Beyond the Canals: A Sri Lankan Dental Story

August

In August of this year, I had a tooth that was hurting a lot. I’ve had several root canals done in Central America. I knew that I’d been given the opportunity to internationalize my mouth yet again.

I had been to see this dentist before. His office is on Havelock Road in Colombo 6. (Actually, after taking another look at his card it looks like he has two offices. He’s listed another location on Kirula Road in Colombo 5).

The afternoon I arrived for the procedure, the dentist’s office was teeming with people. Some were undoubtedly walk-ins, meaning that they would not be going before me. But it looked like several others actually had appointments. By the time I got in to see the dentist he was more than an hour behind schedule.

I lay down. He took a quick look. He already suspected that I needed a root canal in my back-right tooth, the one on top. He’d seen my dental x-rays from the day before. He opened up that tooth, said “Oh, well, there’s no blood. That means your tooth is already dead.”

Root canal number four, my first in South Asia, was in full-swing.

Or so I thought. I went back a couple days later after he had “finished the root canal” to get a ceramic cap put on the tooth. I thought it was over. I was very wrong.

September

I found myself in the US in September. I found myself with a bit of tooth pain. It felt like it was on that same tooth, tooth #2 in US dental parlance. I went to a general dentist in the US. I was told that things looked highly unusual back there. I was told I needed to go see an endodontist—a root canal specialist—to figure out exactly what was going on.

Turns out I didn’t get a root canal in that little office on Havelock Road after all. Evidently, “There are three canals. It appears that the dentist in Sri Lanka only operated on one of the three. Do you understand?”

“What, the guy didn’t finish the job?”

“No, he didn’t. That tooth is hurting because there are still nerves back there. You did not get a root canal in Sri Lanka, not a complete one anyway.”

“So, can you fix it?”

“Yes.”

“Now?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, let’s do it.”

“Okay, Taylor. This is the best way to handle it. If we don’t fix this you’re going to end up in a lot more pain and you’ll probably have a large abscess in your mouth.”

“How big is large?”

“Maybe about the size of a golf ball, maybe a bit bigger.”

“Yep, very happy to be at the dentist’s office today. This has been a very educational experience.”

October

I’m back in Colombo for a bit more fun in the sun…and rain. I brought my sandals and some light reading.

I also brought my x-rays. I brought other papers. I came ready for round two. I scheduled an appointment for Tuesday, October 16 at noon.

The doctor greeted me with a big smile. Frankly, I’m not sure at what point he knew that he’d screwed up. At first he looked genuinely surprised.

“No, well, you see Taylor, they use different numbering systems here. This, this says #2, that most certainly is not the tooth I had operated on.”

“Really, that’s really how you’re going to handle this?”

“Okay let’s just take a look at the papers you’ve brought…..okay let’s just take a look at your mouth.”

“I’m not here to take a look at my mouth. I’m here to get my money back. I paid you for a root canal; I didn’t get one.”

“Taylor, your see the numbering system we use here is different. It’s not clear we’re even talking about the same tooth. That just isn’t how we do things here, Taylor.”

“Really? I can’t believe you’re doing this.”

“Okay, fine, let me just take a look online at the numbering system they are using.”

He’s checking online. I’m about to explode in a fit of rage. Though he does appear to actually be comparing the different tooth-numbering systems, which calms me slightly.

“Oh, okay. That is the tooth we had operated on. But that just isn’t how we do things here. You really have to believe me.”

“I would like a refund now.”

“Okay…okay…no need to be upset. We can give you a refund. Can you come back tomorrow?”

“What, for 12,000 rupees? No. Why can’t you pay me now?”

“Well, we only have 8,000 rupees on hand.”

He had already checked. That’s what he was doing when he excused himself momentarily after I fired my initial salvo.

“So, why don’t you just give me the 8,000 now and I’ll come back some other time? Do you have any idea how embarrassing that was for me in the US? Aside from the fact that I dropped around $3,000 US dollars, I actually defended you at first—before it was clearly explained to me what was going on. I know people who’ve travelled to places like Guatemala to get excellent and inexpensive dental care. The dentist who first discovered this problem even said, ‘I’ve seen a lot of good working coming out of Sri Lanka.’ I don’t know what that means exactly, or how much work he’s talking about, but I know there are talented dentists in virtually every country. I know Sri Lanka is one of those countries…I just know you aren’t one of those dentists.”

