort can be gained from just glancing through a window and seeing a few chairs and pieces of paper.
Most people who I know hate going to the dentist and I’m no different. And it doesn’t help very much if you have seen a film from the 1970s called Marathon Man. In the film the American actor Dustman Hoffman is kidnapped, drugged and then wakes to find he is in a dentist’s chair with Laurence Olivier, who plays a former Nazi officer, standing over him with drill in hand. Olivier wants to know where a hidden stash of wartime treasure is located and is convinced that Hoffman knows. But he doesn’t have a clue.
Olivier continuously asks in his German accent “Is it safe?”, referring to the diamonds. Hoffman doesn’t know what he means. Olivier does a bit of tooth drilling to jolt Hoffman’s memory. And rest assured he’s not replacing fillings. He’s deliberately drilling into the nerve of the tooth. Viewers can empathise with the pain as Hoffman screams and squirms in the seat. “Is it safe?” – the same question over and over again. This goes on for a seeming eternity. Hoffman is unstrapped, taken away, only to return for some more excruciating torture some hours later. Olivier gave the profession of dentistry a bad name – and let’s face it, it never really had a good one to start with.
The night before I visit the dentist, for some inexplicable reason, this scene from the film plays in my mind over and over again. I wouldn’t mind, but I haven’t seen the film for over a decade. Walking to the dentist, it is still in my mind, and when finally in the chair, I have visions of Laurence Olivier peering into my mouth with menace and with drill in hand, ready to take great pleasure in tormenting me.
I am jolted from my fantasy as the dentist informs me that I require two fillings and a crown. With no anesthetic, she begins to drill and drill. She must be Olivier’s long lost daughter I think to myself. She hits a nerve. I grimace, but let her continue. Again it happens. She cannot understand why I am in pain. “I’m not touching the gum” she says. At that point I begin to wonder if she has indeed come straight from the Laurence Olivier School of Dentistry. Does she not realise that in the centre of each and every tooth, there is a bundle of nerves that when drilled into causes extreme agony? I keep waiting for her to ask “Is it Safe?” or for Olivier himself to walk through the door with sinister grin and drill in hand.
After having spent two hours in the chair I am informed that I must return in the evening to have my tooth ground down to the stump in order to fit a crown. “Ground down to the stump”. What an unnerving phrase. She could have at least sugar coated it to make it sound better.
I return in the evening. I am called from the waiting room to sit in the surgery itself. A middle aged woman is in the chair and the dentist is tugging away, extracting a tooth. I’ve never witnessed this sort of thing before. In the UK everything is done behind closed doors, with personal privacy and away from public gaze. This particular dentist surgery kind of mirrored what goes on in the street outside where people act out much of their lives in full public view. Or perhaps she had just called me in for a special viewing as a taster for the pain in store.
Then it is my turn. But to my surprise, she is not the one going to do the grinding down. I am in the chair and I turn to see the back of a grey haired man with a drill in his hand. “It’s Olivier himself!” He turns and I am brought back to reality. He is Mr.Gupta and tells me he was trained in London. He administers an injection and begins to drill. The whole procedure turns out to be a painless affair.
Some words of advice for dental healthcare tourists herein India. The quality of care is good, but don’t get obsessed with a certain American film, German SS camps, and sadistic torturers. It does nothing for your state of mental health. Believe me.

© Colin Todhunter December 2004

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