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Kyle Miller’s Bolivian Dentistry Epic
Posted on June 22, 2011

First Ascent snowboarder Kyle Miller is in Bolivia filming with Sweetgrass Productions. Early in the trip, Kyle encountered dental issues due to a low immune system and had to undergo several dental procedures in Bolivia. This blog post chronicles Kyle’s several updates about his experiences and recovery. Photo by Jim Harris/Perpetual Weekend.

Episode 1: The Phantom Tooth Menace
Hey guys, so I went to the dentist yesterday and thought I would let you know how that went. Turns out I got an infection in one of my tooth roots because of a low immune system. The only way they could clean it out was by removing the tooth.

It turns out that specific tooth had a root canal (of course, my only one) 10 years prior, and at that time it was standard practice to insert a small metal rod into your gum line to hold in the tooth. Well, everything had to go, so I sat in a chair for 5.5 hours while they drilled the tooth away in little pieces and drilled at and poked on my nerves—all without any painkillers.

I have had a lot of pain, but this would easily fall in the top 10 days, and now the left side of my face is swollen like a grapefruit. I have to go back today to get a temporary cap in hopes that I can get a tooth in the States. Everyone is leaving for Uni today, and if all goes well, I will be heading down there tomorrow. I need a few days before I can climb again as I can’t afford to lose another tooth. Luckily it was in the back of my mouth, so it is not obvious.

Episode 2: Attack of the Bolivian Dentist
Here I am in La Paz with my left cheek looking as deformed as they come and about as big as a grapefruit. The dentists had me come back yesterday. They drilled and used pliers to get out the final fragments of my tooth. After that, they decided the best way to reduce the swelling was to make a few cuts on the inside of my cheek and shove a vacuum in there. It seems painkillers are a rare commodity in the dental field in Bolivia because when I asked for something all they would say is “Sorry.”

That went on for 2 hours before they sent me on my way with a prescription. What I thought were painkillers was actually an injection that could only be administered at medical centers. It took a while to find one because they seem to be in the back of dark alleys. The injection is done, and yet I still have to go back to the dentist. According to the doctor, I need to stay in town and rest for the next five days, so the group has left for Uni, and I will be here alone for the next few days.

Can I get a new buff? I have been hiding my face behind it, and as of yesterday it is covered in blood.

Episode 3: Revenge of The Sick One
It was hard to see everyone leave for Uni, perhaps the biggest tourist destination in Bolivia, but I was told if I wanted to heal I would need to stay put and rest. So here I am alone in La Paz, a rustling city where the silence is broken by honking horns, blasting radios, and traffic whistles that no one listens to.

It has become a daily event to arrive at the dentist at 3 p.m. Even the security guards at the front of the building wave and show a brief smile while I hide behind my buff, covering my deformed face behind the cloth. I seem to have my own personal chair at the dentist office, which brings shivers up my spine, the promise of more pain and the hopes of a positive outcome.

Yesterday started like the other two days with the doctor poking around at my missing tooth area and gums, finding sore spots and asking, “Does this hurt?” as if the clawing of my fingers on my thighs didn’t verify the pain. When I would respond “Yes,” she would take a small drill and cut into the area giving what some would consider a small massage to the area, but in all actuality she was applying pressure and milking out the infected areas. Luckily, yesterday was my shortest doctor visit yet, totaling around an hour, before I was sent on my way back to the hotel to rest and recover.

Back at the hotel, I got a random knock on the door, so upon checking I found that the hotel reception had sent a doctor. Now the people around here refer to me as “The Sick One.” With broken English, he checked my infection, wrote a prescription that I couldn’t read and sent me to the pharmacy to pick up and bring back the meds so he could inject them himself.

I went to five places and all gave the obvious hand gesture that they didn’t have what I needed as it was something unusual. Getting paranoid after hearing so many local stories of foreigners being taken advantage of both financially and healthwise, I returned to the hotel and paid him some cash as a thank you for the prescription, which I said I would get at the local medical center I was at the day before. With some confusion, he was on his way, and I was running back to the dark alley to get yet another injection and hopefully in the other cheek.

The medical center was quick to respond and let me know he was trying to administer a strong antibiotic, so after dropping some of the meds in my eye to test for allergies, I had another injection. With a quick “See you tomorrow” from the nurses, I was back at the hotel by dark.

Tonight is the biggest festival in La Paz called the “Gran Podder” which I am excited to check out. Hopefully if I feel better, I won’t be seeing it from my hotel room.

Episode 4: A New Hope
When you are used to having a cheek the size of a grapefruit, one can’t help but to be happy to see it reduced to a lemon. It had been days since I had smiled, both mentally and physically, but I was hopeful. A reduction in swelling was a clear indicator that there was an end in sight and that my mouth would be left alone by the dentist … or so I thought.

The walls of the office were covered in cheap landscape shots of forests that looked eerily similiar to the Cascades. Something seemed so wrong about seeing such familiar terrain that I had grown to love in this place. Back to the chair, a place that rendered such dreaded emotions and long-lasting anxiety. Once in the seat, it was another day of drilling and draining the affected area while the doctor spoke broken English and stated something that sounded like “fearing issues with drain,” which in my ears sounded like “fearing issues with brain.”

After an hour of draining and slicing, I was back on the streets. This time, unlike others, I decided I would walk the two miles back to the hotel. I needed air, an adventure, and mainly a reason to leave the confinement of my room. The streets were just as expected: fast, noisy, and filled with people going about their busy lives, but something inside me was different. No longer was I hiding my face. I have come to accept that this all will pass, and I was on my way to getting better.

Author: - Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

  1. Lyons

    The only time I have anxiety attacks is when I go to the dentist, thus just reading your story gave me the chills. I could have recommended a dentist in Cochabamba though. She speaks excellent English and is quite skilled. I lived there for 4 1/2 months and had some dental work done.

  2. Adam

    It’s funny – I had a dental issue in Bolivia at almost the same time, in July not June. My problem was not as serious as yours, but I did not have trouble finding a very good dentist in La Paz. When I first noticed the problem in Uyuni and Potosi, I was hesitant to go to any of the numerous street dental offices. But I found one in La Paz who had been trained in the states. She was very professional, spoke good English, and had a lovely office and staff. And, since it’s Bolivia, my procedure cost about a fifth what it would have back home. Next time I suggest you find out where the local embassy people go for dental work.

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