Until recently, I’ve thought, I don’t yet have enough personal experience with or knowledge of the French health care system to write about it with any real insight.
Six weeks ago, that changed. At least the personal experience part.
It’s funny — at just that same time I was learning about the disastrous US health care bill, and grasping how vulnerable we are. I mean, if we were to return to the States tomorrow, without jobs or other connection to the system, we’d be … screwed. If I got sick, even something mild, say; if The Frenchman needed a checkup, which is inevitable; if god forbid le petit garçon has a toothache or BREAKS HIS ARM … well, you can see where this is going, can’t you?
OK, I’ll set down my coffee for a moment and proceed with my point.
I am not unaware that we are fortunate, here, to at least have access. Simple, basic access and a flat fee each time we visit the doctor. Ninety bucks a month for additional insurance. Affordable. Reasonable.
All this, as it turned out, was necessary six weeks ago when, out of the blue, Life enrolled us in a crash course whose syllabus included: emergency room, expectation, disappointment, kindness, a grammar lesson, appreciation, and more kindness.
After an afternoon of playing with a dear friend who was returning home after a year in Toulouse, le petit garçon and I headed home, he riding his new hand-me-down trottinette, or scooter. We’d gone not twenty
when his wheel caught the edge of a sidewalk under repair and down he went.
When I picked him up, his cry told me that this was a different pain than usual. We sat on the sidewalk for a moment, him in my lap in tears, checking to see what could move and what couldn’t. I uttered my phrase du moment: What the fuck? What now? Do I have to call an ambulance, and if so how? Who do I know with a car? Where is the emergency room, the nearest hospital? Why did it not occur to me to just call a cab, as someone later suggested?
Fortunately, Grace landed him about two doors down from a doctor. Who wasn’t in at the moment, it was lunchtime, natch; but we called to see if she had any appointments. The minute he heard that we might go to a doctor — I just want to go home and go to sleep — le petit garçon began to wail. Making an already-challenging interaction infinitely more difficult. I’m trying to explain what happened, and convey specific details like my phone number which starts zerosixquatrevingtdixneufquatrevingtdixhuit, and then figure out what time she’s available. Did she say fourteen or sixteen? Or fifteen?
I’ve a six-year-old yowling in one ear, and in the other: Non madame — quinze heure vingt, IN ONE HOUR! Like I am a complete idiot. OK, I can roll with this one, I think, because the bigger battle is this one in my arms. So I take it.
Sitting on the sidewalk, I marvel momentarily that the stars aligned just-so to take care of us. Doctor is available soon. Damage doesn’t appear to be life-threatening. Friends might still be at home. A pause for Thank Yous.
|gratuitous adorableness for visual pause, by Shamma Esoof and thanks to My Modern Met|
Though their train leaves in less than two hours our friends are still at home so we return to their apartment to wait. Their final moments in Toulouse, and le petit garçon is too exhausted to take interest. When he turns down a crêpe with Nutella, I know it’s serious. We cuddle, hard, as Molly would say.
An hour later, the doctor, after administering some blessed Dolipran to ease the pain, nods to me knowingly: Go to the Urgence.
And so, clearly, today will not contain anything close to what we’d planned or expected. I thought of Venus Williams at her post-match press conference the day before: “Life, you can't prepare for everything. I prepared for a lot of matches, tried to get ready for whatever my opponent will throw at you, but you can't prepare for everything. I have no idea what tomorrow will bring. That's all I can say about it. That's what I've learned."
I had no idea how to get to the Urgence, with our maybe-broken arm and my three bags and basil plant and the offending trottinette and my bicycle. But we made a plan, and we set out, slowly and gently, to the tram.
We board, find a seat, and exhale audibly. I am so consumed with calling The Frenchman and ushering le petit garçon to a seat safely and managing my bags and wiping tears, I forget to buy a ticket. And lo, this turns out to be the one day that the tram officer gets on to check that everyone has theirs, something I’ve never, ever seen happen before.
He brusquely asks for ours. I scan my brain. “Monsieur,” I begin, with a pleading note in my voice, I’m sorry. My son may have just broken his arm and I’m taking him to the Urgence and we didn’t get our ticket yet. I dig in my bag as he hovers over us, as if I’m going to find something there? His not-very-good mood is palpable.
Can you move your fingers? he asks gruffly.
Le petit garçon wiggles them.
It’s not broken, he confidently diagnoses, and exits the train, leaving us hanging, mouths agape.
