What Price, Wisdom?




The Peace Corps dentist in Salvador ---a large, modern Brazilian city ---informed me I had to have my wisdom teeth pulled. He gave me the name of a local dental surgeon.


I had nightmarish visions of a dentist, who wasn’t really a dentist ---just like the one at my Peace Corps site in Glória ---pulling my teeth with pliers, without benefit of an anesthetic. I have no idea what his real name was, but in Glória, everyone called him Zé Dentista.


I arrived at the real dentist’s office, which seemed much like the ones I visited at home. In Portuguese, the female dentist asked where I was from.


“The United States,” I replied.


“Where in the United States?”




“What city?”




“Ah! I earned my dental degree from the University of Pittsburgh,” she told me in nearly-perfect English, gesturing toward her diploma on the wall.


Relief.  I was happy she had earned a dental degree from anywhere. I was also thrilled to see that the batch of tools on her tray didn't include a pair of pliers.


Next, I visited the anesthesiologist. He had studied at Duke University. At least I wasn’t dealing with quacks.


On the day of the extraction, I had traveled to the dentist’s office by bus. I had never had a tooth pulled before, nor had I ever had a general anesthetic, so I didn’t know what to expect. Within seconds of sitting in the reclining dental chair, I was out cold. I woke to discover that, in order to open my mouth wider, the dentist had snipped, and later stitched, the little section of gum above my top front teeth. Otherwise the extractions had gone well.


It was only then that the trouble began


The dentist asked who was going to take me home. Still dopey, it took a few seconds for me to answer that I planned on returning alone, by bus.


“You can’t take a bus. You need to call someone,” she snapped.


Who could I call? The other Volunteers didn’t have cars. Even if they did, none had phones. The regional Peace Corps director was on vacation. The assistant director was driving the only Peace Corps vehicle, a jeep, to visit Volunteers in the interior that day. His wife, who was traveling with him, had given me a key to their apartment.


“I can take a cab.”


“Where are you staying?”  she asked.


“With my boss and his wife. At their apartment.”


“On what floor is it?”


“The fourth.” 


“Is there an elevator?”


I paused, thinking, then answered with a sheepish, “No.”


While the dentist was in deep discussion with her assistant, I dozed off. When she woke me, she had arranged for her assistant, a diminutive man, to accompany me to the apartment.


The two of them pulled me from the dentist's chair. The assistant put his arm around my waist, grabbed my purse into which the dentist had dropped packets of pain killers and antibiotics, and escorted me toward the exit. I exceeded his height by six inches and probably outweighed him by twenty-five pounds. Rather than hold me up, he had to hold me back so I wouldn’t topple down the stairs to the street level.


On the sidewalk, we must have been a sight, the tiny dark Brazilian with a tall fair foreigner. Everyone surely thought the poor man was escorting his drunken floozy home. He leaned me against a utility pole, steadying me with one hand on my shoulder while he tried to flag a taxi. Many cabs passed us, but finally one stopped. 


My next problem was that I didn’t know the address of the apartment. Finally, we figured out, by the bus I would have taken, what direction to travel. Once we found the bus stop where I would have exited, I directed the driver to the apartment building. I insisted on paying the cabbie, but I couldn’t locate money in my purse. The assistant paid the driver with cruzeiros from his own pocket.


Imagine helping a drunk up three flights of stairs. We took a few steps, then I leaned on the banister for a few minutes before we climbed a few more. I slumped on each landing and had to be coaxed to my feet to continue the ascent. It was hot and we both dripped with perspiration in the airless stairwell.

Leaning against the apartment's door frame, I dug into my purse for the key. I found money to reimburse the unfortunate man for taxi fare. He looked like he had just run a marathon. I more than doubled the amount so he could take a cab back to the office. I slipped into the apartment, sinking to a chair immediately inside the door. 


In Brazil at that time, it was unacceptable for an unmarried woman to be alone with a man without a chaperone, so as soon as he had me safely seated, the assistant quickly closed the door. When I heard him scurrying down the stairs, my exhaustion swept over me and I burst into tears.


A few hours later, my hosts arrived home to find me asleep in the guest room. By that time, my face had swollen; each cheek looked like I was storing a guava in it. Then I remembered the dentist had suggested ice packs, but I had forgotten.


After three days, I could actually laugh about the incident, but when I laughed, the stitches above my top teeth felt like they were pulling the insides of my nose through my gums. I still couldn’t stand looking at my enormous face in the mirror.


A week later, when I returned to Glória, a nosey neighbor asked me how much it cost to have my teeth pulled. The Peace Corps had paid, so I didn’t know. I would have guessed several hundred dollars, but not wanting her to think I was a rich American, I told her the procedure cost only ten dollars per tooth, still a large sum in Glória.


“Oh, my God of Heaven,” she exclaimed. “What is wrong with you, girl? Zé Dentista would have charged you a dollar for a shot of whisky and pulled out all four of your wisdom teeth.”


At least I hadn’t abandoned all of my wisdom in the dental chair in Salvador.   



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