My Bloody Romania: First stab at medical tourism

Being a homeless, shameless, godless freelance travel writer isn’t all glamour, Nike endorsement deals and Friday nights at the Viper Room canoodling with Natalie Portman. There are innumerable indignities associated with this lifestyle, including the startling, nay shocking, confession I am about to make: I have not seen a dentist in over four years.

Now rest assured that during this time I have been brushing and flossing with a ferocity only known to those who have no health insurance and little disposable income, who occasionally suffer the odd nightmare where his teeth crumble into shards while biting into an apple and Natalie Portman abruptly decides that she wants to see other people.

Even so, after four years, punctuated with occasional mysterious aches and an increased sensitivity to ice, I felt compelled to finally see a dentist. Romania may not be the first destination one thinks of when considering medical tourism (or even the 50th) and indeed, generally speaking, one shouldn’t. Pretty much all of the competent doctors leave here at the first opportunity for better pay and a lifestyle where a trip to the post office to pick up a package isn’t a half day ordeal. Even President B??sescu couldn’t find a doctor he trusted to repair a herniated disc last year, choosing to get the work done in Vienna. But dentists are another story. Since it’s not nearly as easy for them to find work abroad, even the Jedi Knights of Romanian dentistry are more or less stuck here (though EU membership may change all that).

So with a solid recommendation from friends, I brushed and flossed one last time and walk across town to my appointment.

If one chooses to fixate on aesthetics, they might become a tad nervous upon arrival at their Romanian dentist’s office. The ‘reception area’ did not have the soothing 50 gallon aquarium or three months of People magazine or even lights (there was a ceiling light, but it was turned off – natural light from the windows was sufficient as long as one wasn’t trying to read a book or scrutinize their bill). It was simply a tiny, bare storefront space, with two tired plants, four chairs and reading material that consisted of mail catalogues from the local superstore. There was no reception desk and, indeed, no receptionist. Just a frosted door from where the dentist herself occasionally emerged to call in the next patient.

The tiny room was filled with people, some walk-ins cupping their jaws and others with flimsy ‘appointments’ that were more wishful than abiding – I was invited in 45 minutes after my scheduled time. Inside, the office wasn’t much better. Again, no lights apart from the overhead lamp she used to illuminate my mouth. The walls were bare, the only decoration being two tiny, but encouraging pictures of the Resurrection of Jesus clipped to the x-ray light-board.

After truncated pleasantries (which she unexpectedly did in English), she went to work with the iron hook, gouging at my hard-to-reach places. After a quick spit, she fired up the tooth polisher for some nippy work ‘only where it was necessary’. Though her spoken chair-side-manner wasn’t winning any Florence Nightingale awards, she, like her busty American counterparts, was not shy about cradling my head, squished deep into her left breast. Better than any anesthetic.

Fourteen minutes was all she needed. Never cracking her deadpan disposition, she informed that I have no cavities [punches air] and that it would take about an hour for the underwire mark in my cheek to fade.

Total cost for cursory check-up and hasty teeth cleaning: RON30 (US$12.36). If one is less valiantly hygienic than I am, one might like to know that getting a tooth pulled will run an additional RON25 (US$10.30) and getting a tooth filled should be about the same. I wonder if dental care prices in America would be similar if they cut out the aquarium, People magazine, the team of receptionists and superfluous mood lighting?

So, my fellow budget travelers and destitute freelance writers, probably best to save your LASIK surgery for Thailand, but in the meantime you can get have a professional attend to minor-to-moderate dental issues in Romania with the same confidence you would at home. Like anywhere in the world, dentists’ offices (‘stomatologie‘) are on virtually every block, so just shop around until you see a door you like, or if possible, get a local to give you a referral. Be sure to crack a joke while you’re at it and take discreet note of their smile.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for more amateur medical solutions and reminiscing about his innumerable relationships with movie stars, even if they all deny ever having known him, while deep down still longing for his red hot smokin’ body, aren’t you Natalie?