Going to the dentist in Mexico.

Health and medicine explained.
Feb. 19 2007 10:40 AM

My Mexican Dentist

A medical tourist gets her teeth fixed in Nogales.

Twenty-three years ago, a bike crash landed me on my face, and over time the dental work meant to cover up the damage deteriorated right along with my teeth. Cracked porcelain veneers covering two front teeth trapped food and invited cavities. Another veneer fell off three times, and the one meant to disguise my dead, black tooth turned gray.

This winter I resolved to fix all of this, even though I had no dental insurance. I was too cheap for a friend's dentist in Philadelphia, who recommended gum surgery and four new veneers for $9,000, or the Manhattan dentist who wanted $6,000 just for veneers. I didn't trust the NYU dental school, where I'd experienced work I thought was botched, and in any case, the quote of $2,000 for four veneers came with "no guarantees."


I considered dental spas in Thailand or Costa Rica, where the price of a plane ticket and hotel offsets the extremely cheap rate of the work. Then my father told me about a co-worker who had taken his son to Mexico for a tooth extraction that cost all of $30. I had already paid for a plane ticket to visit my family in Sierra Vista, Arizona, so I started asking Arizona friends about Mexican dentists.

Everyone had a referral for me. A friend of a friend takes her daughter from Tucson to Nogales to have her braces tightened every month. My 86-year-old grandmother and her pals from an assisted-living community in Phoenix carpool to San Luis and make a day of it—teeth cleanings, crowns, prescriptions drugs, you name it. The going rate for a crown in Mexico? $300 apiece. I was sold.

To cross into Mexico, my mom and I parked the car on the Arizona side of Nogales and walked through some turnstiles into the Mexican city of the same name. There was no ID check. A 60-something man wearing a dark-blue uniform waved hello.

Advertisement in Mexico. Click image to expand.
"Come and Smile!"

We pushed our way through swap meet stalls crowded with blankets and silver jewelry and margarita pitchers. One out of every three shops was a pharmacy. For every 10 pharmacies there was a dentist. One sign showed a 3-foot-wide set of lips and teeth and read, "Come and Smile!" Little anthropomorphic teeth carried giant toothbrushes over their shoulders as they walked over the words "We Speak English!"

I stuck with my plan to go to the office of Dr. Ivan Gonzalez, based on a referral from a friend's co-worker, who'd been going to him for four years. The waiting room had a clean linoleum floor and the chairs were filled with senior citizens from the United States. "Medicare doesn't cover dental," one of them said. Marvin Jorgenson, a 70-year-old in a hiking hat, told me with a grin that he was getting two teeth pulled.

Dr. Gonzalez, a beefy guy with a receding hairline, promised me that my $300 crowns would look beautiful and last 30 years. The price for the consultation? Gonzalez smiled. "Free, of course."

Two days later, Gonzalez's assistant readied me for an X-ray by jamming the film between gum and teeth. As she swung the X-ray machine over to my head, I moaned and waved to let her know that she'd forgotten to cloak me in the usual lead vest. "It's okay," she said, positioned the barrel of the machine over my nose and mouth, and snapped the X-ray.

Gonzalez walked in, and I told him what had happened. He shrugged and asked me if I was pregnant. I said no. "Don't worry about it then," he said. He shot me up with Novocain and sawed away at my teeth. Toward the end of the procedure, I made the mistake of opening my eyes. Reflected in the lens of Gonzalez's glasses were my four front teeth, whittled down to nubs as narrow as golf tees. My God. I had trusted this man to virtually replace my teeth. I'd known what the procedure was—but the unfinished results terrified me.



The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.


See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
Sept. 30 2014 11:25 AM Naomi Klein Is Wrong Multinational corporations are doing more than governments to halt climate change.
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 30 2014 11:42 AM Listen to Our September Music Roundup Hot tracks from a cooler month, exclusively for Slate Plus members.
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 11:38 AM Tim & Eric Brought Their Twisted Minds—and Jeff Goldblum—to This Bizarre Light Bulb Ad
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.