Bad to the Bone: A Molar-Grinding Account of Being Uninsured in the Southwest and Undergoing Dental Surgery in Mexico

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It began when Joshua Ellis could no longer spit.

The blockage in his saliva gland resulted in swelling, the pain forcing him—a freelance web designer and writer—to visit a place that 50 million Americans who lack insurance coverage know too well: the emergency room. Finally, after hours of waiting, waves of guilt washing over him as a rising tide of heart-attacked, bullet-riddled and generally worse-off souls gurneyed inside to meet their fates, he received an X-ray.

What it revealed would lead Ellis 700 miles away into the Mexican city of Juarez and into the inscrutable mystery of the preserved heart of a baby vampire. To put it to a point, his teeth were killing him—specifically his severely impacted wisdoms, which his skull had grown around. The teeth threatened to pierce his sinus cavity. Left unaddressed, they would likely break his jaw and possibly stab his brain.

In other words, Ellis’ new ebook, An American Vampire in Juarez: Getting My Teeth Pulled in Mexico’s Most Notorious Border Town (nsfwcorp.com, $2.99), is hardly your average trip-to-see-the-dentist tale. It’s a sordid, noir-esque memoir of how the richest country in the world fails to take care of its own and offers a vivid, no-holds-barred snapshot of the border relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. (Disclosure: Ellis and I worked together at Las Vegas CityLife almost 10 years ago.)

In a civilized country like, say, oh, Canada, a death panel would convene to decide the best moment for Ellis’ grey matter to be lacerated by his own tusks and for his organs to be harvested to benefit Islamist militants needing donations. Kidding. In any other First World nation, Ellis would simply have made an appointment. In the U.S., he lacked coverage, couldn’t afford treatment, so he did nothing. Luckily he landed a gig with a military contractor and months later met with an HMO dentist in a Vegas clinic sandwiched between a Food 4 Less and a smoke shop.

That’s when this Hellraiser-grade tell-all really gets underway. The Vegas dentist can only remove Ellis’ lower wisdoms and suggest an oral surgeon for the uppers. What the American clinic inflicts on the writer is absurd. The doctor calls him fat and leaves his lower mandible riddled with fragments and a serious abscess. Months later the healed socket still issues chunks of bone.

This is all before Ellis, 34 and married, decides to become a medical tourist in a city recognized as the world’s murder capital. Where rival drug cartels rack up massive body counts over turf and the only good journalist, foreign or not, is a dead one. Using El Paso as base and clandestinely armed with several unusual “pigstickers,” he moves across the border and back—carefully. Like a hyper-vigilant Hunter S. Thompson with chops rot, Ellis delivers darkly hilarious descriptions, as when a Juarez hooker solicits him.

A tiny woman steps away from a baby stroller and approaches me. She looks exactly like what would happen if Rosie Perez played the part of Gozer the Gozerian in a downmarket version of Ghostbusters. She’s got a bulldog jaw, a bizarre pompadour/mullet, and a white outfit that looks like something Juice Newton left in a Dumpster after a show in 1982. The general effect is disturbing.

It’s not entirely a freak show. Ultimately his treatment at the hands of an Anglo doctor and his staff provides an interesting contrast to what Ellis endured in Vegas. I don’t want to give away what happens—hint: it’s terrifying and not for the faint-hearted. Suffice to say the author ends up spooking coyotes with a mouthful of blood while crossing the border and then contemplating a mummified pawnshop curiosity in El Paso. (The symbolism is rife with political meanings.) Along the way Ellis instructs the reader, breaking everything down, from maquiladoras to right-wing hysteria over Obamacare to pricing on (and clientele) for oral surgery in Mexico.

Vampire is the closest thing to a how-to guide for those of us who are uninsured and considering a trip for affordable care. At 20,000 words, the book is a brisk read and Ellis a riveting guide into a realm few have documented so compellingly. Perhaps more significantly, if you’re someone who makes resolutions to floss regularly and fails, this first-person account of medical travails will scare you straight and clean.

"An American Vampire in Juarez" by Joshua Ellis is available in Kindle, Nook, and ePub formats

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