My $54 root canal treatment
In late November, just after Thanksgiving, I discovered a pea-sized lump on my upper gumline just above my front teeth.
It wasn't painful but felt a bit strange as it prevented my upper lip from resting fully over my front teeth. Pressing on the lump caused sensation of pressure in my left front tooth, which is the tooth I broke diving into the shallow end of a swimming pool at age 7. I had a new crown put on the tooth in my late 20s.
I took several photos of the lump and emailed them to Dr. Steinberg, my dentist in Austin, Texas. He suspected an abscess (infection) and recommended X-rays of the root of the tooth to confirm diagnosis.
San Feng Academy staff member Xiao Yuan [pictured below making dumplings], who is also a professionally trained nurse, escorted me to Shiyan City for X-rays at Tai He, a city hostpital where she used to work.
We took a moto-taxi from near the San Feng Academy into the town of Lao Ying [pictured below] and from there, took a shared taxi to Shiyan city, a town of 400,000 roughly one hour away.
First visit to Tai He
Locate on the same block as Hubei Medical Universtity, Tai He is the region's largest hospital, and next to Wuhan (town of 5 million 5 hours away) has a reputation as one of the best. Upon arrival, we checkied in at the front desk where I paid a one-time fee of 6 RMB (about $1) to obtain a health card that permits entry and is used for subsequent appointments.
Tai He's 5th-floor dental clinic is a 12 x 20 ft open room (about 250 square feet) with windows along the back wall that look out on the apartment buildings and shops below. Eight dental chairs, all of which were occupied when we arrived, ring the room in a U-shape. As we made our way in, smells of antiseptic filled the air along with the high-pitched whine of a dental drill.
Xiao Yuan explained my situation to the head doctor and within 5 minutes she was viewing a fresh set of digital X-rays of my tooth [below]. The dark-colored "pocket" at the root of the tooth indicates presence of an infection.
Following a brief chair exam the dentist, who spoke some english, diagnosed an abscess and recommended a root canal treatment performed over 3 separate visits in the month of December. I told her I needed to postpone any treatment until I had consulted with Dr. Steinberg. I was billed 12 yan (about $2) for the digital X-rays, which I paid to an administrator sitting at a corner desk in the treatment room.
Cost of first visit - 17 RMB ($2.58)
After leaving Tai He hospital, we took lunch at a small sub-street restaurant famous for their soup made with sweet-potato noodles. Served in a heavy stone bowl that kept it sizzling hot, the hearty broth was perfectly spiced and the noodles had just the right texture and were full of flavor.
The soup was served with two boiled quail eggs which we shelled and dropped into the soup to keep company with the tender shitake mushrooms and fresh bok-choi.
We caught a public bus back to Lao Ying for 7 RMB (about $1.00) each, and then a moto-taxi back to the gates near the school. After viewing photos of the X-rays that I posted to my website, Dr. Steinberg confirmed the abscess diagnosis and agreed with the recommended root canal treatment.
Back in my room at the school, I hopped on Skype to explore treatment options. An Austin-based endodontist quoted me a price of $950-$1200 for the root canal treatment. A western-trained dentist based in Beijing gave an estimate of $1000 for same. I chose to take my chances with the dentist at Tai He back in Shiyan city.
Second visit to Tai He
Within three minutes of entering the clinic, I was on my back in the chair and the dentist set about drilling a tiny hole in the crown, through the pulp chamber and into the canal. This hole, she explained, would allow the infected pocket to drain, enable cleansing of the abscess, and reduce inflammation. This initial procedure took about 25 minutes to complete.
Cost of second visit - 155 RMB ($23.55)
Third visit to Tai He
Within minutes of arriving at the clinic, I was lying in the chair and the dentist continued the cleaning process to remove any bacteria, toxins, nerve tissue, and related debris that were harbored inside the tooth
She cleaned the pulp chamber with a small file like a straight pin, but with a rough surface. As a continuation of the last appointment, I was not charged for this procedure. Treatment time was ~15 minutes.
Cost of third visit - $0
Fourth visit to Tai He
The final visit, which concluded my root canal treatment, was spent placing a root canal sealer into the tooth. Additional x-rays were required to determining the length of a canal and match it to the cone-shaped preformed sealer that was then twisted gently but firmly into place. Here's an x-ray of the tooth with a completed root canal treatment.
This procedure, which required both technical skill and finesse, took about 45 minutes.
Cost of fourth visit - 185 RMB ($28.11)
The entire root canal treatment consisted of four visits to the dental clinic at Tai He and included a consultative exam, two sets of digital x-rays, and three separate treatments at a total cost of about $54. I thanked my dentist for her work (and I certainly would have tipped her had it been appropriate).
The whole ordeal ended with another trip to the neighborhood restaurant for a steaming hot bowl of sweet potato noodles. Yummmm!