Haley got her braces off yesterday. I know she is happy about it but I find myself equally happy. For her it represents the end of teeth aching, but for me it represents an accomplishment that had to be navigated in two different countries with 3 different orthodontists in a second language. It’s not like it was hard, but it wasn’t all that easy either. So in order
to toot my own horn understand it all, I will tell you the story.
We left for Panama when Haley was 12. We knew she would need braces at some point and we had even been to the orthodontist in the USA where we received a quote for $6,500. That was enough to make us decide to wait and see what we could find in Panama. One of the reasons why we chose Panama is because we heard medical and dental care there was quite good.
We started the process in December of 2014. We went to an orthodontist in Las Tablas, a town about 40 minutes away from our small pueblo of Pedasí. I know that “going to the orthodontist” might sound easy, but it’s really not all that easy, at least for me, founding member of Overthinkers Not-So-Anonymous. For one, the phone is my worst enemy when it comes to speaking in Spanish, so we had to stop by the office in person. It took a few tries to get there when the orthodontist was there but finally we hit it at the right time. Then we had to figure out the process. Turns out you walk in, say hello to the whole waiting room, sit down and wait your turn. Which may or may not be in the order in which you arrived. When you do this the first time it’s infinitely uncomfortable. I go through all the doubts in my head. Am I in the right place? Was I supposed to check in somehow? Do they know I’m here? Why did that guy go and I didn’t get my turn yet? I’m pretty sure they forgot I’m here. Should I say something? How long will we be here? Do they have a bathroom? Will it have toilet paper? Do I have any in my purse? Do others speak English? Do they hear us making fun of the bathroom with no toilet paper?
But the appointment went as expected. We met the nice orthodontist who wanted to show off his English (it was pretty good), he noticed Haley’s jumpiness and he called her a coward (teasingly) and I determined that he was the cutest Panamanian dude I had met so far. Haley called him my “Panamanian Boyfriend” after that.
It took 10 minutes and $10 to evaluate Haley that first time, and the doc requested a panoramic x-ray and gave us instructions for how to get it in Chitre, the next biggest town. I remember that day included a lot of driving around looking for things. There are no real addresses in Panama. To find something you are given landmarks: “behind the bank to the left” and “next to the blue house on the corner”. And even then you usually just have to keep asking as you are getting closer. It’s kind of like that hot/cold game: “you’re getting hotter… hotter… no! now colder!”. It’s like a treasure hunt and you kind of have to approach it that way or you’ll tear your hair out. That was the way we found the x-ray place.
We didn’t need an appointment, we just walked in with the little piece of paper the dentist gave us. They did the x-ray and 10 minutes and $35 later we walked out with the x-ray in hand. I don’t think they even took Haley’s last name. Yeah, medical care is a bit more simple outside of the USA.
That x-ray began a monthly process of seeing the orthodontist, pulling a few baby teeth and finally getting the braces on in March of 2015. I remember we had a cook in Panama and Haley would always request pure de papas (mashed potatoes) for dinner on days she had an appointment. Haley was the only kid in her entire class at Panama public school with braces, until the other gringo kid from Australia got his on. It was not an affluent village where we lived, I guess braces are not very common among teens, but we did see more adults wearing them.
The appointments with the orthodontist were a little different than appointments in the USA. We would make an appointment for the following month before leaving, but the appointment was more of a window of time, not a specific hour. The orthodontist worked in several different offices and he seemed to be in this office only on Tuesday afternoons. The receptionist would tell us what day to come, tell us to come after 2 pm and that was about it. Some days we would show up and the waiting room would be totally full. We’d watch people go in one at a time, ticking down the patients until it was our turn. Other times the waiting room was empty and we were the only ones. Most of the time the orthodontist had not arrived when we got there. We’d walk in, say buenas tardes to the entire room and just take a seat. There was usually music videos playing so we’d entertain ourselves by singing along.
The orthodontist would blow in some time later. He came with an assistant and a big box that looked like a fishing tackle box. I guess those were his supplies. He would see patients one after another and he usually spent about 5 minutes with each one. Easy in and out.
For about 4 months we didn’t see the orthodontist at all. We heard he was sick so the receptionist changed Haley’s bands. OK! We had no idea if the receptionist knew what she was doing but she did manage to change them so we just went along with it. Finally at our last appointment in Panama the orthodontist re-appeared and told us the story of his liver cancer and how he had been holed up in a Houston hotel room while receiving treatment. He even showed me his scar. He declared himself all better and we wished him well. I shoo’d Haley out of there before she could tell the doc that he was my bae.
When we told the receptionist in Panama that we were leaving, she said “when are you coming back?”. It took a few tries for her to understand that we were leaving for good. She didn’t seem to understand that concept. But we got the message across and she gave us Haley’s x-rays and a box of brackets that were the kind the doc used on Haley’s teeth. That was nice of them! And we didn’t have to pay any more money, it was purely “pay as you go”. We took some pictures and they wished us well. There were NO notes from her file (they don’t take notes) or anything else. At that point I just had to have faith that the next orthodontist would know where to pick up the process.
We left for Mexico in December of 2015 and one of the first things we did was to find a new orthodontist for Haley. Her teeth were straightening up nicely but we still had a few stubborn ones that were not coming in. We also wanted to get a sense for the long term plan of when the braces would come off. We went to a place right near our neighborhood and were happy with their service for awhile. But after a few months they were not able to give us an appointment for the following month. They said they’d call us when they knew when the orthodontist would be back. A month went by and I checked in again and they couldn’t get us an appointment for another few weeks. At that point, frustrated with the lack of appointment, lack of consistent orthodontist and lack of progress on one stubborn tooth, we decided to switch docs. We got a recommendation for a new orthodontist and made an appointment.
