Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Cat in the Throat: Adventures with the French Medical System

In my previous post, I talked about how I had a doctor's appointment at the Nantes Office Français de l'Immigration et de l'Intégration.

Little I know that a few weeks later, I would have the occasion to experience second doctor's visit.

It all started to go south for me last Friday afternoon. I had just finished working and decided to take a nap around 3 p.m. so I could be fully replenished to grade my disturbingly-increasing pile of tests and quizzes. When I woke up later in the evening, I realized that my body suffered from a fever, aches and pains and that I had the unmistakable scratchy feeling that is a sore throat around my vocal chord area.

Seeing as how my uninsured American self had become accustomed to not visiting a doctor in over six years over the slightest sniffle, I shrugged the sick feeling and took some fizzy Alka Seltzer Plus tablets in the hope that whatever was afflicting me would magically vanish by the following day.

(Side note: This is exactly the same strategy I had when one Sunday evening, during my Freshman year at university, I woke up in the middle of the night and proceeded to vomit six times in the span of two hours. I was at the point where I had nothing else to expunge from my stomach except blood. Most normal, insured people wouldn't have hesitated to call 911 to have an ambulance whisk them away to the nearest hospital. My solution was to shrug it off, go back to sleep and hope that I would feel well enough to attend class the next morning, which I actually did.)

I spent Saturday and Sunday feeling miserable, fighting the urge to rip out my throat from all the coughing and nearly rubbing my nose raw from all the Kleenex tissues I used to rid my nose of snot. I still had hope that my health would improve by Monday morning.

Monday came, and with it a text message from a colleague that shook me from my stupor. I got out of bed, stumbled in zombie fashion out of my room, then, dazed and disoriented, shuffled back into my room in time to hear the last ring on my cell phone before the call went straight to voice mail.

Within a few minutes, my colleague called me again. I answered.

It was at that point that I realized that my stricken vocal chords had not had any use over night except to cough sporadically. My poor colleague must have thought that she had just contacted the chain-smoking tenor of an ogre barbershop quartet who unfortunately had a frog stuck in his throat.

(By the way, the French equivalent of "having a frog in one's throat" is "avoir un chat dans la gorge," in which the amphibian is replaced by a creature of the feline variety.)

Alarmed by my sudden dip in octaves, my colleague firmly stated "You must go to see a doctor."

I mentioned that I had been starting to feel better, but still she insisted.

"It doesn't matter. You should still see a doctor. Make an appointment and go see the doctor*."

I called the nearest centre medical and the receptionist said that doctor so-and-so didn't have an opening until Wednesday morning. Now, in my workaholic mind, that wasn't going to cut it because I had to teach three classes that day. Besides, what would my employer, the high school principal, say? I expected something around the lines of "Sorry, you can't go because it coincides with your work schedule."

Just the opposite happened: when I told him that the next available appointment was for Wednesday morning, he was completely understanding about it. No trouble at all. In fact, he even encouraged me to see a doctor as soon as possible and to ask the gentleman at the Vie Scolaire to give me a lift.

I'll admit that I was a bit stunned by how easily it all went down.

On Tuesday, I functioned on the illusion that I was feeling better in the morning. That illusion shattered because I continued to cough and strained my vocal chords teaching seven lessons (Tuesdays provide me with the heaviest workload).

I had hot flashes followed by periods of chills that coursed through my body. At times, I felt woozy and lost in my thoughts. I should have taken a hint that my playing this funky psychedelic tune over and over again in my head was a symptom of being on a natural high.

I also think that I genuinely frightened a couple of my co-workers when they heard me mumbling the lyrics in the teacher's lounge.

The following day, the cat in the throat disappeared completely and took with it my voice. Whenever I tried to emit any noise from my now-defunct vocal chords, something between the discordant notes of an out-of-tune violin and dog whimpers came out. I had lost my ability to speak.

Still, I could communicate by writing things down. I jotted down my symptoms so I could avoid having to resort to vividly gesticulating like an Italian air traffic controller. Armed with my totally anal-retentive meticulous A2 notebook, I headed out to the centre medical.

When I walked into the office, the nurses greeted me, asked me when and with whom my appointment was and directed me to the doctor's waiting room.

That was it. No paperwork to sign, no one asking me to provide proof of medical insurance, nothin'.

Things got interesting once I saw the doctor in question. He asked me for my carte vitale, the green insurance card that every French citizen (or in my case, broke-ass American workers legally residing in France) has. I was fortunate enough to still have my old card from the days when I still lived in Dijon.

For legal reasons/crippling paranoia, I decided to not post an actual photo of my carte vitale and thus opted to make a cartoon of what it roughly looks like.

He placed the card in a machine to scan it and up popped all of my medical history on his computer's screen. Then he did the examination.

Diagnosis: une bronchite. Bronchitis.

That's right: I apparently have a bronco that suffers from inflammation in my chest. It seems that no matter where I go, I can never escape horses these days. (I kid. I know what bronchitis is.)

Boy, was I ever glad that I listened to my colleague and took her advice.

