Toothless in Addis

DentistOne of the essentials each time we return to the UK has been to visit our dentist and hygienist to give us the best possible chance of getting through six months without the need to consult either in Ethiopia. Imagine my consternation when I bit into a soft bread roll in August a few weeks after our summer break and broke my tooth. A sizeable piece of filling came away too. Now what?

Would it survive till the Christmas holiday in the UK? Would there be sufficient time in two and a half weeks to treat it properly? All these thoughts and more flooded my mind.

My only real option I felt was to consult a dentist here. I chose the Myungsung Christian Medical Centre where Phil mentors medical students sometimes. There is a Korean dentist there, whose children attend Bingham. On this first occasion I wait for Haile, our trusty taxi driver, to take me across the city in time for my appointment. Unusually he has forgotten which day it is, so a hair-raising dash ensues (as fast as an ancient Toyota Corolla can make it), whilst I negotiate half an hour’s grace with a Korean lady on the phone. Just time for the initial diagnosis to be made.

myungsung_christian_medical_center_ethiopia_outside viewOn subsequent visits Haile has always allowed ample time. It is an advantage to arrive early because the system goes something like this. On entering a large open area inside the hospital I head to the registration desk with 3 or more rather stressed receptionists sitting behind computers. Ethiopians queue for taxis politely but not, it seems, in a hospital. I wait two people deep. When I finally reach the desk front I am told I’ve overlooked the unmarked table just inside the door on the left. I duly visit the table indicated, behind which a lady sits and random people are milling around nearby. She takes my appointment paper and copies the same information on to a second version. Returning to the long desk I decide to lay aside my British nature and hand the most recent paper to the flustered receptionist, over the shoulders of those waiting. “Wait there” she commands pointing to the 20 or so chairs arranged in rows, most of which are occupied. (Note to self: bring the kindle next visit.) I sit clutching my original appointment paper for a while when a woman rushes by wearing red scrubs and a mask around her chin. She seizes my paper and waves it at the desk saying things loudly in Amharic with much gesticulation. She puts the paper on the desk and leaves. Now I’m relieved of both official papers. I wait patiently. Eventually the melee of people begin to disperse and the receptionist beckons me over. “200 Birr” she says. “Why?” I quite reasonably enquire. “For card” she replies. I’m none the wiser. “Second floor” she continues handing me a receipt.

There is a crowd waiting for the lift so I begin to walk up a spiral slope. A nurse approaches with a tray on which there is a shallow dish marked ‘specimen’ loosely covered with paper towel flapping in the breeze. My curiosity is aroused, but frustrated as I can’t see the contents as she passes despite my best efforts. Finally, I reach an open plan dental area. Another receptionist, Korean this time, takes my appointment paper and indicates that I wait on a black leather effect sofa. After a while she directs me through to the dentist.

He works in a long room with four dental chairs in a row, some of which are occupied. Each person lays prone with a paper towel on a chain around their neck. This covering, I discover, is where instruments are placed during procedures - on the patient’s chest. There are usually two or three masked dental nurses (or maybe dental students) standing nearby making the area around the chair feel a bit congested.

Communication is usually in two or three words at a time. “pain - raise hand”; “mouth open”; “don’t bite”. These last instructions happen when an x-ray is required. I leave the chair obediently with my mouth gaping open as I walk across a corridor and enter a mostly glass room. In here at least two people put a simple card into place in my mouth and my finger is positioned to hold it in. “Sit still”; “don’t move”, they encourage me. After the x-ray the card is developed and dried using the compressed air hose near the dental chair.

Mr Lee the dentist is very pleasant, even allaying my fears when someone unhelpfully suggested “They use arsenic in the developing world to kill the root you know”.

I haven’t told you the treatment plan. An estimated ten visits to have root canal treatment, post and crown. (In 2007 dental posts were not available and extraction was the only option). I checked this proposed plan with my dentist in the UK by email with an attached photograph. He confirmed that there was logic to this complex set of treatments.

After each visit its back to the registration desk, which is also the payment desk, to hand over an unpredictable number of Birr.

I am looking forward to a shiny new tooth by Christmas, but when treatment and taxi costs are combined it will be at a price.


Ouch Chris, to think of all the perils you guys face and then to be felled by a soft bread roll

probably still cheaper than in the USA!


Well at least you know what to do at each visit now. Sounds like there is a system even if it seems random. Glad it is getting sorted properly mum.xx

What a long, drawn out and complicated system! How confusing! Well done for sorting it!

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