More Expat Survival Stories: Soviet-Style Dental Surgery

On Going to the Dentist in Bishkek (twice)
Gawd, that was awful.
First, let me give you some background. I’m an American. My last memory of going to the dentist in America involves a supple leather chair and pink bubble-gum flavored laughing gas that knocked me out for an hour.
I also avoid hospitals abroad like the plague, unless I’m actually sure I won’t get more sick going in (talking to you, hospitals in China with septic toilets and no soap at the sinks…).
I once went to a private dentist in Urumqi, an immaculate outfit run by a well-dressed Uyghur who spoke punctual English. I also got my teeth cleaned – very professionally and without problem – at E’s neighborhood dentist in Ankara.
But in Kyrgyzstan – I wasn’t going to give that a try. Not with the reputation for old soviet instruments, imported medicine of questionable quality (we always check the expiration dates when we buy something here) and nation-wide reputation for bribe-taking. Uh-uh, not here. Any dental work we need can wait until we go back to Turkey, where the waiting rooms may not offer the same supple chairs as in the US, but everything is efficient, professional and clean.

Until one of my wisdom teeth started coming in, and my mouth began to swell and swell and swell. So we talked to a co-worker, found a recommended dentist down the street, and set up an appointment for later that day. – three days after I’d begun to have pain.
The first appointment took about fifteen minutes. Neither E or I speak “dental Russian” – our language abilities end somewhere after pain, tooth, swell and three days. One older Kyrgyz women with penciled-in eyebrows spoke a battering of English though, and we got my tooth examined and an x-ray taken before I was given the fantastically helpful advice to mix one teaspoon of baking soda in warm water and gargle this for 2-3 minutes five or six times a day. “Not salt!”, she warned, “remember, soda!”. We paid 200 som and were told to come back if my temperature rose or the pain continued after a few days.
So I did and three days later it was a little better, but still swollen. However, my temperature was normal, and my cheek didn’t hurt, so we didn’t go back to the dentist. This time we just went to pharmacy (“аптека”) and bought an antibiotic for bacteria in the mouth. Like all medicine I’ve seen in Kyrgyzstan, it was simply over-the-counter, no prescription needed. It also cost 700 som, which I think is close to how much a bottle of Tylenol runs now in the states.
I took that for the prescribed five days, and the swelling almost disappeared. Then a strange hard lump appeared in my cheek. Two days, three days, and finally we go to the dentist again. Another x-Ray, another tooth check, and it turns out that my wisdom tooth has rotten from the bottom. Apparently warm water with baking soda followed by Russian antibiotics does not cure a staff infection. Unless I get my tooth pulled, the infection could spread to my blood stream. Only my dear beloved, who is whispering with the dentist with the penciled-in eyebrows in the corner, does not tell me this (probably because he understands that I would not go gently into a minor operation in a dentist office with old linoleum floors and grainy soviet equipment). So he tells me that they’re going to clean it. Wise choice on his part, though I would have liked to be prepared.

First I get three shots from these terrifyingly long needles – things half the length of my forearm with [new] needles nearly two inches long. No bubble gum-flavored laughing gas here. I’ve never understood why anesthesia injections have to hurt.

They ask if my tongue and lips are numb. Kind of. So middle-aged male Russian dentist, who keeps cooing at me to be calm, takes out a bevy of tools from the soviet inquisition and begins to scrape away at my inflamed gum while a cluster of other dentists and assistants gather around my chair. Apparently it isn’t a busy day at the Dentist’s.
This is fine until he brandishes a small wrench and begins yanking at my tooth. I still think they’re “cleaning my teeth”, so I start flipping out. “What the f*** is he doing?!” I garble through gobs of cotton stuffed in my mouth. Nobody cleans with a wrench. The dentist apparently understands enough English and gives out a good-natured laugh before telling me again to calm. This guy must out sedatives in his coffee in the morning. Then he begins wrenching on my tooth again, and I’m clutching E’s hand so hard he still probably doesn’t have circulation in his fingers. And then the tooth is out, rot at the bottom (apparently otherwise it wouldn’t have come out this “easily”), and I’m given something to rinse out my mouth and stuffed back up with another wad of cotton, told to gargle with warm baking soda water again and come back for a check-up tomorrow at ten. Our total – 2,100 som ($32). A lot less than in the US, but probably not much different than the same operation would have cost in Turkey though with a lot less pain.
So I’m out for the day, one tooth the less, and on a diet of yogurt and bananas. Lesson learned? Try to schedule dental emergencies when we aren’t in Bishkek, err on the side of taking antibiotics earlier, and dental clinics here are definitely BYOPK (that’s Bring Your Own Painkiller). I’m hoping my check-up tomorrow is the last time I ever have to visit the dentist in Bishkek. Though, to be honest, it was a lot cleaner than I expected – sanitized tools, new needles, new gloves every time, spotless working space. And they actually had soap at the sinks.
On the plus side, I’m off work for the afternoon. Though our project Working Group meeting was today going to be casual and held in a pub (it started out being planned as a lunch meeting…), so I’m not sure missing a meeting for sitting on the couch with bloodied cotton balls is a completely fair trade. Anyway: went to the dentist in Bishkek, averted death or loss of limbs.


4 thoughts on “More Expat Survival Stories: Soviet-Style Dental Surgery

    • Where would that clinic be? Laughing gas would have been nice – especially since we just thought they would prescribe more antibiotics when we went in – but I’m actually fine now that the shock has worn off. Having lived in China for about five years, I do have to say that the clinic was cleaner than I expected and it was not a horrible experience (though still nothing I wish to repeat…)


  1. Omg, I am scare now.. do you now have any idea where the best dentish to go since I had 1 rotten teeth and 1 cavity to fill and I’ve been searching for this the whole day now.
    My bad luck to be in Bishkek when my teeth start to have problem, but I dont think It can wait till Im back to Indonesia next week 😦


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