All I could envision was a toothless smile as I kicked off the conference to a room full of attendees, many of them friends and co-workers. As I managed my fear and reservations, I learned a few things about myself.
I was nursed on American exceptionalism. My mother brought me home from the hospital to an Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas. My father, then serving in the Air Force as an officer, was following his father’s legacy. My grandfather, called Colonel by all who knew him, had devoted his life to the service of his country. When I graduated from college the picture of the young Vietnamese girl running from nepalm was one of many things that motivated me to serve my country in a different way. I choose the Peace Corps instead. Later, after obtaining my master’s degree in occupational therapy, I served in AmeriCorps. I believed in my country. So why would I choose to travel to Mexico, the same country our president believes should be separated by a wall and Is full of criminals and rapists, to have dental work done. I was convinced that it would be inferior because of the idea, as much a part of me as my brown eyes, that America is the best.
I had to take a leap of faith.
The dental office at first glance looked much like the dental offices that I had been to in the United States. It was clean and a television tuned to CNN distracted me from my thoughts of the upcoming process. However, there were a few differences. Radiological services beyond simple x-rays aren’t provided at most dental offices in Mexico And we had to go to another location to get the more detailed CT scans of our mouths. Many dental offices in the United States complete that procedure in the same office. In Mexico, that service is a standalone business (CT Scans R Us) and unlike our dentist, they didn’t accept Visa so a trip to the Radiologist also required a stop at the bank. It was probably worth the stop though because we paid just $80 for something that may have cost thousands back home. (More on that later). Our visits needed to be spread out over a few days and Dr. Delgado even figured that into our treatment plan so that we could get everything done and still take full advantage of the fact that we had traveled to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, surrounded by natural wonders and surrounded by historic sites, to get it done.
Another difference was the amount of time that the dentist spent going over the results with me. For the first time since I had lost the back part of my tooth, I felt that I understood my mouth. The only discussions I had about treatment in the US centered on finance. We talked about the timing and cost of different options but never about necessity or most probable outcome. Dr. Delgado took the time to explain how a number of possible solutions may (or may not) solve the specific issues I was having in my mouth. He wasn’t trying to scare me, but he did discuss risks that had not been mentioned before and showed how the solution I had thought would be permanent back in the US was likely just the start of another problem down the road. He took the time to show me how the braces I had as a youth and an accident I had in high school didn’t make me a good candidate for the “textbook” solution for someone with my specific problems. I have no doubt about whether the dentists I had seen in the states were competent or whether they had studied from those same textbooks. I do have some doubt now about whether they had bothered to actually look in my mouth. All things considered, I’d have to say that our overall care in Mexico was, exceptional.
The last difference, our real motivation with making the trip, was the cost. This trip challenged my belief that the United States is the best. We flew to Mexico for over a week. We stayed in an adorable little apartment just three blocks from the beach, with an intimate little hot tub tucked away on the roof. We biked across Cozumel and ate our anniversary dinner at a restaurant on the beach where the waves sometimes lapped up on our bare toes in the sand. We visited the archaeological ruins at Tulum. We ate amazing food. We visited beautiful places and met interesting people. We got all of our dental work done and for all of those things together we spent HALF as much as just the dental work was going to cost back home.
I still believe in this country and the people who make it great. Everyday, I see sacrifice and people working together for a better tomorrow. We care about our neighbors and we celebrate our children. We build beautiful shining cities and preserve our natural wonders. But there is nothing particularly exceptional about any of those things. When we told friends and family that we planned to travel to Mexico for some fairly advanced dental work their most common response was, “Are you sure it’s safe?” We are hardly experts on this matter but according to Wikipedia there are about 120 million people in Mexico and from our rather limited observations it seems fairly safe to say that the vast majority of them have teeth. I think it is safe to say that their dental professionals must know something. The American exceptionalism I experienced as a child was born of fantastic stories about saving the world from tyrants or putting a man on the moon. It was based on the fact, not just the belief, that we could do things that no other country could. Now I feel as though that pride is rooted less in our extraordinary accomplishments and more in our misperceptions about the lack of them in the rest of the world. Perhaps there was a time that we were simply better than everybody else at things like science and medicine. Perhaps the only thing truly exceptional about us now is our lingering belief that that we still are.