A friend has just informed us that he had to have an emergency gall-bladder removal, which reminded me of this article from 2008 when we had only been in France for 18 months.

NO, IT’S not due to some trendy new diet, but to a short stay in a French Hospital.

A couple of months ago I went to my doctors because I had a pain in my back. I also experienced a very strange pain under my ribs after I had drunk a small glass of Chartreuse.  A scan revealed an enlarged liver and gallstones in my gallbladder (vesicule). The next step was to see a specialist at the St. Andre Clinic. Now, I don’t know what the word “Clinic” conjures up for you, but for me, we used to go to the clinic to have our teeth checked by the school dentist and to the clinic to have babies weighed. Both were very small establishments with perhaps 5 employees. In Reims there are 3 clinics each the size of a hospital.  My specialist at the St Andre clinic recommended surgery as a stone could easily move into the bile duct, block it and cause liver failure at any time. I was offered a date before Christmas, but wanted to be back in the UK with the family so opted for 5th January. I often say that you have to be quite fit to be sick in France as you are given so many things to do if you go to see a doctor. The wad of papers that I came away with included a prescription for some support stockings, a paper to take to our health insurer to check that we were covered for the cost of the hospital stay, and an appointment with the anaesthetist, and an inordinately long list of towels of various sizes that I would require for my hospital stay.

            I had to arrive at the clinic on the Sunday afternoon before my operation the next day. At the reception, we waited to be booked in by a clerk, which involved signing various pieces of paper, presenting my “Carte Vitale” and paying upfront for the stay, 150 euros. I could also opt for a telephone, a television and some other extras each of which carried an extra charge.

            We were then given the building number, floor and a room number. We found the right corridor and the nurse’s station and were directed to a double room with ensuite bathroom and shower. When the nurses knew that I was English they all spoke very slowly and clearly. I was very grateful for that because my fear was not about the operation but about being an English person in a French hospital.

            After Graham left I was alone with just my Collins pocket dictionary for support. Its introduction states that it contains a wealth of modern and idiomatic phrases not normally found in a volume of comparable size. It does not lie. It has been my saviour on numerous occasions. But could it cope with an operation on my ‘vésicule‘?

            After a nurse had checked my name, the reason for my stay and given me an identity bracelet, another nurse appeared who wanted to shave me! (raser). As I had to undress from the waist down, she obviously wasn’t worried about the hairs on my chin! This was quite a shock as the NHS in the UK abandoned this practise long ago. There were no curtains between my bed and the bed next door so there was no possibility of privacy, only the hope that your roommate will avert their eyes! Perhaps I will get used to standing ½ naked in front of medical practitioners. The French are a lot less uptight about it that I am used to.   

            The anaesthetist called in just to check that I had arrived. I was relieved that he didn’t go through the checklist of allergies and illnesses again which I had gone through at a separate appointment. I remember being very irritated in the UK having to go through that list with 3 different personnel one after the other and thinking, why don’t they look at the form their colleague has just been through with me.

            Another practitioner came to take a “Prise de sang” which amounted to 6 phials of blood, albeit small ones!

            My light “léger” evening meal arrived, which couldn’t have been any lighter without being non-existent, a bowl of bouillon and chocolate yoghurt. “Oh, well my post-Christmas diet has started”, I thought.

            The last act of the evening was to take a shower. I was given a bottle of brown liquid and told to wash not just my body but my hair as well. In the bathroom was an illustrated card detailing the exact method to use. First the hair and the face, then the body, not forgetting the ‘aisselles‘ (armpits), ‘nombril‘ (navel) and a word my dictionary couldn’t cope with but as “plier” means “to fold” I supposed must mean creases. I must use one of my two “gants de toilette” (bathmit) and dry with a clean “ serviette de toilette”(towel) of which I had had to bring four.

            The next morning I had to have another hair-wash and shower using some more brown liquid and fresh towels and this time to dress in a disposable surgical gown. I wonder if any cases of MRSA have managed to evade such a thorough system of prevention?

            By this time I had got to know the lady in the bed next to me. She had lived in Reims all her life and would have been born in the city had her mother not had to flee during the First World War. During the Second World War her husband had been a prisoner in a German concentration camp and she had sheltered English and American servicemen in her house. She said that the English were “sage” (well behaved) but the Americans were not and kept looking out of the windows. Fortunately she had good neighbours and received certificates from the British and American governments for her bravery. I had just been reading a book about the Bedford Triangle and the Carpetbagger flights to drop supplies and resistance workers into occupied Europe during the war, and had read about the reprisals that the Germans did to people at that time. Would you put your life and that of your family and neighbours on the line for stupid Americans who couldn’t resist looking outof the windows?

            After the operation I found myself back in bed and connected to a drip. My blood pressure and temperature were taken regularly and I was asked if I was in pain. It didn’t start to hurt until everything started to knit together and then any movement pulled at the wounds. As soon as I said that I had some pain the drip was replaced with something that ameliorated it. There was a chart in the welcome pack that said to grade your pain from 1-10 and that the nurses’ mission was to get rid of small pains and to lessen bad ones. 

            I was impressed that anything that we needed was done with cheerfulness. My roommate had had a bowel operation and needed pads. These were offered regularly without her having to ask. The bedpan was brought in the middle of the night with only a cheerful comment about the feebleness of my efforts. Sterilizing hand rub was used by the nurses after each contact and also offered to us. 

            Unfortunately my “léger” regime continued that evening with a repeat of the bowl of bouillon and the chocolate yogurt. By the next morning I was awake at 6.00 and longing for the sound of the breakfast trolley. To my horror I was obviously still on light meals as only a packet of 2 melba toasts and a cup of coffee arrived. At least my neighbour got a bread roll! My nice lady surgeon visited after breakfast and brought me a phial containing my 14 gallstones, all nicely flattened where they had been squashed in against each other. Proof of her hard work. She asked if I wanted to go home before or after lunch and I replied, ”before” in case I was still on the “light menu” list. 

            As I said, you need to be quite fit in order to be ill in France. My leaving instructions were to go to the payment clerk to settle anything remaining on the bill, go to the office of the surgeon to get an “arrêt de travaille” and a prescription for painkillers and 10 daily anti- thrombosis injections, go to the chemist to get the prescriptions and arrange for another blood test from my doctor!

            The “arrêt de travaille” certificate proved to be for 2 weeks. During this time you must remain in your house during working hours and an inspector could call at any time to check that you are not working. Friends have told us that you can creep out at lunch times because no self-respecting French inspector would visit during his lunch break.           

            We arrived home from the hospital and waited all day for the nurse to come and give me the next anti-thrombosis injection. Then the neighbour called round and said that it was up to us to phone the local nurse to ask her to call. He looked in the telephone book and found one who lived just around the corner. She was very obliging and when she heard that I had not had my dose for that day, arrived within half an hour. She said that I would need another blood test to check my “plaquettes”(blood cells) so that’s another phone call to the doctor and a trip out to the laboratory. But without doubt I will be given the results of the test by the end of the day, together with a list of norms within which my results should lie.

            I have a follow-up appointment to go to with my surgeon/specialist in a month’s time, by which time we will have had experience of almost all of the facilities that the French health service provides.

            All that remains is to fill out the questionnaire given me by the clinic. Of the 20 or so questions asked I shall have to tick the box marked “bon” in every case, if there was a box for “excellent” I would happily have ticked that. The only question that I am hesitating over is the one about ‘Quantity of food’. Is it fair to leave them scratching their heads by leaving a great big tick in the “Insuffisant” box?

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