Tag Archives: mid service training

A trip to the dentist

25 Jul

I was going to make this a Confession Sunday post, but I can’t wait. I need to get this out in the open…

My mouth is forever tainted.

It is cavity-ridden.

I’m not talking like one or two cavities which might be standard for some five-year old in the U.S. after blowing through his Halloween stash. I’m not talking four or five, which might be particularly unpleasant news from the dentist. I’m talking like almost every tooth in my mouth now has a cavity of some sort whereas a little over a year ago I did not have one.

Let that sink in.

I know. I was in disbelief too—dentist had to show me. Though I wasn’t sure what I was looking at since I’d never gotten one before. With a mirror tilted at just the right angle he pointed out each tooth and said “cavity, cavity, cavity, cavity, cavity, cavity, cavity…this one is ok, cavity, this is ok too, cavity, cavity, cavity, cavity…”

Peace Corps volunteers’ health and dental care is put in the hands of Peace Corps itself. Each post has a medical staff that minimally consists of a Peace Corps approved doctor and a medical assistant or nurse. The dental work, at least in the case of Indonesia, is outsourced to a facility deemed to meet U.S. standards in the host country. ← a note on this later

Aside from any medical or dental issues that may arise during service, all volunteers are given an annual physical, as well as, a dental check-up and cleaning. Fortunately I haven’t suffered a whole lot physically in this country.[i]
While other volunteers here have had their bouts of giardia, dengue, e. coli, fungal infections and who knows what else, I had always felt fortunate to have only had a cold or flu. And it wasn’t even as bad as the annual cold or flu I’d get back in the U.S. Other than that I have suffered from the occasional food poisoning and traveler’s diarrhea. Sakit perut or “sick stomach” is what the Indonesians call it. I doubt anyone could refute that that is not part of Peace Corps. In fact, loose bowel movements aren’t that unordinary and I’m fairly sure that talking about it and other shitastrophies are running jokes in almost any Peace Corps country. The other day I read an online story and in the comments section someone had said something to the effect of “You must have been a Peace Corps volunteer. We always considered shitting your pants initiation into Peace Corps Turkmenistan….” Don’t ask me what I was reading.

Seriously. I can’t remember.

Fortunately, I have not had that experience, nor this one. It’s a good thing too because I can really be a baby about any brush with illness or injury.[ii] So luckily no one has had to put up with that side of me yet.

As it turns out, I couldn’t get off that easily.

Let’s go back a bit, shall we…

My pristine teeth were once a point of pride. Prior to Peace Corps I had never had a cavity.[iii] I had also gone to the same dentist my entire life. Dr. Kline is one of the most gentle, kind-hearted men I’ve ever met. As a kid it was easy to assume he had a double life as a superhero. He was just that great of a person. As the years wore on his deepening wrinkles portrayed nothing but a lifetime of smiling. This was very apt for a dentist.  His staff was devoted. They remained consistent figures in my life. Every six months I would see them. We would catch up. Not only did they know me by name, but they knew more about me than your average dental staff should know or would care to know. It gave the growing city of Chandler and the sprawling suburb of Phoenix a hometown feel.

This led me to be one of the only people I knew who would proclaim “I love going to the dentist!” How could you not when you were in the hands of Dr. Kline and his tender staff? They knew me. They knew my teeth.

More dental history

I had braces for a year and a half in high school and a palette expander. My mother had a hard time justifying the cost of orthodontics just to give me a bigger mouth. Nevertheless she conceded. So even my few feral teeth shaped up. A year or two later I had my wisdom teeth out. Two of which were becoming impacted and thus threatening their newly arranged peers. Tragedy was avoided.

And so yes. My teeth were a point of pride. I felt fortunate to have what many people told me were “good genes” and access to great dental care throughout my life. People often commented, “They’re so white”[iv] and “They’re so straight. Did you have braces?” Why, yes. Yes I did. Please continue to adorn me with praise of my gorgeous smile and the gems that make it so winning.

As a direct result of this kind of attention that my teeth frequently got me, as well as the self-confidence instilled in me from Dr. Kline and his staff from a young age, I enjoyed my dental hygiene practices. I was always excited by the fact that a visit to the dentist meant walking away with a bag filled with goodies—new toothbrush in the color of my choice, travel floss and toothpaste from a selection of flavors, coupons for more dental products. Score. I swear by Oral-B® Glide floss[v], which I stocked up on before I came to Indonesia. It’s like flossing with silk ribbons for heaven’s sake! I also am a big fan of Sensodyne®  Pronamel® toothpaste which had the stamp of approval from pre-dental school friends. They were just about the only people outside of the dental office who’d humor me in discussions of the horrors of acid wear on your enamel and brushing too hard.

