Dental Health = Mental Health (Dentistry in Korea)

Flag of South KoreaMy diet changed immensely during my time in South Korea.  Imagine one petite girl with a diet largely consisting of dairy and bread products.  Next, subtract the aforementioned food groups and replace them with meat and vegetables, kimchi, pork, beef, duck, plenty of healthy yet tasty side dishes…For someone whose father is Jewish and whose mother doesn’t eat red meat and was raised as such, who had never eaten a whole hamburger in her first twenty-one years of life, this was VERY drastic.  This was so drastic that it resulted in a fifteen pound weight loss.

A constant portion of my at-home meals included rice and seaweed.  Seaweed, while very salty and tasty, is extremely sticky.  About eight months into my stay, I discovered exactly how sticky: two cavities worth.  Having only ever had one cavity in my life, I was extremely freaked out.

I began asking around about how to find a good dentist in South Korea. An acquaintance said I should look up dentists that speak English in Seoul. I went online but all I found were phone number, listings and forum testimonials oscillating between “Oh man, this guy is really great I highly recommend him”, and “People, I beg you, do not go to (the person that I had just seen being recommended), he’s TERRIBLE.” Some people said that a good deal of dentists in Seoul trained in the U.S. or Canada so they’re pretty much just as good as back home. Others said Korean dentists tend not to be good and to go to Thailand.  I didn’t know what to do or where to begin looking.

A friend recommended that I ask coworkers with decent teeth if they knew anyone in Seoul.  My supervisor was almost 30 and had braces.  I wasn’t entirely sure I could trust hers.  I went to my program coordinator, who had two kids.  Surely she would know a good one.  She didn’t know any in Seoul, since she went to a local dentist.  I began feeling silly for being so picky.  The coordinator was nice enough to set up an appointment for me with her dentist and even nicer to come with me and help translate.

Clip Art of Dentist Looking in Patient's MouthHer dentist seemed friendly and the procedure went quickly.  A lot was said between my coordinator and the dentist in Korean, of which I could only understand a few words.  When he was finished, I sat up and we went to the counter to pay the deductible.  At this point, the dentist informed me that he’d fixed three (not two) of my bottom teeth.  Apparently, my health insurance didn’t cover dental.  D’oh…  Apparently the procedure was 240,000 won (about $210).  Double d’oh…  And I had six more small cavities on the roof of my mouth…@%^&*!  My coordinator jumped in on my behalf, saying I was a student and couldn’t afford that (I’m a recent grad but I can definitely pass).  The dentist laughed amicably and quickly changed the pricetag to 10,000 won (a little under nine bucks).  I was too stunned by the recent turn of events that I didn’t question it and paid the man.  My appointment was scheduled for next week to have the remaining six cavities taken care of.

I got home and the reality set in.  I was either being scammed, the quality of a Korean middle class family dentist was questionable, or I had accrued a total of nine cavities in the eight months I’d been in Korea.  I didn’t find a single one of those possibilities desirable.  Also, during dinner, I spit out what I was convinced was a filling.  I called my parents on Skype to ask their opinion.  My dad called the family dentist who advised that I wait until I came home for a second opinion.

I reluctantly canceled the appointment with the local dentist, wondering whether or not I was stupid for doing so.  Maybe my teeth were rotting at that very moment!  I religiously paid (more) homage to my enamel idols, sometimes brushing twice in a row just in case.  I started flossing a few times almost daily.  “Oh please teeth,” I’d pray internally, “Say it ain’t so!”

Before I was home, I set up an appointment with my at home doctor.  I was just a teensy bit paranoid that my teeth would all fall out before I’d managed to get there.  Thankfully they didn’t.

I approached the dentist’s office with an atypical amount of trepidation.  Scrapings and x-rays later, I couldn’t take the suspense any longer.

“Well?” I ask.   “How bad is it?”

“Actually”, the aide says, “they’re pretty good.  Not much plaque…”

“What about cavities??  The dentist over in Korea said I had six on top!”

She looked at me as if I had two heads.  “I’ll have Dr. E come in to confirm.”

Sure enough, the dentist came in and confirmed her prognosis.  I didn’t have any cavities.  I didn’t have any missing fillings.  My teeth were fine.  That dentist in Korea was a quack!

I learned my lesson.  It’s not a bad thing to go with gut instinct sometimes.  And next time, if I’m ever in Korea again and need emergency dental surgery, I’m holding out for Seoul.

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