I paid 23 Euros for the consultation, which will eventually be partly reimbursed by la Sécurité Sociale (la Sécu). It is to my knowledge that apart from the money that la Sécu pays for, the French also have the option of paying for une mutuelle, extra medical insurance that the Sécu doesn't cover. They are the ones responsible for providing you with the money in case you become gravely ill and need to be hospitalized.

Unlike the typical HMOs back home, la mutuelle actually does their job of providing you with proper healthcare instead of milking you with deductibles, increasing premiums and denying coverage because you have a pre-existing condition.

And get this: depending on your status (if you are single, married or have a family), extra medical insurance generally costs 150 Euros every six months per person. That's give or take 25 Euros a month.

This is worth repeating: TWENTY-FIVE EUROS a month. I know some singleton American friends who pay eighty dollars and up a month for medical coverage. A month.

I'll take French health care any day, thank you very much.

Anyway, the doctor's prescription featured taking several medications...

And I do mean SEVERAL medications. Medications galore! With the carte vitale, it all came to 23,83 Euros.

Oh, and check out these enormous antibiotic pills. I won't lie: I genuinely feared the possibility of choking to death on something that is, in theory, supposed to heal me.
Not actually recommended by the doctor, but eating a few squares certainly perked me up. (I'll worry about staving the "diabeetus" later.)

...and an arrêt maladie. With the doctor's orders, I got a form that I provided to my employer in which I got the rest of the week off work. This is one of the very few times I have ever had to call in sick and I am grateful for people who understand that I needed enough time to recuperate (whether legally obligated or not).

Yet something didn't feel right. A little nagging voice kept repeating that I needed to work, that it wasn't right for me to be taking days off work to be sick, especially when I have the responsibility of teaching several groups of middle school and high school students. That voice insisted that all I needed to do was buck up and keep on trekkin' despite my maladie.

Then, in one sudden moment of clarity, I had the insight about the French medical way of thinking: I'M SICK. I NEED TO SEE A DOCTOR SO I CAN FEEL BETTER AND EVENTUALLY GET BACK TO WORK.


Why is it that something so obvious is difficult to comprehend?

Lesson learned: when sick, go see a doctor and rest.

And grade the increasing pile of tests and quizzes.

*Not to be confused with The Doctor. Pity. I wish he could have cured me.

Barb the French Bean


  1. Well I'm glad you did go to the doctor. It's just something you're going to have to get used to now. You really can go see the doctor, and actually get better! Then again I live in the land of the NHS and hate going to see my doctor.

  2. Maaan, I've only ever had frogs in my throat - I'm unreasonably jealous of your cat.

    Yay for universal healthcare!

  3. Yes, yes, rub in your fancy French health care! Hey, it's not my fault I live in a third world country.

    Wait, I don't? Then why am I paying $110 a month for insurance? :( (And that's the cheap one, mind you)

  4. I'm glad you will rest, take medications, and eat Dairy Milk chocolate. I hope you will feel better soon. Thank you for your good-natured exploration of French health care. We need some in the USA. Please send The Doctor and some Cadbury chocolate.

  5. Welcome to the wonderland of European socialized medicine! :o)
    And the RIGHT to have sick days! :o)

    As a teacher if you can't speak it's ridiculous to try and "fight through it" and continue working. You only make things worse and lengthen the problem. You're voice is your most important tool, take care of it!

    I hope you're feeling much better now! Courage ma belle! Le chat ne reste jamais trop longtemps... ;o)

  6. The only benefit to living in Massachusetts is that we have Medicare. I'm covered under my mother's insurance until on 26.

    But that unbelievable how understanding French people are. If I called in sick to work with the Black Plague, the response would vary between, "Do you have any surgical masks that you could wear?" to "Get someone to fill for you or you're fired." I knew I should have pursued French beyond college.

  7. I just got over a horrid cold. I really envy the healthcare systems in Europe. They are so much better than ours. Hope you are feeling better. Those antibiotics are total horse pills. Eek.

  8. So glad to live in Canada. But yeah, you and I are going through similar things, body failing during exams.

    Good times.

  9. Just got over a bad one myself - super yuk, isn't it. Here's a pill taking tip for you, 'cause I hate taking big pills. Take a large bite out of a banana, chew it up good, then pop the pill in your mouth. Down she goes, and you won't even notice it!

  10. I hope you're feeling better now. When sick: see doctor and rest. Common sense. Except that every time I read something about the American health care system, I'm reminded that it isn't always that easy.

  11. And to think we're afraid of a health system that works. Hope you're on the mend, the papers are graded and you'll get a lovely holiday break.

  12. I would so by an album of the greatest hits from a chain-smoking tenor of an ogre barbershop quartet.

  13. I found a bunch of good articles on this subject here. Thanks!


Apparently, leaving comments on this blog is a hit-or-miss game of Russian roulette: you are either lucky and can comment away, or you are required to log in when the settings are CLEARLY set to allow trouble-free commenting (sorry 'bout that, folks). If anything, the Facebook page is always a viable option. :) -Barb