The new doc was adorable. This time it was Daniel’s turn for a little eye candy. The first time we met her she was immediately added to our list of “nicest people in Mexico”. It’s a long list, but she’s at the top. She took a look at Haley’s teeth and said things were coming along nicely but she wanted a panoramic x-ray to see what was going on with the stubborn tooth. Already I liked her, she was thorough. But I was dreading the process for the x-ray. Where would we have to go to get that done? What game would we need to play to find it? What was the process and how complicated and expensive would this be?? I needed to quickly get to my Overthinkers Anonymous meeting. But alas, she gave us a little slip of paper and told us to go downstairs. What? Right here in this building? This is awesome! OA Meeting cancelled!
So we went downstairs, gave the x-ray place the slip of paper, Haley was taken back, pictures were taken and 5 minutes and $12 later we walked out with the panoramic x-ray. Back upstairs we went to the dentist. She brought Haley back into the chair, looked at the x-ray and immediately went to work. Turns out the tooth was being stubborn because there was not enough room for it to come down, so the doc did a few things, put in a spacer bar to give that tooth some room, tightened up a few things and off we went, with an appointment for 4 weeks later. I’m falling all over myself in love with this gal! A hottie AND she’s smart? Double trouble!
Our appointments continued as scheduled and I loved this place because I could communicate with them via WhatsApp. Texting in Spanish is 1000% easier than talking on the phone. Around the middle of the summer we scheduled our departure date for Spain, so we started talking to the doc about the braces coming off before October, if possible. She began to tighten things up a bit more, scheduling our appointments 3 weeks apart and we noticed things started to move a little faster in Haley’s mouth.
When we moved out of our Cancun house in August, we planned to travel for 2 months before leaving for Spain. But we specifically scheduled the travels so we could return to Cancun for the dentist appointments. We knew we were close to getting them off and every appointment mattered. So after our journey to central Mexico and Guatemala, we returned to Cancun and Haley had an appointment the next day. That was yesterday and to our great happiness, they came off! We were so happy with this dentist, we really felt like she did a great job working with our time schedule but also paying very close attention to Haley’s bite, and not just her smile.
Today we picked up Haley’s mouth guard, which is what the dentist recommended she wear instead of a retainer. And now? We are free to go. We have about 3 more weeks before we leave Mexico and I told the doc that the whole family would be back for exams, cleaning and teeth whitening for Haley before we left for Spain. We feel like we are in great hands.
So that’s the story but I’m sure some of you are wondering How much did it cost??? We wouldn’t want to disappoint our loyal readers so here are the prices for you:
- Initial exam in Panama: $10
- Teeth pulling: $5 per tooth (x 4) = $20
- First x-ray: $35
- Braces going on: $200
- Monthly appointments in Panama: $20 (x 9) = $180
- Monthly appointments in Mexico at the first place: $37 (x 5) = $185
- Monthly appointments with the new doc $55 (x 5)= $275
- Panoramic x-ray: $12
- Mouth guard: $151
Grand total: $1,068, which represents an 84% savings.
So there were multiple successes embedded in this experience. Haley has a beautiful smile, a proper bite and a new kind of confidence. Daniel is happy with the price and I am happy to have successfully navigated a somewhat complicated process in another language and country. And despite the very attractive doctors, Dan and I continue to be happily married. It’s a win for Team Sherman.
Update: It is now March of 2017 and we are in South Africa. It’s been 5 months since Haley got her braces off. She’s been wearing her retainer regularly at night but she told us that her teeth feel different and the retainer is getting hard to put on. She says her bite has changed and she’d like to see an orthodontist. So we got a recommendation from some homeschool moms and got an appointment with a dentist in Sandton, in Johannesburg.
The doctor was very nice, although a little perplexed that we would not be around for any regular treatment. And also curious that he had exactly 3 days to get any kind of retainer and treatment for Haley, since we were leaving for Zimbabwe shortly after. But he rolled with the punches and checked her out.
The doc took all kinds of pictures and X-rays. He recommended a different kind of retainer, as well as a permanent bar inside her bottom teeth. We were expecting this. But too bad we aren’t in Mexico anymore. The cost for his consultation and the retainer: $1,100. Ouch. That’s going to leave a mark!
This is where we are at a disadvantage due to the travelling we do. If we had still been in Mexico we could have returned to the same orthodontist and continued treatment, with no need for a new consultation fee, x rays or pictures. But alas, this is our life so you do what you have to do. We paid the fee but we also took color copies of all the pictures and x-rays for our records. It’s been about a month with the new retainer and Haley reports that her teeth are feeling much better. We will be going back to Johannesburg before leaving South Africa next month and we’ve managed to squeeze in one more appointment with this dentist to see how things are looking.
So, we hope this will be the final chapter in Haley’s teeth story, but you just never know. This is the life on the road.
I keep coming back to this. Thank you for sharing all the details! We’ve been traveling for 9+ years now, and orthodonture has been postponed… but it’s really time. We’ll be in the Caribbean and Mexico, so much of this is relevant… I may even have to ask for a referral to the Panama doc!
Glad it could be helpful! If you need any contacts in Panama just let me know. In addition to our doc down in Las Tablas, I have a very good friend who does guide and expat assistance services in Panama City. He could help you navigate just about any situation.
What a wonderful smile! Haley is a fantastic trooper. Thank you for sharing your story.
Thanks, Lorraine. She has been really patient with this whole process. It’s kind of funny to compare all the different dentists we’ve used. But it really has worked out just fine and wayyyy cheaper than the USA.