Like many poor people in South Africa, Mtuseni has little experience with health care. I am always surprised and saddened when he tells me that someone in the settlement died, often of some undiagnosed disease. As he says, “Nobody investigates.” Lacking insurance and without money to pay for care, people who are sick don’t go to the doctor. Sometimes they die… and I wonder if the cause may have been something easily treatable.
School has been my top priority with Mtuseni, but his overall health has always been in the back of my mind. When I visited in January I brought him two big bottles of multivitamins, enough to last over a year. I take a vitamin every day, and I eat well. For someone like Mtuseni who doesn’t have much food at home — vitamins are even more important. When I first explained the concept, he asked me, “What are these magic pills?” His lack of knowledge about something as simple as vitamins shocked me. What did they teach him in high school? But the vitamins have worked their magic. During this past South African winter he was rarely sick compared to previous years. He even had a growth spurt that required me to get him a bunch of new pants!
But vitamins were easy. The bigger issue was when Mtuseni told me a couple years ago that he hadn’t been to a dentist since he was 5. He has a beautiful smile, but periodically would have tooth and gum pain that kept him awake and made eating difficult. I knew this situation had to be rectified, and told him I’d find him a dentist.
When I explained what would happen — an exam and x-rays, a cleaning, maybe some fillings — he said “No dentist will do all that.” I think his only experience is with the free-clinic dentists who mainly work the pliers. As he told me years ago when his mouth was hurting, “Darkies don’t get teeth fixed. Darkies get teeth out.” After I got over my shock at the “darkie” term and we discussed what it meant in the US, I told him that going to college and working in the professional world, he wasn’t getting teeth yanked.
But everything in South Africa takes time. It’s hard enough researching doctors in your own country — how could I do it from 8,000 miles away? Plus, Mtuseni is afraid of doctors and terrified of needles. I wasn’t relishing the challenge.
Thankfully, my Joburg pal Jacquie — who helped me get Mtsueni’s laptop — asked around and got me some referrals and a list of dentists. I e-mailed a few, selected one… and then prodded and cajoled my little scaredy-cat to set up an appointment. He kept “yessing” me and then “forgetting.” Given that he constantly reminds me of how mature and grown-up and capable he is now that he’s 20, I used it to my advantage. When he texted me that he was afraid, I replied “You’re not a child. Man-up and go.” Not elegant, but poking that budding male ego worked.
So he just finished up treatment this week. Amazingly, he only had one cavity and some early gum disease. (The lack of cavities likely a result of not having lots of sugary goodies to eat at home.) With a full cleaning, filling, fluoride treatment and lesson in oral care, he’s on the path to good dental health — and his smile has even more star power!
Many thanks to Dr. Salwa Dalal and her team for being responsive to my notes and directions. For taking photos. And for being sensitive to Mtuseni’s fears and making his first adult dental experience enjoyable. (Or tolerable. He told me everything was painful. But the kid truly can be a wimp and has a flair for the dramatic.) So he survived, his mouth is healthy, and this should go a long way in helping him get over his fear of doctors.
Next on the list… a physical!