She Could Hear Them Crack Her Tooth? Dental Care in South Korea

International TEFL Academy

Teaching English in South Korea

By: Katie McKindley

South Korea is a hub for plastic surgery, and I’d seen videos of foreigners getting LASIK done. How much different is dental care? They’ve got to be rigorously trained and highly valued, right? This is Asia, after all, where studiousness is next to godliness. I tried getting my three wisdom teeth removed in the states before I moved, but I didn’t have enough time, or the right insurance. So, after taking ITA’s Online TEFL Course, getting employed by EPIK, and moving to South Korea, it’s been on my radar.

I asked around on the Facebook page for foreigners in my town, and found somewhere that allowed me in for a cleaning. I walked in after school one day, showed my ARC (alien registration card) and health insurance, and was seen right then. The cleaning lasted 10 minutes and was less than $10. I inquired about my wisdom teeth and they complied by taking a panoramic x-ray and scheduling me for an extraction. This was so easy, this is going so well, I thought.

Teaching English South Korea healthcare

I came back on a Friday two weeks later for the extraction but requested having a CT scan first. From previous dental visits, I knew the roots of my wisdom teeth were really close to my nerves. Again they complied. It was while I was having the CT and knowing the extraction was next that I began to get really anxious. Earlier that day I’d had my co-teacher call to confirm the appointment. I had her ask if they would sedate me or just anesthetize the area. They answered that while it’s possible to have sedation, I didn’t schedule that. So if I showed up for the appointment I would be awake for the procedure. The dentist also didn’t recommend sedation. He knew recovery takes longer from that and there’s essentially no reason for me to be groggy in their clinic. So I was getting an impacted tooth pulled, and I was going to be awake. Ugh.

I was trying to mentally prepare myself for how it would feel to lay there and hear all their machines and motorized tools. It wasn’t doing any good, and I was freaking myself out. I was the only person in the entire three story dental clinic who spoke fluent English and I felt alone. The dentist spoke decent English but the receptionist and assistants didn’t speak any. The dentist saw my tears through the tiny window and stopped the CT scan. He stepped inside and said, slowly and sincerely, “This is a simple case. Don’t worry. Don’t worry.” The assistant handed me tissues.

Teaching English in South Korea

I regained most of my composure and we headed back to the chair. He numbed the area and confirmed it took effect. My friend messaged me saying she was in the lobby. I had her come sit closer, in the actual operating area. It was so good to have a friend there for support! The chair reclined; I said a prayer and tried to calm my breath. My body tensed and relaxed, tensed and relaxed, as they used various tools that made ridiculous noises. I tried maintaining control over my mind and convincing myself I was in good hands and it would all be over soon. After opening the gum, breaking the tooth in half, removing both parts, and stitching my gum back, finally, he said it was over. It took 20 minutes. I was in disbelief that I could simply sit up and walk out to the front desk.

He gave me a prescription to be filled at the nearby pharmacy. Thankfully my friend knew where it was. I picked up my antibiotics and pain meds and paid with literal pocket change (about $4). I bought bananas and ice cream and went home to press a frozen bag of blueberries on my face.

Teaching English in South Korea

The swelling was the worst the next day. I laid low, did some light house chores, took my meds, and iced my face. They had me back at 10am Saturday morning just to check that I didn’t bite my lip or cheek, and that there wasn’t profuse bleeding. (There wasn’t any bleeding, actually). Because I only had one tooth pulled on my lower left side, I was able to chew on my right side - this meant I ate more than just smoothies for the weekend!

Sunday was another low key day and by Monday I was ready to go to work. No one said anything about the swelling and only my friends who knew I’d had the surgery noticed my swollen face. I went back on Saturday to have the stitches removed. I thought they would be the kind that dissolve, but they weren’t. The actual extraction was about $40.00 (42,000 KRW)? So incredibly cheap! Knowing that the wisdom tooth no longer jeopardized my other straight teeth made the temporary discomfort worth it.

Teaching English in South Korea

A month and a half later I went back for the extraction of my two other wisdoms, both on my right side. The noise was awful again but this time I knew what to expect. I was in and out in an hour, and paid another $50. The second time I was more relaxed, and the dentist explained more of what he was doing. Again I told him I felt nervous, and he said not to worry about that. Again, pain meds and antibiotics cost me nothing but pocket change.

I’m no expert on the Korean healthcare system, but I am sure grateful to have an employer who pays for half my medical issues, and access to excellent healthcare! I brought a friend the second time, too, and there’s nothing like the reassurance of somebody to walk you home! There’s no way I would have had three impacted wisdom teeth removed for less than $100 back home. I am 24 years old and never needed to get my wisdoms removed until now. It’s hard to be far away from home, but I am so grateful these procedures didn’t break the bank.

Katie McKindley is from Seattle, WA, where she graduated with a BA in psychology from Seattle Pacific University. She nannied in Spain and waited tables in Hawaii while paying her way through school. She’s now teaching with EPIK in South Korea where she’s discovering their heartfelt hospitality and how great their healthcare system is. 

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