An American Vampire in Juarez
Getting My Teeth Pulled in Mexico's Most Notorious Border Town
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The dentist is a taciturn son of a bitch who doesn’t speak much English and he has a device in his hand that looks, in my peripheral vision, like a steel bar with a sharp screw on one side and a thumb dial on the other. He’s going to screw this thing into my ruined back molar like a drywall anchor and rip it out of my skull.
He jabs in another long, sharp needle full of anesthetic. After two and a half hours in the chair — during which time an oral surgeon had already removed my upper wisdom teeth by sawing them into pieces and pulling them out through my gums — my face is pretty much numb from my cheekbones to my Adam’s apple. But I still feel this jab, which worries me.
It worries me a lot more, a second later, when he puts his little drywall anchor to the top of my tooth and begins screwing it in. Immediately, my head is filled with white-hot pain. I howl and the dentist jumps back. “What?” he says in English. “Pain?”
“F**k! Yes, there’s pain, Jesus f*****g Christ, goddamnit,” I snarl.
So he hits me with the needle again and tries the screw again, and it still hurts as bad as before, and I scream again. But after those two and a half hours, I just want this over with. “F**k it, man,” I mutter through lips that feel like they’re constructed of inner-tubes. “Let’s do this thing.”
Of course, what neither of us know, yet, is that he's putting the needle straight into an infected part of my gum, which is promptly soaking up all the anesthetic. He might as well be injecting me with sugar water.
Oblivious, he bores in. And that’s when I start screaming for real.
* * * *
The first sign of trouble came when Josh Ellis stopped being able to spit. A visit to a Las Vegas emergency room showed wisdom teeth so badly impacted that they were growing upwards towards the lining of his brain. Left untreated, his own teeth would very likely kill him. And if that weren't bad enough, Josh Ellis is one of the 50 million Americans without medical or dental insurance.
This is the story of how a combination of desperation, poverty and a total lack of other options lead Josh to a dentist’s chair in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico: a city where, in 2010, over 3000 murders were reported. It's a story of international trade, corporate greed, baby vampire hearts, giant knives stuffed into socks, midget hookers, unhygienic peppers and the challenges of smuggling drugs across the border while a torrent of blood is pouring from your mouth.
Most importantly, it's a story that echoes the impossible choices faced by millions of uninsured Americans every year.
(Except for the midget hookers and vampire hearts. Those are all Josh.)