“I’m sorry about this, really. It’s just not how things are done here. I think this is probably the first time this has happened. I hope there isn’t somebody else out there with the same kind of problem. Here’s the 8,000. Can you come back some other time for the rest?”

“Fine.”

I tuck the cash in my wallet and quickly exit.

All over the world, the dentists are taking care of us. They are supposed to be watching over our teeth, taking care of our mouths. But who is watching the dentists?

Caveat emptor, youthful readers.

October 25

On October 25 at around 1PM, I went back to Havelock Road to pick up the rest of my money. I was expecting an uneventful affair, but again I was wrong.

Instead of just being given my money, one of the dentist’s assistants told me to wait. After a few minutes, another patient left the operating room and I was told to enter.

“Taylor, hi, can we take another look at your mouth?

“What, no. No you can’t take another look at my mouth.”

“You see one of my assistants and I started wondering if we actually had operated on the bottom right tooth.”

“That’s ridiculous and you know it. You already checked last time.”

“Yes, well, but something like this has just never happened before. Why don’t you just open up.”

I knew very well that there was no root canal on my bottom right tooth. The dentist also knew this but he may have been trying to save some face.

Instead of lying down, I reluctantly opened my mouth and let him check back there with a flashlight. The dentist was sitting at his desk and I was sitting next to him.

After he did that, I heard him speak quickly with one of his assistants in Sinhala.

“Well Taylor, I guess we’ll never know without a thorough examination. But I am a gentleman so I’m going to give you the other four thousand rupees on good faith. Our records now indicate that we operated on your bottom right tooth, not the one on top.”

“I can’t believe you’re doing this. Do you understand the implications of what you’re saying? Now you’re claiming that, the last time I was here, you misread your own records dental records. The implication would be that you gave me a perfectly good root canal and somewhere else I got a partially completed root canal done recently….even though you are the only dentist I had seen in over a year. It all sounds a bit silly doesn’t it?”

“Yes, well Taylor I guess we’ll never really know. Maybe there’s a problem with the record.”

“Wow. I hadn’t expected this. You are a piece of work.”

Before getting up to leave, I wrote down a few of the most essential elements of our most recent conversation on the receipt that he had just given me. When I finished and got up, I found him staring at me, looking puzzled.

“What are doing? What are you writing a note to yourself?”

Not saying a word, I looked directly at him, smiled and left.

After I got in a tuk-tuk, I started to feel like I had forgotten something. I had the backpack that I came to his office with.[1] I had the other 4,000 rupees that he owed me. I even had a receipt with the dentist’s name on it. I wasn’t missing anything… and then it hit me.

I wonder if my erstwhile dentist on Havelock Road is a Groundviews reader. I forgot to ask him that when I had returned to pick up the rest of my money.


[1] I’m not sure why, but the receipt I was recently given stated that this dentist’s office was on Vajira Road in Colombo 5. However, the business cards I had picked up on several occasions at his Havelock Road office do not list any address on Vajira Road.

  • Sharnelle

    What a fantastic tale to share. I myself had some dentistry done on a recent trip to Colombo and found the dentist comparable to a butcher. The job wasn’t done nearly as well as I would have had back home ( in Australia) however seeing as it was only a general clean for the Aus equivalent of $18 compared to the $98 I would have spent at home I let it go. In your case however with major dentistry I understand your frustration. Bad practice covered by bad customer service is never a recipe for a satisfied customer no matter what trade you’re in.

  • http://ravana.wordpress.com Jehan Mendis

    Personally, I don’t think groundviews.org is the place for this sort of writing. At the very least, has the dentist been contacted for his side of the story?

    This is not journalism.

    • Benett

      Please, Jehan Mendis, explain why this is not journalism. Personally, I think this is exactly what Groundviews is about – people writing about what they have experienced, what they have lived through, what they are witnesses of, what they make of it.
      In that sense, this piece is a marvelous analogy to what the GoSL is doing when its members are confronted with proof and evidence of war crimes. And most likely the reason it was published on this site.