As the train pulls away it starts pouring rain outside. It subsides eight stops later as we pull up to the Urgence Enfants. Inside, everyone’s so kind and sweet with this kid who is clearly overwhelmed by injured children, crying babies, activity, wondering what this is all about. The intake nurse has just the right words for him, the doctor is amiable, the x-ray technicians manage the menacing machines with grace and good humor.
We wait for the results. C’est cassé, the doctor pronounces abruptly. Broken.
And so commences another wailing-and-crying period so melodramatic I can barely make out a word the doctor’s saying. By that point I am exhausted, I’ve done this whole thing in French, I am one to ask questions and seek details but I can’t really do it anymore. I neglected to tell this doctor that I’m not French, please speak slowly, and it’s not his fault of course that I can’t catch half of what he’s rattling off to us. But I’m oversaturated.
In short order he’s mixed up a batch of plaster and has started to put on the cast, my child awash in tears, and over the noise he’s telling me something about four weeks, come back, can’t get wet, somethingsomething.
This isn’t how I wanted my thirteenth blog post to unfold, but there it is, Life delivering its lesson on its own timeline.
|Commando by Sophie Gamand, thanks to My Modern Met.|
Fast-forward, as they say, to six weeks and two days later.
The word plâtre has become part of my daily vocabulary. I find it a lovely word to write, the same way I like to write “pâte” or ‘fête’. Did you know that the little hat marks the former presence of a no-longer-pronounced consonant, most often S? You can imagine words like plaster, meaning in this case plaster cast, and fest, and host and pasta and their French counterparts, whose accent circonflexe pays tribute to an S which used to be there. Arrêter = arreste! Ancêtre = ancestor! Hôpital! Forêt! I am in love with this petit chapeau.
|seeking solace from a bird of a feather|
We were told it would be on for four weeks, so the hospital set up a return rendezvous, ostensibly for a final x-ray and cast removal. But since we were traveling to Normandy we cancelled, and booked our appointment instead at the children’s hospital in Caen. We kept a calendar, marking off every day which brought us closer to the four-week mark signaling freedom.
However, Life once again intervened: we arrived, prepared for success, and discovered that this hospital insisted on a strict six weeks for casts, no discussion.
Fair enough, was my thinking; better fully-healed than sorry. But of course upon hearing this le petit garçon melted. They were all so kind, and talked with him so directly and with genuine concern, my heart was full and breaking at the same time. All I felt I could do was empathize, and say that this, sweet heart, is disappointment in action. I get it too.
We looked sadly at the beach gear we’d piled in the back of the car in anticipation of racing directly from the hospital into the water. We bought a new pair of soccer cleats to cheer us up, and ate ice cream. We found a king-size plastic glove at the pharmacy so we could still play at the beach and build sandcastles and dip our toes in the water without hesitation. We managed.
Back at home, after a safe six-plus-that-felt-like-sixty weeks have passed, we’ve an appointment to remove the plâtre. But this time, I’m not banking on anything. I tamper our excitement with regular reality checks. The likelihood is that it will not work out as we think, or hope, or expect. Maybe they’ll be on strike. Or holiday. Or will have lost our reservation. You never know.
But we arrive at the Clinique Rive Gauche, and the secretary has his name on the schedule, and we find the office.
Have a seat, they say. X-ray first, and then we’ll remove the cast.
Remove?? I allow a sliver of excitement in.
The doctor’s cheerful and friendly. Looks good, he says. Let’s take it off. We sit stunned for a moment. Can this be true, at last? Can he be serious? C’mon, he says, let’s go do it.
He takes us into his little room and turns on a machine, some kind of electric pizza cutter, whzzzzz.
Twenty minutes later it’s off, and he assigns le petit garçon five séances of kinestherapy, and reassures us that it’ll be a little tender and the muscles will take time to find themselves again but it’s fully healed and should be fine.
Over the next few days we talk about how strange it feels, and he suggests that maybe it’s a good thing it happened, that his bones will be stronger. We see the bright side. We talk about appreciating what we have, how easy it is to take full use of two arms, this body, for granted. We savor washing both hands really well. Sand in our fingers; getting dressed unaided; bike-riding; opening things. More thank-yous.
In France, it’s been so much about managing expectations. Lowering them, I should say, if not eliminating them entirely. You go out, you start off down the street, you think you’ll make it to the end of the block. Mais non, Madame! Prepare, plan even okay; but then toss the ball up and just see where it lands. Could a person live a whole life free of disappointment, if she managed her expectations instead, and stopped mistaking thoughts for reality? Mm. Let’s see if we can find out.