“All I have is a voice." (W.H. Auden)

It is difficult to wax rhapsodic about medical care.  No matter how good or satisfying, it is not a pleasant subject.  Particularly after spending half a year in 2012 apprehensively dealing with medical treatments.  So  it was a welcome respite to travel to France for a chance to recuperate and relax.  Little did I know that I would be introduced to a different but agreeable experience with the French healthcare system.    


First there was the school requirement for tuberculosis vaccination for second daughter.  We were fortunate to have a doctors’ office near our place and we had already met one of the general physicians.  We scheduled a meeting with her and discussed our need.  She gave second daughter a check up, reviewed her vaccination schedule from the U.S. doctor, and wrote a prescription for the vaccine.  After a few days we went to the pharmacy, purchased our vaccine for less than 10 euros, and returned to her office for the procedure.  Total cost for two visits was the French required fee of 23 Euros.  Easy!


The second experience was a bit challenging as we were in Nice for the annual carnival.  After the parade and on our way back to the hotel, first daughter experienced stomach cramps.  All night, she complained of the cramps and headaches.  The next day, I visited the pharmacy and purchased acetaminophen and anti-acid stomach medicines.  These relieved her a bit but did not heal.  One day before we returned to our village, I convinced first daughter to visit the doctor recommended by the pharmacist.  Fortunately, he had consulting hours that essentially means “walk-ins” during certain times of the day.  We met him and, between my very bad French and some English on his part, he diagnosed gastro intestinal virus and wrote us a prescription.  He told me it was “pas grave” and that she would be well after the medicines and some rest.  His fee was, again, 23 Euros.   


It is a curious thing that the doctors’ offices we visited do not have any support staff – nurse, physician assistant, even a receptionist.  The doctor meets directly with the patient, conducts the physical, writes up the prescription and issues a bill for insurance reimbursement if a carte vitale is not provided.  There is one on one conversation, albeit tricky, as medical terms are tossed around in French. It is not difficult to follow so long as the issues are simple. So far, it has been so.


On the train ride home that Friday, and with barely anything to eat, first daughter was lethargic and in pain.  So uncomfortable that even the porter appeared to be concerned when he took our tickets.  Fortunately, she slept most of the time despite the discomfort.


Then,  in a little over 30 days on French soil, we have our third experience with a doctor.  Saturday morning we called a local friend and asked if there is a doctor that we can see this weekend.  She was able to secure an appointment in the next village and we went to see a young woman.  She was just as efficient as the others.  She was worried, however, that the pain may be appendicitis so she directed us to get a blood test at a private hospital outside Bezier.  What we thought would have been a 30 minute to 1 hour rendezvous turned out to be, practically, an all day orientation to the country’s healthcare organization.


We were lucky that our local friend accompanied us to the private hospital.  We entered through the emergency room and handed the receptionist the note from the doctor.  We sat in the waiting room thinking that this would be a routine blood test.  We waited for some time then was summoned by a nurse.  After the interview, translated through our local friend, first daughter was placed in a private room in the emergency ward.  After a long period of time, and while second daughter went out in search of lunch with our friend, they took blood tests and told me to be patient.  Results will take about an hour and the doctor will have to visit and check in on first daughter.  We waited and waited and waited.  Finally, the doctor came in and checked first daughter.  He told us that the blood tests were normal but he wanted to eliminate the likelihood of appendicitis or other issues that may require hospitalization (like removal of a cyst).  He required an échographie and a diagnosis from the surgeon.  The technician, however, was doing the rounds of private hospitals and would not be available until after 4 pm.  The surgeon as well.   The doctor urged us to wait and to be patient. 


When the English speaking nurse came in, I asked how things work.  She said that if it is appendicitis, first daughter will have to spend the night and they will schedule surgery right away.  She will also be required to stay a few days in the hospital and, that as her mother, I can stay with her.  My friend remarked that this is a private hospital and the care will be efficient and excellent.  She also agreed to have second daughter stay with her for a few days.


My over analytical mind instinctively went on planning mode.  I was thinking about the fastest route from hospital to home, what to pack (telephone charger was a must) and who to call.  I deliberated on whether a laptop was useful and whether the hospital had wifi.  First daughter insisted I had to bring her electronics. I began to text husband about our status, hoping that the hospital’s cellular signal will carry the message quickly.


