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Panama's Dentists Dressed To Impress

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Written by Matt   
Monday, 29 December 2008 07:37
Panama DentistsGrowing up, treat my teeth were cleaned by a man named Doctor Holstein who worked in an office building that sported a atrium of living plants. Opening the door to this building was not like opening a door to the tropics; birds chirping, no rx frogs jumping across the sidewalks, and that humid moisture smell familiar to rainforest exhibits at the zoo. I never quite understood the idea behind bringing the outdoors in, perhaps some sort of business park fad of the seventies, but to this day, when visiting the jungle in Panama, I instinctually contemplate flossing. Dr. Holstein's office was one of many in his particular wing, but I liked to think that once inside, his was the only one that could transport you directly to paradise. You see, the dentist office resembled more a circus storage deposit, the kind of place where tumblers and clowns would store their masks and bells before the next show. The shelves were lined with small action figurines that I'm sure many children wanted desperately to steal, and in one room stood two full-sized video game booths, the actual games for which the staff rotated every couple months. It was a smart concept looking back - to build the image of a dentist so fun and cheery, that when a kid turned eighteen and needed a few molars removed, his abhorrence would be mildly withheld.

Dr. Holstein himself was so goofy and childish that there was no way not to like him. While inspecting teeth, he liked to make outrageous claims catered to youngsters, which had a way of always leaving you with a smile.

"Oh, what do we have here?" I remember him saying to me once. "Do we have a little bit of poo poo in your teeth? Looks to me like some doody kaka. I'm gonna have to clean that little bit of poop right up from your mouth. Do you mind if I clean the poop out of your mouth?" The vulgarity never fazed me and the answer was always "sure."  

To an outsider this sounds grotesque, but to me in that chair at age seven, it was pure heaven. Donald Duck telling me I had doo doo hiding in my molars was tantamount to brunch with the Ninja Turtles. It was after about 15 years with Dr. Holstein, when his jokes became a little too silly, I moved on to the adult orthodontist across the hall where they referred to poop in more technical terms.

Panama's dental industry is one of the country's hidden gems and for the first time during my time here, I got to experience its fruits first hand.

I was commenting on the whiteness of a friend's teeth a few weeks back when she revealed there was a really good whitening service that ran around $300. "Just go, get it, takes about an hour." These were some of the whitest teeth I've ever seen and while I hadn't ever considered getting a formal whitening, for a few hundred bucks it suddenly seemed like a decent enhancement idea. Like a nice hat.

It was later that day, at a bar, that I saw another young person with strikingly white teeth.

"Teeth whitening?" I said, smiling as if I saw right through his cosmetic disguise.
"Finr ale olish," he said, before unhinging a piercing that ran from his tongue to his belt loop, via a thin metal chain. "White finger nail polish."
Before my appointment, I sat in the parking lot of the Mont Blanc Clinic in Obarrio, contemplating seriously whether cleanliness, equipment, and personnel in Panama were really worth experimenting on with my own body. I envisioned the old grainy video evidence of the first tooth ever pulled, which looked about as sanitary as a butcher's corner, and saw my head in place of that poor patient seeking desperately for just one more shot of moonshine before the first incision.

I worked up the courage though, and entered the clinic.

Inside, the waiting room was identical to that which we're familiar with at home: Plasma TVs, bad magazines, a small overweight secretary wearing a headset. Once in the actual chair, the scene appeared even more normal: everything super clean, new lights, tools, computer, telephone, same corny posters telling you to always brush. And when the actual procedure was finished, I came out not only with a first-class whitening, but with a giant sigh of relief understanding that dentistry in Panama surely lives up to its subdued (albeit personally suspicious) hype. I felt so good in fact, that I decided to tell one of the doctors, all of whom spoke perfect English by the way, about Dr. Holstein and the hilarious quotes he used to use.

"Could you repeat that?" the doctor responded. "He said you had what in your teeth?"

It then struck me, as it does so often in Panama, that the culture I grew up in at home often times seems far more obscure and unprofessional than that which we have here Panama. Telling someone they have poop in their teeth, especially when coming from a professional, has a way of appearing amateurish. It was a clash akin, in Casco Viejo, to revealing to a squatter that the plastic bag I was holding was not pastries but a fresh bowel movement from my dog.

"Why would you save a bowel movement from your dog?" was the question he confronted me with, and I stood there for a few seconds in the middle of the road, really unable to find the words in my language or his to explain.

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