Three weeks ago I developed a toothache that wouldn't go away. Finally there was nothing for it but to find a dentist, and preferably a good one; I take the view that one trip to a bad doctor might not cure you, but one trip to a bad dentist can cost you teeth and that's more permanent. So last week I went to one nearby fittingly entitled "Good Dentist". I hasten to add that I didn't just go because of the humour value of the name - not that I had much else to go on truth be told - but Korean Mother had been there once and he seemed 'OK'.
Herein lies the first revelation about Koreans and teeth. Recommendations can be a bit thin on the ground because it seems that many of them only actually bother to go to one when there's a problem. This came as a bit of a shock because back in the UK regular check-ups are a fact of life - it simply hadn't occurred to me that it could be any other way. It was also surprising given the way many Koreans consider an annual visit to the doctor for a medical to be good practice. In fact, I was little irritated that when I related the general lack of such comprehensive pre-emptive diagnostics back home, there was some sad shaking of heads that only the more enlightened can bestow on you, and yet when I related my surprise about the lack of pre-emptive dental care, there's a general shrugging of shoulders followed by a casual "we don't do that here". Just when you think you've got something in Korea figured out, they change the rules on you.
None of this is to say that dental care in the UK is any good, because it isn't. I have to make appointments two months in advance and if I have a problem - no matter how painful - I probably wouldn't be in the chair before three days at the earliest. So the Korean dentistry experience got off to a good start when I walked in the door and two minutes later was sat besides an X-ray machine pointed at the troublesome area. Admittedly, back home I'm used to holding things in place myself rather than having a strange Korean woman's fingers stuck in my mouth while the pictures are taken. And wasn't she going to wear gloves? No, apparently not.
Two minutes later I was in the dentist's chair, or one of his three chairs - it seems he multi-tasks, with an LCD panel on an arm in front of me with the legend Windows XP Professional flicking around the screen. My dentist doesn't have a computer screen built into his chair and I wondered if Korean dentists were going to be more high-tech - admittedly something which would not be difficult. Sure enough, the screen is brought to life and there's a nice cross section of my mouth looking at me. But this is where things start to go downhill, because whereas my British dentist has the diplomatic skills of a U.N. negotiator, my Korean dentist's first words to be are words to the effect of 'this looks bad and I think you'll lose the tooth'. He asked if I wanted to watch TV on the screen while he worked, and then before I could formulate a reply he stabbed me with a needle.
As the anaesthetic almost completely failed to take affect he scanned around the fillings already in my mouth - also without surgical gloves - and asked if British dentists were any good because it looked like the kind of work Korean dentists were doing 'twenty years ago'. Moments earlier, he would have had a receptive audience - I once had an abscess which wasn't successfully treated for well over a year and may been a factor in the development of my Meniere's Disease - so I'm rooting for this to be a more positive experience, but for all the implied superiority of the practice here, I was beginning to have serious doubts. The doubts were only magnified when I pointed out that pre-numbing the target area pre-injection was commonplace in the UK and this was met with a surprised "we can't afford that here".
Sure enough, when he began drilling my mouth was barely numb and it wasn't long before it was too painful to continue. Cue second injection which tellingly, hurt almost as much as the first. It doesn't work well on some people and 'sometimes we have to inject up to eleven times' he explained. Had he laughed manically at this point it would not have seemed at all out of place. But the anaesthetic finally took hold - so much so in fact that in a new experience my eye went numb - and the work was done - or at least partially done - because a temporary filling was put in place for a week since it turned out things weren't as bad as the X-ray had suggested. So I was supposed to wait a week to see if the pain had gone before returning.
Total cost - 6,500 won - about £3.50 and a price that is unlikely to pay for more than a few minutes of a dentist's time back home, so you can't argue with that, especially when you can't use your tongue.
Still, on the way home I thought about phoning my dentist in the UK and making an appointment for October. I wrote an entry for this blog, but then in an attack of paranoia brought on by the reality of a second trip to the Good Dentist, decided not to publish it.
After a few days of thinking things over, today I went to a different, and more expensive, dentist - "Happy Smile" (if they can really give me one of these they're miracle workers, not dentists), and got a 3D mouth X-ray, a significantly different diagnosis (worryingly), and enough pre-numbing before the injection that I didn't have a banging headache afterwards. The waiting room was more plush, the software on the Windows XP Professional screen was fancier and they used a camera to take additional pictures of all my teeth - but we had to sit in the waiting room for twenty minutes and the nurses and the dentist still didn't wear gloves when they had their hands in my mouth so it wasn't all positive. There was no offer from the dentist of a Korean soap opera to keep me entertained while he worked; he used the screen and camera to work, not that I could really see anything because they stuck a special cloth over the rest of my face, thus robbing me of the ability to give him feedback in the form of variously strained and accusing looks, depending on how bad things got.
Aside from the actual injection and drilling, all the other work - including the scaling I had before I left - was done by the nurses, so I imagine they're probably qualified to some extent. Well, hopefully anyway.
Of all the things I've done in Korea, I'd have to say that having to go to the dentists has been just about the worst. I never had any fear of dental treatment back home but when this was placed in a foreign context with me not being able to understand what was being done I rapidly came to dread subsequent trips. This is not to say the standard of treatment here is worse than home - in many ways it's better - but some of the differences and difficulties leave a little to be desired, and of course, for all the high-tech gadgetry, it really comes down to the accuracy of the diagnosis and who you can trust.
Korean keywords: 치과의사, 이, 치통