      • http://ravana.wordpress.com Jehan Mendis

        @Benett,

        It’s not good journalism because it lacks objectivity, fairness and impartiality, as the last few paragraphs clearly indicate. It’s a battle of egos, and writing this piece is the author’s revenge for what he PERCEIVES to be an experience of bad service.

        Plus, he has not made any attempt to check the veracity of his American dentist’s reading of the problem, while at the same time, by his own admission, he makes no attempt to understand the Sri Lankan dentist’s defense, or even co-operate fully with the the dentist’s attempts to understand the details of his complaint. Do we even ever find out what the Sri Lankan dentist meant when he said, “That just isn’t how we do things here”? Has the author even attempted to check this with other Sri Lankan dentists? Does he even know what he would check for? I doubt it, cos he appears not to have really listened. (It is possible that he did listen but didn’t report it, but this would be surprising because he even goes to the extent of reporting his ad hominem insults).

        I’m sure there are plenty of bad dentists in Sri Lanka, but I’ve never been to one. The best way of avoiding bad dentists and finding a good one, just like anything else in Sri Lanka, is to just ask around. Word of mouth – it’s always been a great substitute for shitty journalism.

  • Alfred Bauer

    I would say that the majority of dentists in Sri Lanka are incompetent, to say the least. Some of the most highly touted can be among the worst. In years of experience with Colombo dentists, I can honestly say there are only a handful (less than 10)who are trustworthy to do proper work. Outstation (outside Colombo) I would estimate that the number of good dentists shrinks to near zero.
    Thanks for writing this Taylor. We need more essays on this topic and somehow those committing malpractice should be exposed as a warning to others.

    • John Cyril

      Dear Alfred Bauer you said that majority of dentists in Srilanka are incompetent then why go to the dentists in Srilanka why not get it done from where you are. I’m sure that you can get a very good dentists for the money you pay. Mr Taylor went to Srilanka because it’s cheap to do it in Srilanka
      what you pay is what you get. Tell me Mr Taylor how mach it cost you to have it done in the USA. If you fill the dentists in Srilanka is incompetent Don’t go.

      • Taylor

        John,

        No, I did not go to Sri Lanka “because it’s cheap to do it in Sri Lanka.” I had a problem that required immediate attention and found myself in Sri Lanka at that time. Have you ever needed a root canal? It’s not a procedure you put off, it’s extremely painful….

        In addition, I am worried about your reading comprehension. It’s clearly stated in the article that it cost around $3,000 in the US, which included a trip to the endodontist and also having a general dentist put a crown on the tooth.

        Lastly, just based on the way Alfred has phrased his comment, one could logically infer that his principal reason for being in Sri Lanka is not to visit a dentist…..

        Best,
        Taylor

      • Alfred Bauer

        @John Cyril
        You asked me “why go to the dentists in Srilanka why not get it done from where you are.” I happen to be in Sri Lanka. That is where I am. It’s as simple as that. And rare as they may be, I also happen to know two excellent dentists in Colombo.
        Cheers, Alfred

    • Ricky

      I’m a youth, and reading this a year later, am wondering if the preceding commmenters could advise me. I’ve had it confirmed by to ‘clinic’ dentists an hour south of colombo, that I need a ‘nerve filling’ on a molar in my right lower jaw. I have severely neglected dental health; most of my other teeth, including one that is beyond redemption, require attention. (They weren’t closely examined) The price quote for the RT treatment is 7000 rupees. Deal’s great. I was also offered extraction of the tooth, once pain died down, as an alternative. I wasn’t impressed however, with the chairside manner and tart responses of the dentist, and fear similar traits my reflect on the procedure. I’m wondering whether to trust the root filling will be painless and effective, done here (especially as its worsening rapidly) or to find another dentist. I’d appreciate recommendations, if having a root canal done at a clinic isn’t advisable.

      I’m in pain. I hope my post made sense.

      Thanks.
      Rick
      urheard2008 (at) gmail

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