Joan Larsen’s Travel: Leaps of Faith – the Search for the World’s Southernmost Dentist

Posted on September 25, 2013


By Joan Larsen


If you were to ask me what I would consider the most traumatic experience I have had in a lifetime of travel, the number of flashbacks might fill a small book:  my Argentinean navy ship sinking in the ice-filled waters of Antarctica, the several far-too-close calls with grizzly bears in Alaska, our ship hit by a rogue wave and rolling over on its side in the Bering Sea in the high Arctic, being blown off a mountain in Chile with broken bits everywhere, more.  More.

2-MapBut – most memorable to all who heard the story, the one repeated  over and over, had its beginning on a charter plane flying south from Santiago, Chile to a small airfield in Ushuaia, Argentina – which happens to be the southernmost town in the entire world.  In the Beagle Channel, running across the tiny tip of South America, our huge icebreaker was waiting, waiting to take 90 passengers – all strangers – on a semi-circumnavigation of the continent of Antarctica.

On the plane, my woman seat partner and I introduced ourselves and had become friendly, the first good sign on a long journey.  I was riding a “high”, smiling at strangers as I made my way to the bathroom in the rear.  But turning in, I felt a stone in my mouth, a large stone I thought.  I had not had a meal.  What could this mean?  Turning to the mirror, I opened my mouth wide, pulling the large object out. 

It was a tooth… but not just any tooth:  my top front tooth was in my hand!  I looked in the mirror, shaking at the witch I had turned into in a flash.  I wanted to turn back, go home.  I could not speak.  I could not face strangers who would gasp at “my new look” for the next 2 months.  Believe me, they would.

My “seat partner-turned-friend” was a doctor and I needed advice fast.  Tapping her arm, I opened my mouth to show her what happened to my top front tooth.  Never will I forget her response with her hand up to her mouth, said a bit too loud as well:  YOU LOOK JUST LIKE A HALLOWEEN PUMPKIN!!  She had no other encouraging words or any ideas.

I tapped my husband’s arm across the aisle, opened up my hand to display my front tooth and showed him.  He too seemed frightened by my look.  But then, he opened his clenched fist, showing me a back crown in his mouth that had also come out. 

Just in case you ever have this situation I will tell you now:  A HALLOWEEN PUMPKIN does not express sympathy to a person, even a husband, who had lost a back crown that would remain invisible for a two month trip.

The timing of our connections between plane and ship would be close but just maybe the tour leader up front on the plane would take pity on me.  She actually GASPED!  And said she would do her best on a dentist, but she had all the passengers to transfer.

I felt little hope.

Landing in a raging rainstorm – on top of it all – with the icebreaker in the center of the Beagle Channel being hit by high waves in darkness added a far higher level to my own trauma.  “Jump into the Zodiac rafts heading for the icebreaker, keeping your passport and your carry-on close” was called out to all passengers. Clutching my tooth, I had no choice.  I played “follow the leader”, keeping my mouth closed so no one would know one of the passengers was a pumpkin!!



Zodiacs were bobbing up and down .  We still had to JUMP from the raft to a platform low on the ship and climb up a ladder in the rain with carry-ons in hand, one after another.  Tricky as anything.  But then a flashlight hit my raft, and a voice called out:  “Is there anyone on that raft in need of a dentist?”  My husband and I raised our free hands.  The other closed fists held our broken teeth.  In the darkness the call came out to just the two of us:  “Leave ALL your money and valuables on the raft, and jump to the raft I am on – and be taken back to shore.” What?  Leaving everything we held dear, all our identification, money, and passport even?

No more time to think.  The next thing we saw, between flashes of lightning, was another raft drawing close in the high seas.  A voice said:  JUMP WHEN I TELL YOU. 

You had to have been there in the South Atlantic at night in rain and waves, for we began acting like we had been doing this feat that only daredevils would try.  Foolish daredevils at that.  We jumped.

