Beyond the Canals: A Sri Lankan Dental Story
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.
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?”
“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.”
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?”
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.
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. 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.
 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.