Living at the other end of the world away from home and speaking a language other than your mother tongue is an adventure. That’s what this blog is about, our Parisian adventure, and the fun we have along the way with the light hearted challenges thrown in our path; troublesome toilettes, conversing with the hairdresser, navigating the Dordogne countryside and surviving the Paris Metro. Nothing had been too serious until a health problem turned up. Working your way through an unfamiliar health system in a foreign language is an extra complication in the process of getting better.
My dearly beloved had been having a bit of sciatic pain for some time, he’s a stoic chap but it was enough to visit our general doctor, a lovely Englishwoman. Initial x-rays revealed nothing more than possible disc pathology, but a series of physiotherapy sessions didn’t resolve the problem. His discomfort had increased to the point that sitting and lying down were not possible for more than an hour or two – sleep deprivation torture.
The MRI scan.
Unable to make an appointment by telephone or website (recorded messages, endless loops and no option to select an MRI) we visited the radiology clinic in person. We managed with plenty of la politesse and my best French to explain the degree of need to secure an appointment soon. We were offered one the next evening – Friday’s late shift. It was the right thing to do; the MRI showed a tumour inside DB’s spinal canal was causing the worsening problems and needed to be removed. The radiologist made sure we understood it needed urgent follow up. Interestingly in France, in our experience anyway, the patient is given the report of lab tests and diagnostic procedures to take to their doctor, and only sometimes the doctor is sent a copy directly. In this case the radiologist made sure her report was emailed and faxed to our doctor that very evening.
The referral to a neurosurgeon.
We discussed hospitals with our doctor, there are several hospitals for neurosurgery in Paris, and went with our doctor’s recommendation. She called the clinic but only a recorded message was at the end of the line. The referral was faxed and emailed, we hoped for a prompt reply with a date for an appointment. We waited, not really knowing what would happen next, when, or if anything at all. After three days with no response, and many unspoken thoughts about making a run for it back to NZ, (probably not even possible) we called the clinic. Our doctor called them, but still no way to speak to someone or leave a message. We resent the email to every address on the clinic website and activated the read receipt requirement. Several of the email addresses, including the main addressee, were “no longer valid”. What? How does that instill confidence? Our doctor eventually made contact going through another service and later in the day I took a call from the Fondation de Rothschild clinic. An appointment was arranged, even on the phone my French was good enough to understand and confirm date, day, time, place, Dr’s name and what documents to bring. Nothing happens without the right documents.
Rendez-vous with the neurosurgeon.
Five days later we arrived at the clinic with some trepidation; were we really in the right place, was there really a rendezvous for us? Some things were reassuringly familiar; the multitude of coloured lines on the floor to direct patients to the right service – blue for neurochirurgie adulte. The meeting with the neurosurgeon went well; she was matter of fact, assured and spoke English for us. Best of all with the right documents with us we saw the administrator and the anaesthetist that same afternoon and were given a definite date for surgery just over 2 weeks later.
The pre-op paperwork.
In the meantime there were tasks to be done: pre-op blood tests (no problem) and making contact with our private insurer, (our mutuelle) to have them contact the hospital administration, agree the payment arrangements and then let us know. This is not as easy as it sounds when it’s all French to us. In the time we’ve lived here we’ve come to understand the health system at a superficial level; fees we pay for some things are reimbursed magically, in weird amounts, behind the scenes without submitting documents, others require signed forms. The system is complicated, bureaucratic, it’s hard to believe it can be cost efficient, we never quite know what the rules are, but it’s generous and thorough when you get it.
We never did hear back from our insurer but with help from French speaking friends we managed to establish that the hospital had the information they required from the insurer and surgery had the green light.
Going to hospital.
The day of admission to Fondation de Rothschild Hospital in the 19th arrondissement finally arrived. Several weeks of minimal sleep for both of us, and considerable discomfort for my DB was a long time. We arrived at the hospital with fingers crossed; were all the bureaucracy boxes really ticked? Were they really expecting us? The thought that my DB might be sent home for more waiting scared both of us more than the surgery. We were armed with every document, form of identification, lab and radiology reports that we could carry.
Ah bonjour Monsieur Belton, yes go up to Level 5 and see the Secrétaire d’ Entrée. What a relief.
The surgery went well; the tumour – a Schwannoma – was the least nasty of the possible types, it was completely removed and there were no unexpected complications. The medical and nursing care was excellent. On the ward no-one spoke more than a few words of English but they did everything to help us understand. My DB’s main nurse, Katia, was better than wonderful. As well as being efficient and expert in providing nursing care, she spoke slowly and carefully in French and my DB understood.
Being a French hospital we had expectations of nice French food, the menu sounded promising. In reality it was horrible hospital food; fridge-cold stiff bread rolls, cloudy water of varying muddy shades pretending to be soup and the standard limp overcooked vegetables that come out of most institutional kitchens. It amused us that the menu always included a cheese course with a named cheese – it is still France after all.
Five days post-operatively my DB was out and glad to be home. We are back to sleeping through the night and enjoying good French food. We’ve successfully located the infirmière domicile (home care nurse) for prescribed post op wound care and removal of stitches. Friends and family from all around the world have been sending their love and best get-well vibes. We are thankful for the French healthcare system, as mystifying as it is, it worked. Yes there is room for improvement, but my DB’s good health has been restored and we are enormously grateful to all the people who made things go right.