Today was a half-day in Xepocol, a mere half-hour drive from our base at Chichicastenango. It was market day in Chichicastenango and the crowds were much smaller for the clinic, but it was still a busy day for Bill Brewer.
Brewer’s day began early. A 15-year-old girl came in with four rotted front teeth. In his words, he had to take her smile away. I stood to his side and held a flashlight as he worked.
The decision to pull the teeth was never one he’d make at home, Brewer said. “That’s what a lot of people at home don’t understand.”
He gave the girl anesthetic and began to work. I was fine at that point. He began to pull the teeth, dropping them into a nearby wastebasket. Whether it was the bleeding gums or the heat or the visual of Brewer’s hands in the young girl’s mouth, I began to feel nauseous. I had to pass off the flashlight to Jay Hines, an old hand who had worked with Bill on three missions trips already, and sat down.
The patient was stronger than I was. She didn’t even flinch as her teeth were pulled.
“Welcome to the world of bush dentistry,” Brewer said.
The next patient was the same, although her teeth didn’t look as bad. I was able to watch as Brewer took out her four front teeth without getting queasy. That was more than could be said for her, she got dizzy and had to sit down.
I’m not afraid of dentists, but when I went under the knife for wisdom tooth surgery, I made sure I wasn’t conscious for it. When a Guatemalan woman in her 30′s walked into the concrete room with a rotten wisdom tooth, she not only didn’t flinch, she laughed when it was over.
According to Brewer, after what they had been through, having a teeth pulled was nothing.
Pulling teeth is all we really could do, but for a population that doesn’t place a lot of concern on dental care, getting a tooth removed can mean the end to years of pain.
When a 13-year-old boy walked in with a cavity in his first permanent tooth, the lack of concern became more apparent. Brewer tried to reason with the boy’s father that he could get the tooth filled in town, but the father insisted on having it removed.
“It’s not something I’d recommend on my own family,” Brewer tried to tell the father, who respondedby saying he was more worried about the filling falling out.
“It frustrates a guy. You try to save teeth all your life and have to take out one I could save,” Brewer said.
In the US, a filling wouldn’t have been difficult and family probably wouldn’t have been so adamant about having the tooth pulled. For that moment I shared the frustration. Coming from a country where dental hygiene is rather common, the idea of being happy that teeth were yanked out is foreign to me.
The boy smiled and shook our hands when it was over. In the end, he was being treated for pain. In Guatemala, that was more important.