Antibiotics and bandages in France

In all the years I’ve been knocking around in France I’ve only ever needed medical treatment on one occasion. That was back in 2005, when I had a work accident and ripped my elbow open. The accident happened late in the day and I didn’t realise just how bad the injury was. I bandaged-up my elbow, started hitting the vin rouge and later went to bed. The next morning I was somewhat alarmed to discover blood on the sheets. In front of the bathroom mirror I took the bloodstained bandage off and could see bone through the ripped skin. However, I wasn’t in any pain and felt ok. I had to drive someone to the airport at lunchtime, and decided to do that first before going to the hospital. The small hospital is in my nearest small town here in middle-of-nowhere France. As I laid on the treatment couch I asked the doctor how many stitches he was putting in, and thought he said six (sees). “Non, sez”. It took more than 30 minutes for the doctor to put in those 16 stitches, and during the procedure he admonished me for my bad French.

I left the hospital with a prescription. Just about every village in France, no matter how small, has a boulangerie. Most villages also have a hairdressers and a pharmacy. In my village a haircut costs 10 Euro, but the prescription cost me more than 50 Euro: a large carrier bag full of bandages and potions and lotions and antibiotics. The hospital prescribed me a huge dose of antibiotics, because I’d left it for almost 24 hours before having my elbow seen to (the antibiotics left me zonked for more than a month). The antibiotics, and one box of bandages, were the only items I used from that bulging carrier bag.

The French health care system is almost always voted as the best in the world, but it don’t come cheap. The basic rate of income tax in France is quite low. However, those earning a wage in France are also hit with about 20% Sécurité Sociale payments, meaning, with income tax as well, that about 40% of your wage is taken (which is why an awful lot of work in France is done on the black/under the counter/cash-in-hand). As a result of the high social security payments the French expect a lot from their health service. The description ‘hypochondriacs’ comes to mind. Emma Jane Kirby, the former BBC correspondent in Paris, expresses it far better than I can…

When I was a student, living in Avignon in the south of France, I remember waking up one morning shortly before Christmas, feeling shivery and as if someone had spent the night sandpapering my throat.

After a couple of days of wheezing and coughing, I took myself to the doctor and explained that I was feeling a bit ropey.

One hour later I had been diagnosed with a severe lung infection, mild asthma and had in my hand a prescription for six different types of medicine, an appointment at the local hospital’s radiology department and an emergency referral to a specialist in pulmonary disease.

The next day I flew home to the UK for the Christmas holidays where my worried parents persuaded me to visit their local GP for a second opinion.

After five minutes in his consulting room, I emerged empty-handed but with a new diagnosis. I had… a cold.

Emma Jane Kirby
From A curiously French complaint

I’m sure Emma Jane Kirby speaks excellent French. Back in 2005 I didn’t, and when I was in that hospital having my elbow seen to I misunderstood what the doctor said. I thought he was telling me that they were dissolving stitches, that would dissolve in six weeks time. Two months later the stitches had not dissolved and skin was growing over them. I went to see my local doctor, who cheerily informed me that she could remove the embedded stiches, no problem. The next afternoon, after doing a bottle of wine, I went back to have the procedure done.

They could hear my screams in Paris.

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