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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Royal Dentist All Smiles in Moscow

MTSantoro left Saudi Arabia to work in Moscow after the Sept. 11 attacks, which, he says, drove many foreigners from the country.
From the jungles of Southeast Asia to the sands of Arabia, John Santoro has examined teeth all over the world, recently bringing his skills to wintry Moscow.

He joined the U.S. Dental Care clinic after working in the Saudi royal palace, where he cleaned the teeth of King Fahad.

Born in 1945, Santoro grew up in Little Italy on Manhattan's Lower East Side. He attended the University of Maryland near Washington before being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1968.

Santoro served three years in Germany before being sent for a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam, where he got his first glimpse of the dental profession as a member of the medical corps.

"A lot of casualties would come in, and I got interested in treating patients who had problems with their jaws and with their teeth," he says.

After his release from the army, Santoro enrolled in Howard University's dental program, earning his degree in 1976. He then took a surgical internship in Vancouver for one year, working with fractured jaws and wisdom teeth.

Santoro set up a private practice in the Canadian city, where his three children were born. He worked there for more than 15 years, performing oral surgery at two hospitals, Vancouver General Hospital and the Children's Hospital of Vancouver. For one year, he was president of the Vancouver District Dental Society, which has more than 2,000 members.

But after his three children grew up, Santoro felt he needed a change, and he took the job in far off Saudi Arabia.

"For years [foreign dental centers] tried to recruit me, and I always said no," he says. "But then my kids were getting to be grown up, and I had just gone through a divorce, so I figured this was the right time to sell my practice."

Santoro was taken on as a staff dentist in the medical wing of the royal palace in the capital of Riyadh, where he got to meet and treat the royal family.

"Their family is huge, we're talking about 200 or so people here," he says. "And they have their own medical wing, which is like it's own hospital, really, right inside the palace."

The clinic was fit for a king, of course, with the most expensive, top-notch supplies available. There was, Santoro says, just one problem: "They didn't have the technical expertise to repair equipment."

Being the royal clinic, money was no object when it came to buying equipment, even a new royal CAT scan, which Santoro said can cost more than $1 million. "Most hospitals in America are lucky if they have one [Cat scan]. We had several," he says.

There were other perks: Because of the nature of the dental profession, "I was one of the only Westerners to see a [Saudi] woman without a veil on," Santoro says.

He stayed in the country for five years, three at the royal palace and two at the Saad Specialist Hospital in Al-Kobar on the east coast.

"What I really liked about Saudi Arabia was meeting and working with people from all over the world -- with Australians, Britons, Europeans and others," he says. "But then Sept. 11 came -- and I saw that Saudi Arabia was going to go through some changes."

After the terrorist attacks in the United States, many foreign workers began leaving Saudi Arabia, Santoro says, and he decided to move as well. Luckily, he found out about working in Moscow through medical journals.

"There were advertisements, they were looking for people to come here to Russia," he says. "If you've worked abroad once before, you sort of get into a network where you find jobs abroad. So I thought there was a real opportunity here."

Santoro visited Moscow in August 2001 and again in October before deciding to join U.S. Dental Care, where he started working in January. "I loved the city," Santoro says, "so in October I signed a contract and agreed to come."

Located at 7/5 Bolshaya Dmitrovka Ulitsa, U.S. Dental Care was formed in 1996 by a U.S. lawyer, Robert Courtney, who wanted to provide Western-standard dental services. Since then, a number of other U.S. and European clinics have arrived in the capital.

"Right now, Western clinics serve a niche of people who are looking for certain standards," Santoro says. "They [patients] expect me to wear a mask and gloves and to have the instruments sterilized, whereas in some Russian clinics they don't do that."

The clinic's clientele consists of Americans, Europeans and well-to-do Russians, Santoro says. "I know that [Russian dental] standards are quite different from ours. But there is a process of evolution whereby their standards get a little better every year, a little closer to ours."

Since arriving, Santoro has seen some of the peculiarities of Soviet dentistry -- which wasn't known for its high standards of customer service -- including 'pink tooth.'

"[Pink tooth] was a kind of Soviet treatment to do a root canal whereby they put in a special liquid, a form of folic acid, but a side effect was that the tooth turned pink," he says. "So we've had people come in who have five or six teeth that are pink -- at first I thought they were doing something cosmetic to them."

Santoro plans to spend a few years in Moscow, and he intends to visit the surrounding regions as well.

"For me it's an adventure. I love to travel ... and I want to use my time here to travel to neighboring countries and parts of the world that I haven't seen, especially the Russian provinces."