And so poor David, I feel ya bud. I find myself wondering the same thing: “Is this real life?”

Could this be happening to me?

And how can it be?

You can ask most anyone back home. I’m not a sweets person. I don’t mind them of course. But I would take a garlicy hummus over chocolate cake almost any day, and I rarely eat candy. I don’t buy the stuff. So I only eat it when it happens to be around. We just can’t let it go to waste.

Indonesia changed things. When the only accessible comfort and taste of home is something sweet (Oreos and Snickers), it’s what you go to in times of need. So yes, I’m guilty of indulging in much more candy and sweets than any other time in my life. I’ve undergone emotional and mental stresses that have pushed me over the edge. They’ve transformed me into a monster who considers two Snickers bars (or was it three?) a dinner when I don’t have the heart to eat another plate of rice and tofu.  That only happened once. Don’t judge me. I’ve become something that makes up reasons why I must immediately consume an eight-piece pack of fun-sized Snickers and half a cinema-sized box of Sprees upon receiving a care package filled with nothing but candy. On a particularly rough day I wallowed in my room hunched over a full-sized Butterfinger.  It wasn’t until I was licking the chocolate smeared wrapper clean that I realized how pathetic I would look to anyone who could have seen behind my closed bedroom door at that moment. Oh, the despair.

And now I pay for it.

Earlier this month we went to the dentist in groups of five, scheduled every evening following our mid-service training activities. I was the first in our group to have my checkup and cleaning. It lasted all of 10 minutes and the quality of care was questionable. Our Peace Corps doctor admits this and has agreed that we will get a second opinion.

I walked out into the lobby. The four others looked up. We played a guessing game.

“Guess how many cavities I have.”

“None” was the first response because every PCV in Indonesia knows how surprising that would be after a year on the desa diet of the overly fried and sweetened.

After thirty seconds or so of way-too low guesses, with composure masking a tinge of rage, I informed them that, no. In fact, almost every tooth in my mouth had a cavity.

To which the responses were consolation followed by fear for the results of their imminent visits.

I came close to crying as the next volunteer made her way to the dentist’s chair. But I held it together, partly so because I was just in shock. I’ve never heard of someone having almost all of their teeth have cavities. Or at least anyone I know. It doesn’t make sense. I mentally reviewed my dental history. Then I blamed some greater being or outside force. What have I done to deserve this? Didn’t I do everything right? I use Glide® floss and brush twice a day with a soft-bristled brush!  I even swish water around in my mouth after having a sugary drink or snack. Why me?

As selfish as it is, it didn’t help that one by one they came back clean. No cavities. Only one other volunteer had a good number, but it was nothing to compete with mine.

And so upon returning to the hotel the guessing game continued, and we joked that I won the cavity contest to mask my inner pain.

I felt my mortality. So I am not immune to everything. Huh.

Then came the shame. How can I ever go back to Dr. Kline? And what of my now-dental school friends? What will they say? A series of familiar faces shaking their heads in disappointment rotated through my mind.

Now that I have returned to site I’ve been compelled to up my dental hygiene game. I’m still not completely convinced this can be as I wait to hear back from PCMO Dr. Leonard. Will there be another dentist’s appointment? Will I have cavities filled here? And if I don’t how much worse will my teeth deteriorate in this next year?

In a way it’s melodramatic. (I told you I was a baby about injury and illness.) And what’s worse is, secretly, the one thing that makes me feel better is walking down the main street to school and seeing the toothless grins of the elderly and the children skipping to the elementary school with teeth rotting out of their heads.

First world/Whitegirlproblems#? Maybe. It’s devastating to me. Look what I have sacrificed to be here!

Look what I had to sacrifice in the first place, something as meaningful and miniscule as a bit of pride and my perfect dental record in a land where people only go to the dentist to get their aching teeth yanked out.

Photo credit: The fantastical Elle Chang.


[ii] I once got a black eye and a hairline fracture in my orbital bone. I was fairly certain my face would never go back to normal.back

[iii] It is possible I once had a cavity in one of my baby teeth that has since fallen out. So it doesn’t count.back

[iv] Full disclosure, I did have my stint with Crest Whitestrips post-braces in high school. It was a thing. Everyone did it, but didn’t like to admit it. I must say though, I started out at a pretty good place not being a coffee, tea or soda drinker.back

[v] Formerly Crest® Glide floss.back

[vi] Thank you Jay for the footnote idea.back