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Notes From Inside the French Medical System

France Narrative
by Bill Brown Sep 11, 2012
After a bike accident, Bill Brown researches the workings of a Provence hospital.

WHEN YOU FLIP OVER THE HANDLEBARS of your bicycle and execute a face plant that rips open your chin and results in 12 stitches (“6 for repair, and 6 for beauty,” the ER doctor explains) in a foreign country, be prepared for everyone you meet to make the same dumb joke about how your brand-new scar is a “souvenir from [blank],” where [blank] is the country where it happened, which in my case was France.

My memory of the accident is hazy, which is what happens when you get knocked out. You don’t remember an accident like that. Instead, there’s the before and the after, like the two frayed ends of a broken thread, and there’s an indeterminate amount of space in between. The missing thread.

Weeks later, my friend the Anglican priest will remind me about St. Paul, who famously fell off his horse on the road to Damascus. That’s when he had a vision and converted to Christianity. A trauma to the head can do that to you. My friend asks me if I had a vision after I fell off my bike. I tell him no. Not yet, anyway. Maybe some visions take a while to form. The way an image sent back to Earth from an interplanetary probe takes time to resolve. Drifting across all that empty space. Bit by bit. Pixel by pixel.

My head clears up in the little village of Ménèrbes, which is famous for being the place where Peter Mayle lived when he wrote A Year in Provence, which I’ve never read, but which is described on as “witty and warm-hearted” and is ranked 19,184th in sales. It’s the memoir of an English guy who, sick of grey old England, realizes his dream of buying a farmhouse in the south of France, where he battles the 15th-century plumbing and flies into orgasmic ecstasy every time he bites into a local baguette. If you spend any time at all in Ménèrbes, you’re sure to hear about Peter Mayle, and your girlfriend’s parents will insist on showing you the movie A Good Year, which is based on another book that Mayle wrote, and you’ll have to pretend that you liked it and thought Russell Crowe was pretty good in it as the stockbroker who inherits a vineyard from his uncle.

My girlfriend’s mom drives me up to Ménèrbes. While she rushes off to find the doctor, I stand in the little plaza in front of the Truffle Museum. The Truffle Museum was started by the mayor, a right-wing politician who used to produce softcore porno movies. A man in a double-breasted black chef’s coat comes out of the museum. I’ve attracted his notice, probably because it’s not every day that a guy appears in the middle of the village without a shirt on because he’s using it to sop up the blood squirting out of his chin. The man offers me a stool. I say thanks and sit down.

A doctor drops by and takes a look at my face. “Yuck,” he says.

The village doctor isn’t in the office today, so Sabine’s mom drives me to the hospital in Cavaillon, the big town down the road. Cavaillon is old-school Provence. The kind of place where tough-looking guys sit in front of cafes with their shirts unbuttoned, drinking pastis and giving you a hard stare as you walk by. The hospital is old school, too. It definitely doesn’t show up in any of Peter Mayle’s books, unless there’s a chapter about someone who slices off his pinkie while cutting fresh lavender for a garden party, or who needs his stomach pumped after eating too many candied melons and chocolate croissants. When I walk into the ER, a dad and his two young sons are already sitting in there. They look up at me, bloody and shirtless. The kids perk up. Like maybe their trip to the hospital wasn’t a total waste of time after all.

The ER nurse calls me back. Sabine translates, telling the guy what happened. He listens. Bored. This is a country where motor scooters driven at high speeds collide spectacularly with road-raging maniacs in delivery vans. People get smeared across the roads of Provence all the time in the kind of accidents that require body parts to be painstakingly separated from engine parts. So a guy who falls off his bike and splits open his chin just isn’t all that interesting. A doctor drops by and takes a look at my face. “Yuck,” he says.

After I’m bandaged up, a frowning orderly with Chinese characters tattooed on his bulging bicep wheels me off to the CT scanner. He seems like the kind of guy who, if he hasn’t actually killed anyone, has probably broken a few noses or ruptured a few spleens in his day. In fact, his experience rearranging human anatomy may be what qualified him for this job at the hospital. “Oui,” he must have told the job interviewer, “I have a lot of experience with mangled bodies.” I stare up as water-stained ceiling tiles and flickering florescent tubes flash by, wondering at the turn of fortune that led me from a pleasant bike ride in the French countryside to being carted around a half-empty hospital by a homicidal gangster. I consider myself lucky when I make it to the x-ray department without getting kidnapped.

Sufficiently irradiated, I’m wheeled back to the ER for some stitches. The doctor is a nice guy with a shaved head who speaks pretty good English. While he pumps my chin full of anesthetic, he tells me what he likes best about the US is the fly fishing. “Moan-tana eez good,” he says. “Zhere ahr may-nee feesh een Moan-tana.” I get 12 stitches — my souvenir from France, hah hah. Sabine asks the orderly with the tattoos if there are any instructions before I get released. “No, no!” he yells. “Of course not!” Then he turns to me and rolls his eyes. “Women worry too much.”

It turns out I have to go back to the hospital every other day for a week to get my stitches cleaned and my bandages changed. Each visit, Sabine and I wait in a little room with mismatched chairs till I get called in. The nurse is a cheerful lady who wears designer eyeglasses and speaks French in the precisely articulated way French people speak to people who don’t speak French. As someone who doesn’t know much French, I can confirm this is a surprisingly effective technique and better, I think, than my dad’s approach of yelling at people who don’t speak English, as if screamed English is more understandable than English spoken in a conversational tone.

“Your hand is noble and brave,” he’s probably thinking, “but you — pfft! You are a cowardly snail.”

The nurse creates a homemade bandage for my chin. Then she looks at me and laughs because I look totally stupid, like a man wearing a lopsided fake goatee. This is France, so it’s okay to laugh in someone’s face when they look stupid. In general, the French aren’t shy about letting you know when you’re stupid. They consider it a service. Like the only reason you’re as stupid as you are is because someone hasn’t plainly told you so. The nurse decides to hide my homemade bandage under a few strips of respectable-looking white gauze that she wraps several times around my head.

Three days after my accident, my left hand, the one with the nasty gash, swells up and my thumb goes numb. I’m worried I’ve picked up an antibiotic-resistant super-pathogen from the hospital, so I ask Sab to take me back to the ER. The doctor makes me get an x-ray, because no trip to the emergency room is complete without getting a high dose of radiation. Remember Marie Curie? French. X-ray scientist. Victim of radiation poisoning. The orderly with the tattoos is there. He’s not happy to see me. He gives me a withering look as he wraps my swollen hand under a thousand layers of bandages, deciding, I guess, that a spineless weasel like me shouldn’t be allowed to set eyes on his injured hand ever again. “Your hand is noble and brave,” he’s probably thinking, “but you — pfft! You are a cowardly snail.”

For the next three weeks, I worry about the hospital bill. I don’t have travelers insurance, and I can only imagine how much all this is going to cost. It doesn’t help when the hospital calls Sabine’s mom and tells her they don’t accept credit cards and I’ll have to bring my payment in cash, precise to the penny. For days, I try to figure out how I’m going to get my hands on 3 or 4 thousand euros in cash. A few days later, the hospital calls with the total. 226.80 euros, which is like $290.

As I’m leaving the hospital billing office, I see the orderly with the tattoos. He looks me up and down. Bandages on my head and on my arms. He smiles faintly. “Au revoir, Monsieur le Velo,” he says. Farewell, Mr. Bicycle.

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