Tales from

the Loir

A Weekly Column

January 17, 2001 - Guest Columnist

This week's column is a guest one from my wife on a different view of the French system. I plan on having other guest columnists from time to time.

William Glover

There is definitly something about being ill that although I don't know why just seems to bring a vein of vaudeville in me. It always ends up feeling to me just like a goofy sitcom. I guess its just delirious relief to realize this big sick isn't something too terrible, just another amusing but no big deal trip into the theme park of modern medicine. This visit fortunately memorable not from my pneumonia which is certainly the wimpy-est tiny white dash I have ever seen on an X-ray. When I think pneumonia I think snow, like static, this X-ray looks like a pack of spilled sugar would have produced a lot more white. I am positive if I hadn't run a fever and been HIV-positive that someone at quality control would have sent me home from the salle d'urgence (emergency room) and told me to come back when I got really sick. I never even started breathing hard. No, I may have pneumonia but I have had more discomfort from a bad case of hay fever.

My current visit is memorable only because it is my first visit to medicine's EuroPark. That is to say my first up close and personal encounter with the French health care. I actually have been close before with my grandmother's seizure and brain tumor but that was serious and not light comic opera like this. Happily all the French doctors, nurses and support staff have performed with same kindness and skill under conditions infinitely less critical.

My problem started simply enough. Bill had a bad case of the flu the previous week. I spent a cold damp morning waiting in my unheated studio for the electric company to show up and turn on the power. When I got sick that afternoon neither of us thought panic but just that I had Bill's flu. For a couple of days it seem exactly like that. I even felt better on Saturday, but Sunday morning I had a nasty fever. I took a ibuprofen but when the fever started climbing again late that afternoon I didn't want to wait. We did the sensible thing; panic, American-style. So Bill, I, our papers, dictionaries, thermometers, our algebraic equations trying to figure out what my temperature was in Celsius, and a bottle of Evian bottle bundled in the Mercedes for a trip to the salle d'urgence at Hopital Central de Vendome. Loading up with water to keep my fever down to just the right state of wretchness for someone to see me immediately.

I would have been seen immediately anyway because there was no line. That's right kids, in the middle of the wettest coldest January in a long time there was no huge coughing room filled with the huddled masses of misery. When looking for the entrance, I peered into the window of L-shaped closet and saw a sign that said emergency waiting room. It had five chairs and two people sitting at opposite ends trying not to breath in the same direction. Culture shock was setting in fast. The waiting room also didn't have a door to the outside. A kindly paramedic noticed our confused lurking and showed us the entry.

In came the GLOVERs. The capitol letters are not for emphasis, To avoid confusion, Europeans write last names all in caps and GLOVER is a last name particularly hard for the French to understand. But everyone was friendly and we muddled through. Temperature taken and noted. A trip to pee in a cup and that long cold walk to Radiography. The answer arrived immediately, the little dash dashing across my right lung. The Pulmonary Specialist arrived and we all took a sober look at my dashing new buddy. The doctor departed. The next round of tests. My first arterial stick to make sure my blood gases were good. They were normal. Blood pressure, blood test, etc., all fine. I got started on fluids and the doctor showed up again. She explains all this to me and that I will be admitted and get IV antibiotics etc. I was expecting to be admitted. No problem.

Here is where the whole thing goes from odd to pycodelic. The doctor, who is a very sympathetic and clearly very competent woman in her forties, finishes explaining everything twice in detail and then just stands there. Just stands there. Now for a moment I am just too stunned to say anything. A doctor just standing around? I told her I understood that I would be admitted. I told her I thought it was a good plan thinking she must need a reply from me before running off to do other doctor stuff. She thanked me and smiled and loitered. It's indelicate but true. I've loitered often enough to know it when I see it. Now it dawned on me. This waiting has something to do with me. Immediately my fear factor shoots through the roof. Doctors wait around with patients for ventilation tubes and the retrieval of their right legs or other misplace body parts or maybe if a relative is code blue in the next room. I had gotten something for my fever but I got all shaky and sweaty on just nerves. I laid on the gurney too scared to talk and everyone else (Bill, the ER nurse, the doctor) just standing around for most of the night which is to say about four minutes.

Then a large comfortable neat bed with very cheerful yellow stripes arrived. I got in my cheerful bed and a new person hung my IV bag. Bill and I being good Americans had brought the bare minimum which is to say too much. Everyone including the doctor grabbed something. No one seemed to be willing to ruin the bed's sharp creases with such a lowly task as portaging my gear. So we set off at a dignified pace of a pack of snails with me riding in front like a Pharaoh on a pleasure trip up the Nile. But just as we rounded the corner a technician ran up with my dangling shoes. Everyone else's hands being full, my Doctor grabbed my shoes and carried them to my room. Dorthy, you are not in Kansas any more. Now no offense to the many medical personal who get this message but this had to be the most affirming thing any doctor has ever done for me to make me feel like a person. She (my doctor) was important but for me to feel comfortable and to keep my dignity on that bed was important too. Who hasn't handed over their clothes and their control in a hospital? Who can't remember the heavy weight of the vulnerablity that their loss brings? That familiar weight was suddenly lighter than I can ever remember inside a ward's double doors.

If this sounds like I'm advocating for a national health care system for everyone, it is. If this sounds like a rebuke to uncountable health care professionals who have treated and occassionally treated me rudely, it is not. American doctors and nurses are probably minimally ten times more capable. They work putting out brushfires under perpetual wartime conditions, in a insane system that won't really fund preventative or early care yet will fund the horrible endgame of disease and death. Those men and women galantly play Catch 22 every day to keep us poor smucks alive. There is no time for courtesy when lives are on the line. No, this is no indictment of health care worker's manners. I only ask if this strikes a cord, if talks to why so many people are willing to give money to snake oil salesman rather than listen to tired overworked doctors who don't have the time to find the proper language to help a terrified patient find the courage make life and death choices in a space of a five-minutes. If it speaks to any sneaking suspicion that medicine does have to work in our familiar emergency room rut for all it's drama. That an ER waiting room could be a L-shaped closet with windows and five chairs. Make your voice heard. If you have always disagreed with nationalized health care on principle, at least for a moment, concider such a world, such a waiting room free of prejudice. In the end I would think only positive thoughts about my many varied roller coaster trips to MEDIWORLD USA. It's because in my heart I know if the crazy system would give them the time every doctor who has treated me would have carried my shoes.

Aprille Best GLOVER, the other GLOVER

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January 10, 2001 - Muscadet
January 3, 2001 - Ode to Protein
December 27, 2000 - Summer Dreaming: Escargot
December 20, 2000 - Let Them Eat Cake
December, 13 2000 - Back to France
November 29, 2000 -Beignets Aux Fleurs d'Acacia
November 15, Thanksgiving
November 8, Pouse D'Epine
November 1, 2000 Col de Vence: A day on the Moon
October 25, 2000 Cult of the Black Virgin
October 18, 2000 Harvesting Grapes by Hand
October 4, 2000 Provence: All Good Things




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