The Current State of Chinese Military Dentistry
The other day I got a sweet potato from a street vendor. It was kind of cold and wasn’t too good, but it did give me the chance to visit the Chinese Military Hospital in Lhasa. At some point while eating the spud, I chipped one of my molars. It didn’t hurt, but I realized that I should probably do something about it. The Tibet Lonely Planet recommends the hospital as pretty much the only place to get modern medical treatment. Not so many choices, but at least there was one.
I hopped in a Taxi and, assisted by the correct spelling in Chinese for the hospital provided by the hotel clerk, made my way to what I what I had already resigned myself to being an expensive, painful, and crude treatment. When we got to the gate of the military complex, the driver must have explained that I had asked to come to the hospital, because the guard let us in.
I went into the plain looking building through the open door and was greeted by the dimmest of lighting. I asked the girl behind the glass if she spoke English, but she just shook her head. Luckily, a doctor walked by and asked what the problem was. I informed him that I had chipped a tooth and he explained it to the girl. She took my name and complaint and put it into a computer, then gave me a ticket to go see the dentist and explained that it was on the 3rd floor. I walked up the stairs in the nearly empty building, passing by rooms which looked like they had been neglected for years. When I got to the third floor, I proceeded into the dentistry area, which actually had reclining chairs and lights. This was a good sign. However, the fact that none of the three people in the room spoke English was not a good sign. The multiple stains on the wooden table used as a workbench was not either.
I handed the dentist my ticket and he motioned me over to a chair immediately. You don’t have to read outdated magazines in the waiting room when you are the only patient. I sat down, leaned back, and pointed back in my mouth. The dentist moved the light over my face and peered inside. “Ah,” he said. I think it was the sound of him discovering the problem, not a command for me to say the same. He called for one person to look on and began poking and scraping the afflicted tooth, while calling for another to bring him a tray. After poking and scraping for a while longer, he took the cloth off the top of the new tray and revealed a wide variety of drills and rusty tips. At this point I got a bit antsy.
He warmed up the drill a few times and approached my mouth. I held up my hand to stop him and played charades trying to get him to guess one of the following phrases: “May I have some anesthetic please?” “Hit me over the head with a mallet so I see little birdies.” or “Can we do this wild west style and I’ll drink a pint of whiskey first?” He eventually realized that I was apprehensive and got on the phone to someone. After a few minutes, a new dentist arrived who spoke a little bit of English. We talked a little bit and the new guy poked and scraped. He asked me more than once how long I would be in China, and seemed disappointed that I had only planned on staying another week or so. But this wasn’t small talk, it seems that it was going to take about a month to get the new crown made and put in!
That timeline royally screwed my plans for Mongolia and Russia, since I’d only have about a week to do both. I began trying to think of other ways around the problem, like not eating for the next few weeks and asked the dentist if there was anything else that could be done. He said that there wasn’t and that the pain would get worse. When I told him that I had no pain now, he looked surprised and called for another tray. He explained to me that if I had no pain, he could use some epoxy to seal up the hole until I got back home. That was a great plan and I immediately and enthusiastically agreed. The epoxy was even made in the US by a western pharmaceutical company!
After applying and shaping the new fake enamel — he did have to use the rusty drill then — I was all set to go. He seemed very pleased with his work, but I was even more so. This was a major problem averted. In the end it cost me only 13 Yuan, or less than $2! But more importantly, it meant that I could continue on the trip. As much as I enjoyed Lhasa, I didn’t want to be there for 6 weeks when there were Russian food and women waiting for me.
update: Here is a photo of my busted tooth.