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Root Canals in Japan

Healthcare in Japan is an interesting juxtaposition of Tradition and Technology. There is an inherent conflict between the two worlds but also a kind of melody when they work together. Against a backdrop of centuries-old customs and attitudes are state-of-the-art facilities that look like mission control for the Space Shuttle. Yet technology invariably yields to tradition. Daily life, personal interactions, even the grammatical structure of the language, revolves around roles, groups and relationships. Teacher and student. Senior and junior. Doctor and patient. Even the last emperor, as he lay dying of cancer, was not told of his condition, nor would it even have occurred to him to question the doctors. If he had, I suppose they would have authoritatively explained that he had a minor bout of indigestion from some bad sushi. If the emperor, literally considered a god, cannot bridge the canyon between doctor and patient, perhaps there is a larger truth at work, or at least a parable to be related to us mere mortals. Or maybe these experiences just make for good stories.

During a light lunch with a client, I bite into a sandwich and spit out a chunk of tooth. The next month of my life flashes before my eyes and I know at that moment eventually I will be sitting in front of the computer writing this story. I manage to make it through a long meeting at Sony trying to ignore the hole in my mouth. The next day I go to the dentist - highly recommended in the community but now suspect in my opinion. I am annoyed. 18 months ago, my dentist in America warned that three teeth needed crowns. The dentist gave me a copy of the x-rays and suggested I have the procedure done in Japan where I had insurance. Later, back in Japan, when I attempted to explain the situation to the dentist, it was as if a poodle were giving advice to its master (see above paragraph). The dentist scoffed and sent me on my way. You ain't no Lassie and I'm not Timmy seemed to be his attitude. But, sure enough, first one tooth needed a crown, then six months later another. Now this.

So I sit down in the chair and the dentist goes to work. Looks like you need another crown, ha ha ha. Yeah, I'm pretty amused as well. He takes out his really cool looking instruments of death and fires them up. It sounds like the Death Star whirring up to destroy the planet Alderaan. Now the grinding. And then the commentary. "Dame da, Dame da." - Not good, Not good. Words not meant to comfort. Finally, the pain. It radiates throughout my body all the way to my toenails in sharp intense bursts. Perhaps noticing my white knuckles and the fingers tearing holes in the armrest, he stops, looks at me and asks, "does it hurt?" YEAH - it hurts like HELL!! That's what I was thinking but I couldn't form words in any language. However my panicked caged animal look got the message across. "I will have to do a root canal I guess," he says. I guess? Root canal?? I don't even know what a root canal is - just one of those things I heard as a kid whispered by adults in hushed voices. He pulls out a different set of even cooler looking instruments. I close my eyes and try to go to my happy place. He calls in two assistants and gets to work with a delightful banter of light hearted commentary. I am yanked back from my happy place by new sensations. What is that burning smell, and why are wisps of smoke rising from my mouth? I swear he is filling in my tooth with molten lead.

Finally the assistant ushers me, staggering, to the x-ray room. I hold still and the doctor goes to another room - I can see him through a small, thick, window. He presses a button, fires the weapon, ZAP, and comes back. He looks confused. He plays with the machine some more, goes back and hits the button two more times. ZAP ZAP. Then he calls his assistant and I can see them through the glass as they engage in an animated conversation. Finally, he laughs, crosses himself like he was Catholic, and presses the button once again. ZAP! Looks like I won't need to worry about that "other" operation Christine has been bugging me about. The assistant lets me out of the room. "You're all done for now," she says. I look around but the doctor is nowhere to be found. No information, no clue what is going on. I still have a hole in my head. I can only hope that the next appointment solves this. It is Saturday morning but I am done for the weekend. I stumble home with a migraine headache and sleep through to Monday.

My appointment is on Tuesday - unbelievably I can't wait to get back there. Finally I sit down in the chair. "How do you feel," he asks. I explain that the entire right side of my head is throbbing. "Not just the tooth?" No - why is that?? He laughs. "I have no idea." Yeah, I am amused as well. He takes the temporary cap off the tooth and jabs at the gum. It feels like I stuck my tongue in an electrical socket. Oblivious to my writhing, he keeps jabbing. My happy place has shut down for the season. Ten minutes later the assistant lets me out of the chair. "All done." All done? I still have a hole in my head. And where did the doctor go? I go out to the receptionist and pay $8. No complaint there. But how many more times do I have to come back? "let's see." she rattles off a lot of dentisty words as she counts. "Five more times." Five? I have a theory that the Japanese equate length of procedure with quality of care. But it shouldn't take seven visits to fill in a tooth any more than it should take a nine day hospital stay to remove tonsils (a different story, fortunately not mine to tell). I had wrangled a prescription out of the doctor for pain medication so I went to the nearest pharmacy. Six tablets, $2.50. No danger of getting hooked I guess.

At my next appointment, the doctor looks at my teeth and then sits back. "You know, you're getting old." Thank you very much, I reply. "It's just that from now on your teeth are going to start falling out." Alarmed, I ask if there is anything I should be doing differently. "No matter what you do, the result will be the same." So much for brushing and flossing.

Eight days later, I am halfway through the process. But I've learned creative new ways of eating. And I feel like an emperor.