Since I had a private American insurance to cover the three of us and an additional French insurance to cover the girls, I was not thinking or worrying about costs.   I also had three credit cards with me and cash if the hospital required a deposit.  But these were not foremost on my mind.  The inability to properly conduct a conversation with the medical practitioners was the main worry.   It is hard enough to conjure words of mal d'estomac et mal de tête but I would be at loss with other body organs or medicines (no Tylenol here only paracetamol) or treatments (échographie is the word for ultrasound which I first thought was sonogram).  Happily, I remembered my dictionary in the car which minimized my angst about the language.


At some point later in the afternoon, the nurse wheeled first daughter to another wing for the ultrasound.  The male technician conducted the procedure and after several minutes, turned to me and said he couldn’t find any indication of appendicitis.  “No cyst?”  I inquired.  “Non,” he answered.  So I wheeled first daughter out of the room and, on the way back to her private emergency room,  we encountered the doctor and the surgeon.   Tell me what the technician told you, the surgeon commanded me in French.  “Pas appendicitis,” I responded. “De rien?” he asked.  “Oui,” I  answered.  Then a stream of French that I could not absorb in my present state of mind.  When I stared at him blankly, the doctor gently informed him that I was an American.  The surgeon nodded in acknowledgement.  Then they turned away and walked towards the échographie unit to talk to the technician. We returned to the room.


First daughter was barely settled in the bed when the English speaking nurse came and asked me the results.  I told her the good news and she, clearly, was just as relieved.  She was very patient with first daughter and had taken the time to explain to her the blood test procedure and the liquid painkiller that she had to give to her.  Even showing her how the needle is small and does not stay under the skin for long.  The doctor soon followed after her and told us that we can go home.  He directed that we continue the paracetamol (aka acetaminophen) for pain and the medicine for gastric  cramps.  He told first daughter to rest and that she can eat but not take any carbonated drinks. 


Upon checking out, the receptionist asked whether I wanted to pay part of the bill or wait until Wednesday for the full bill.  She told us that the laboratory and ultrasound costs will not come until after the weekend but that I can pay for the emergency services.  They can mail the rest of the bill after Wednesday to our village home.  I agreed.  She typed up the doctor’s notes and presented me with several papers with the front page showing the total cost.  I needed the entire document for insurance reimbursement according to her.  I had my credit card ready but, when I glanced at the cost, I started to gather my euros.  She told me she preferred the credit card as she does not or cannot handle cash.  So I handed her my carte bleu. 


We returned home, worn-out and relieved.  Husband had tried calling and left messages.  We called him once we arrived home, narrated the events of the day, and assured him all was well.   I told him that I paid by credit card and that the rest of the bill will follow. 


He asked, “How much?” 

“Sixty-seven euros,” I answered. 

“What?”  he exclaimed. 


I repeated myself.  Frankly, I was just as surprised.  As I was with the private room in the emergency ward, the services of the medical staff, and the overall decision to eliminate any possible scenario that may require urgent and necessary treatment.  Yes, the waiting seemed interminable at times when there is no cafeteria or English language reading materials.  But weighing the overall experience, I recognized not a bit of anxiety or nervousness but a steadfast belief that excellent care will be provided no matter what.  I was convinced, moreover, that it would not bankrupt us.   Undoubtedly, this belief stems from knowledge that France  has been, and continues to be, known as having the best healthcare system in Europe.  But I also like believe that it comes from the warmth and efficiency of the medical practitioners and the easy, reliable access to their services.  Life is good is here.  And so is our wellbeing.  

Bob 16.04.2013 22:35

You really are experiencing the joys of raising kids in a foreign country. It is good to know that you are all well - and I am sure, set for your next adventure

eliz 15.04.2013 14:14

All part of immersion, Claudia! (smile). Miss you guys. Will respond to your email!

claudia 14.04.2013 22:37

wow! Im sorry that we didnt know. I am pathetic when it comes to remembering to check the blog, facebook etc. Im glad everyone is well and hope to catch up

Judy 12.03.2013 19:01

We too love the health care we have received here but like you, appreciated even more the caring manner in which it was given. # 1 care according to WHO.xoxo

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Latest comments

14.07 | 12:01

Beautiful! Vive la France!

17.02 | 06:57

France is awaiting your return, Betty!

16.02 | 15:07

Such a wonderful experience for all! Truly a beautiful region filled with lovely people, excellent food, and soothing wine! Am looking forward to returning.

07.09 | 18:44

What a joy for this to be shared. I am reading several times, soaking it in and making my own movie in my mind of this adventure. So excited for you three!