Becoming medical tourists

Ben’s first trip to Mexico

Ben’s first trip to Mexico

While traveling to Yuma, AZ, billboards for Mexican dentists, doctors, and optometrists started popping up everywhere. We had heard of medical tourism, but it had never seemed so real and so accessible. Did people really cross the border for eyeglasses or a root canal?

When we arrived in Yuma, I met a lovely couple in their 50s from Oklahoma. As our dogs played together in the dog park, they told me about their lives taking a turn when both of them were diagnosed with life-threatening diseases. After getting costly treatments in the midwest, they found themselves in Mexico receiving the some of the same therapies, but at a fraction of the cost. “Has it been worth it?” I asked them. They replied with a resounding “Yes!”

I have been coping with a sore molar ever since we moved into the RV, but I haven’t been real excited to spend our emergency fund on what was sure to be costly dental work. The last dental appointment I had in Minnesota got me a 75-second visit with the dentist and a $90 bill. Do the math on that one.

When I mentioned my bum tooth and how I was probably too scared to cross the border to deal with it, the husband from Oklahoma smiled and said “Just go do it.” There must have been something trustworthy about that guy, because that night I started researching dentists in Mexico.

Is it really as easy as making an appointment and crossing the border?

Easier. I was shocked to learn that most dentists in Mexico don’t take appointments. It’s first come, first served. The most difficult part of the process is finding a reputable dentist, but even that was simple to do since we are members of Escapees, an RV club that connected us to other full-time RVers who have experience with medical tourism in this area.

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Dr. Sergio Bernal is a dentist in San Luis Rio Colorado, just over the border from San Luis, Arizona. He came highly recommended and his office was conveniently located right across the border—one block off of the border, to be exact. Since there are no appointments, I called ahead to make sure he was going to be in the next day. We were encouraged to arrive early, so we planned to be first in line when he opened at 9:00.

We had heard that it would be wise to bring more cash than we think we’d need, just in case we needed to pay for a prescription or additional procedures. We were told by other RVers that a checkup and cleaning would run around $20. Worst case scenario, a root canal w/crown would be around $250. WHAT?!

Armed with cash, we hopped in the car and headed 45 minutes south of Yuma to San Luis. The most efficient way to cross the border is to park on the US side, then walk over. There is a convenient 24-hour parking lot next to the border crossing that charges $6 for daily parking. Within a few short minutes of parking, we strolled into Mexico.

24 hour parking 1 block from the US/Mexico border crossing in San Luis, AZ

24 hour parking 1 block from the US/Mexico border crossing in San Luis, AZ

Leave your judgments at the door

Medical care in Mexico is inexpensive for several reasons, but one is a lot of providers do not put an emphasis on a fancy office, website, or any other non-essentials. They rely on providing quality care at a reasonable price to drive patient referrals.

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Dr. Sergio’s office is outdated. It is a no-frills experience. He has two examination chairs and one assistant. But what his office lacks in decor, he makes up in charisma. There is no language barrier here, and he is excellent at explaining a diagnosis in simple terms with a humorous spin.

The Treatment

I won’t bore you with the details. He performed a full exam and a brief procedure on my tooth which immediately helped the sensitivity. When he was done, I asked about the cleaning.

Dr. Sergio: “No cleaning.”

Me: “What?! Why?”

Dr. Sergio: “There’s nothing there! Hopefully your [husband] has more cavities than you!”

After examining Ben’s teeth…

Dr. Sergio: “Yours are better than hers! No tartar! Get out of here!”

We both were speechless. He explained why we would be fine without a cleaning. He said that if my tooth was not feeling better in a couple of days, I should come back. As we prepared to leave, we asked how much we owed him.

$0 - zero - free

He would not charge us. We insisted we pay him something for his time, but he wouldn’t have it. Perhaps he felt bad that we traveled all that way only to have him tell us we didn’t need what we thought we needed. Or maybe this is just his way of doing business.

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We walked away from the experience impressed, but a bit dumbfounded. Did we just get scammed? Why wouldn’t he just do the work and take the money? We can’t imagine a dentist in the US doing that.

But maybe that’s the problem.

Cruising the border

Cruising the border

As of a few days after my appointment, my tooth pain has subsided quite a bit. I don’t know if I’m completely healed, but I’m glad that Dr. Sergio didn’t rush into performing a more invasive procedure. I would happily travel back to see him again!