4-TaxiTaken as close to the breakwater as possible, we again were told to jump onto large rocks strewn about.  A local cab was waiting, the driver getting instructions in Spanish.  The streets then were unpaved and how could we not notice that he was driving us out of town?  Wouldn’t the only dentist be in the tiny downtown????  The driver had lost his way and we were a long way from town.  Back to the dock, getting more instructions in Spanish, we were off again, heading north to the Andean foothills that started north of town.  Downtown was long gone, but we stopped in a tiny residential street and were pointed to a stairway upward in a private home.  This could not be… but it was!  We found ourselves walking upward, flashes of lightning lighting the way.

We did not speak.  We had been through some dangerous times already and were rather traumatized.  We entered a waiting room, and through an open door saw a woman, with apron, on hands-and-knees scrubbing down an antique dentist office at 10 pm at night.  Much later, she gathered up her rags, came out and asked us what we needed done in Spanish (if we had guessed a foreign language right!!).  Each of us held out our tooth in explanation.  OMG – SHE was also the dentist and we had the choice on who went first.  Desperate, I went in. 

5-dentalShe was shaking I noticed.  The equipment was not what we are used to seeing.  But her drill was recognizable and she was starting to drill off what was left of my top front tooth.  I screamed:  NO, and grabbed her arm.  I know I was ruined, but she could further ruin my future life if I didn’t watch out.  We now both shook like leaves.  She mixed something, saying “gutta-percha”, and then suddenly seemed to become an accomplished sculptor who prided herself in her work.

She showed me my image in the mirror.  Somehow, some way, I was a real person again.  She then held up 5 fingers, pressing them in front of my face.  Was she telling me that her job would last 5 days – FIVE days?  I was going to be 55 days on the icebreaker.  Five days?  It couldn’t be.

My husband’s crown was next and quickly cemented.  The cab had waited at this home at the base of the Andes.  We went back south to the ocean.  Darker, stormier still, we saw a small sailboat tied up, nearest the shore.  We were to jump on the deck of sailboat from stairs above the breakwater.  What?  Disbelieving and in shock, there was no choice.  And so we did.

But it wasn’t to be over.  On the other side was a tiny tugboat, deck higher up.  That was to be our next challenge.  With help, we were to stand on the side of the sailboat railing, and then jump in a raging storm into the tugboat where – if we were lucky – we would be caught.  I have to tell you that I love challenges, but never ever had I ever taken so many commands in darkness and storms in a short time.  Certainly none like this.

We huddled in the tug cabin, coming abreast of the Kapitan Klebnikov, seeing seamen waiting on the tiny platform to catch us as we made the last giant leap.  We still had to climb the ladder up.

It was now midnight  — some hours after our scheduled departure.  The ship’s motors were running.  No one saw us arrive in the storm fortunately, as there were many complaints by the passengers that two passengers insisted on seeing a dentist and thus held up their expedition – where every moment did count – on one of the largest ships in the world.

Hearing this line of thinking – and no longer being a Halloween pumpkin – I smiled and nodded, commiserating with them, NEVER EVER letting on that we were the “to-be-shunned ones.”


The after story:  Our ship’s doctor (also head of Explorers Club of New York) delivered babies in real life.   But on the ship, he proved to be expert on all sorts of emergencies.  Each and every morning he was eager to see me as he had heard me say that my new tooth looked to be good for only 5 days.  He produced a completely sealed dentist kit each day, and – having been taught by his dentist brother by rote – was eager to open the seals and to operate on my front tooth for his very first time.  If he could deliver babies, this would be a snap!

I was no fool.  I never ate with my front tooth, though crumb-like cement morsels would appear in my mouth daily, scaring me to death.  The ship’s doctor and I became close friends, but not having a very good story to tell at the Explorers Club of becoming a dentist as well as an OB on the trip was obviously very,very disappointing.

On my return, my own dentist also said “guttapercha” but praised the woman dentist in Argentina for the quality of her work and its staying power.

So… all’s well that ends well.  Dentists love the story, telling it at dental conventions I hear — and becoming the life of the party.  My husband and I still talk in amazement at our ability – with gigantic waves in the Beagle Channel continually making any feat almost impossible – of successful leaps of every sort — at the very tip of South America on a stormy night to be forever remembered.

All in the quest for a dentist.


JoanAvatarWriter Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth.  But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again.  She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”