My First Surgery in Japan

For the first time in my more than three years of living in Japan, I finally had the courage to visit the dentist.  You would think that it’s silly and a bit reckless to not have my teeth checked that long.

You’re probably right, esp. since the dentist told me that I have to get some teeth treated for cavities.  I’m just thankful the dentists and the staff didn’t give me the scolding that I deserved.

In my defense, between the struggle to find a place to live, survive winter, and to make ends meet during the many vacations in a year where we don’t get paid, I couldn’t find the energy to deal with yet another challenge.  Sure, visiting a dentist at home doesn’t require much.  But when you’re in another country where they have a totally different alphabet and learning the characters takes years, even the simple act of ordering food in a restaurant or buying items from the supermarket may seem like a job interview.

If many of the teachers I work with couldn’t understand me when I tried to explain the activities I planned for class in the simplest way possible I could, I feared for my teeth and gums just thinking about how I would communicate with the dentist and staff.

Thankfully, I had a chance to meet the owner and head dentist of the #1 dental clinic in Ise, Dr. Noboru Katayama.  Let’s just call him Mr. K for short.  His easygoing demeanor is somewhat reassuring.  That was helpful because if I had a chance to internalize what procedures would be done to my teeth, I would have let this summer pass just to prepare myself mentally.  Yes, I’m one of those people who are brave in most other areas of life.  Just don’t ask me to go to the dentist or have my blood taken, and all that jazz.

It started quite harmlessly.  Mr. K had me undergo teeth x-ray upon examining my teeth. He went on to explain that I have to have some teeth treated for cavities and I have to have a wisdom tooth extracted in order to avoid extreme pain in the coming months, and to avoid cavities as well since the protracted wisdom tooth is making it difficult to clean the good tooth next to it.

The truth is I knew even when I was in the Philippines that I needed to have that wisdom tooth extracted but I kept putting it off, hoping that the problem would just go away.  But, thank you for reminding me, Mr. K! 😀  Back home in the Philippines, dental care is quite expensive because insurance coverage is very limited, almost non-existent.   I think Japanese people are very lucky because the healthcare system here is one of the best in the world.  Medical coverage is extensive and the government pays for 70% of the cost.

When I asked the receptionist what sort of limitations I should prepare for when I undergo the tooth extraction, she said “no food 30 minutes after the procedure.”  I thought that’s easy.  I think I can deal with that.  But when three days passed and I still couldn’t eat normal food, I thought “this is certainly longer than 30 minutes.”  That lady was smart.  If she told me this would happen, I might have backed out.  So it was for the best.


Before and After. The X-ray showing the impacted wisdom tooth & the latter (below) finally removed.

The operation itself was smooth.  The kind dental assistant, whom I teach, asked me if I was nervous.  When I said yes, she held my hand and reassured me that everything was going to be alright and that the dentist who will do the operation is really an expert in extracting wisdom teeth.  In fact, their head dentist learned from her.

That helped a lot.  I never would have imagined undergoing an operation like this in Japan.  Minus the language barrier, it’s quite stressful to undergo an operation where everything is unfamiliar to you and where no family member or friend is likely to come to aid in the event that something goes awry.

But there I was clasping my hands together while praying that I wouldn’t have to endure much pain.  I think everyone who knows me well knows that while I seem tough in many areas, I have a low tolerance for pain.  At that moment, I started sympathizing more with people undergoing major operations.  I thought that if I felt that nervous and concerned for something like this, how much more do people who would have to go under the knife because of cancer or some serious disease.  Silently, I prayed for them.

Thankfully, I understood the dentist’s simple commands in Japanese.  I was still bracing myself for what I thought would be the most painful part before the tooth totally got extracted when the assistant started putting away the tools and instructed me to rinse my mouth.  That was it?  I felt relieved and thankful that what I anticipated to be the most painful part of the operation never came.  I felt silly for praying so hard so that I didn’t have to endure a lot of pain.  But it’s reassuring to know that through this experience, I’ve seen how God cares even about our smallest concerns.  In fact, the most pain I endured was the few seconds when anesthesia was administered to the area surrounding the wisdom tooth.

While the dental assistant took some time researching some words and checking her English dictionary, you can’t imagine how thankful I am that there’s someone who gave instructions and explained things to me in English.  I appreciated her willingness to try to communicate in English and to be patient enough to search for the words she doesn’t know.


Look Ma, no swelling! Me with the dentist and the kind dental assistant.

I can’t tell you how many times some teachers, students, and even store clerks refuse to understand me even when I speak Japanese just because they know I’m a foreigner.  You can’t help but think that sometimes it’s all in the mind.

It reminds me of a story that my fellow ALT shared while she was teaching in pre-school. One time, she gave them an activity and explained what they would do in Japanese.  My co-worker, who is blonde and has blue eyes (she obviously looks like a foreigner to them) has been studying Japanese since she was 12 and she speaks it fluently.  After her detailed explanation, one preschooler raised her hand and asked in Japanese, “why can’t you just explain it in Japanese?”  The whole class had their mouths open in shock and one student told her “but she just explained everything in Japanese!”

Everything went well with my operation, except for the fact that I didn’t take the time to understand what I could and couldn’t do after the procedure.  Because of my failure to fully understand the aftermath, there I was having to hold five classes with my tooth slightly bleeding.  Never have I drunk that much blood in my life!

I know that choosing to undergo the operation during summer vacation where I didn’t have to go to school was a good decision.  The dentist even told me that if I didn’t have it removed, it would have caused me severe pain a few months from now.  In spite of the triumphant operation, I still felt a little sad as I couldn’t eat normal food for about a week.  I started dreaming about eating hamburgers and all types of meat!

But shortly after this, a friend invited me to Moku Moku Farm where we made sausages and took them home to eat.  I can truly say that those are some of the best sausages I’ve ever eaten.  Then came another barbecue party in a very relaxing place with dear friends.  I feel like I haven’t been to one in two years!  It was like I’ve never had surgery at all.  If you’ll excuse me, I still have a lot of eating to do..