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

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.