The Odyssey of Restoring a Tooth in Cuba

HAVANA TIMES – Oral health is closely related to people’s quality of life. Losing teeth has a significant impact on self-esteem, causing severe stress. In Cuba, it is increasingly difficult to reconstruct a dental piece, get a dental cleaning, or get an implant due to the high costs. While dental clinics around the world perform smile designs and whitening with sophisticated methods, Yanitza Lezcano, 34, suffers from the loss of a single tooth and struggles constantly to maintain her emotional balance.

Havana Times: What is your profession?

YANITZA LEZCANO: At the moment, I work as a Specialist in Museology at a museum in Old Havana.

I imagine it’s a job you enjoy a lot. 

Yes, I am one of the few fortunate people who work in what they like. In these difficult times, it’s a consolation, although if I think about it, I probably would have chosen another profession.

Which one?

Dentistry. It’s a great economic advantage. In my case, the benefit would also be aesthetic. I haven’t been able to socialize with the museum visitors for a long time, much less laugh. I’ve even had to adopt a new lip position, so the missing tooth isn’t noticeable. I know it seems excessive, but I work with the public!

I suppose this situation causes you a lot of stress.

Losing a dental piece is a major trauma in today’s Cuba, especially if you are young. I never prepared for this. I always had my teeth in good condition. I frequently visited the dentist and had impeccable oral hygiene. You can’t imagine how life changes when you face this situation.

What happened to your tooth?

It might seem like dark humor, but it all started with a stone in the bread roll from the ration store. I know it’s a very surreal situation, but that stone changed my life forever. My joy ended in a second. I have always been very sociable, love to sing, laugh, share with my friends, and at work, they consider me a person with a lot of vitality. The psychological cost has been tremendous.

Tell me, what did you do?

I had to deal with obsessive thoughts. I spent hours wanting to go to the Bread and Sweets company that manages the distribution and production of bread rolls. I fantasized about having a big dispute with the bakers and venting. Honestly, I ended up exhausted. I didn’t realize I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror. At work, I asked for a vacation; luckily, I had a month. I thought that in that time I could get the broken tooth extracted and get an implant.

I understand that the dental departments of the polyclinics hardly have any resources.

Yes, like everywhere else. The first thing was to accept what was happening to me, to understand that I lived in Cuba, where public health conditions have changed so much for the worse. I went to a dental clinic to see a dentist friend of a neighbor. With her, I inquired about the situation and the prices. I was convinced that in that month I would resolve everything.

To my surprise, for an extraction, I had to pay 1,200 Cuban pesos, and the implant would cost me 20,000. Of course, when she had all the resources at her disposal: anesthesia, surgical material, etc. All bought by her own means from people who travel abroad and bring it to sell. Even the gloves have to be paid for because the State hardly supplies anymore, and when it does, it’s with very poor-quality products. I managed to solve the extraction with my vacation pay, limiting food purchases, but the cost of the implant was unthinkable. I decided to undergo the extraction first and then focus on what I could sell to get the remaining money. I am still working on that.

The clinic is state-owned, but it operates privately. If doctors don’t buy the products, tools, etc., they can’t work. A few years ago, you would give gifts to the doctors for better care; now you must pay for the service because they need to recoup the money they invest. And yet, the government still says that health is free. How did the extraction go?

Everything was a success, and the treatment was exquisite for the first time.

And then?

Recognizing myself in the mirror with that gap between my teeth brought me back to depression. I know it may seem silly when there are so many shortages in our country. But in my job, physical presence and social dynamics are essential. The possibility of losing my job is something I cannot take on. I didn’t want to show up to work like that either. At the end of my vacation, I presented a medical certificate for depression.

During that time, I modified my way of speaking a bit. I hardly move my lips. The daily rush for food and the lack of transportation have helped me so far because my colleagues, always in a hurry, some with other illegal jobs, haven’t noticed my change. To the few who have, I mention a filling that is giving me trouble. I’m buying time: selling my clothes, some art books, some family ornaments, and dishes with the hope of soon raising all the money I need for the implant. 

It’s sad. Many people, some acquaintances, lose teeth or walk around with broken molars as if nothing happened. They can’t do anything else; not everyone can afford between 800 and 1,200 pesos for a simple extraction or reconstruction. Imagine with a salary of 4,500 pesos, and you have to consider if you have children, family. Not to mention that many people earn less. I’ve seen 50-year-olds who look 60 because the priority is day-to-day, the food on the table.

Now, what new challenges are you facing?

It’s an interesting question. My new challenge is walking the streets in search of toothpaste. This is more than surreal, don’t you think? I’ve been brushing my teeth with soap for a week.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.