Saturday, 15 January 2011

Inside a french hospital

This post is a little longer than usual as it covers in depth my experience of emergency health services and the challenges for a new immigrant sick in a foreign land.

There comes a point where you can no longer look after yourself. By Tuesday I was very ill but staying at home wasn't helping. I thought I could go into work late but as I dragged myself out of bed to get dressed I discovered the weakness and pain were too much for me. Going back to the doctor seemed a waste of time as nothing he had given me helped, in fact I think it made things worse. I began to feel desperate and afraid. I could no longer eat and drink. To take a sip of water resulted in violent vomiting. It takes a lot to make stuff evict my body from either end- this was a disturbing sign. I had not been able to sleep and I was becoming shaky and anxious.

I phoned my work colleagues, at the end of my will-power to help myself. They told me I must go to hospital but I had no idea in my fuddled state what to do. They rang the equivalent of 111 for me. Sometime later a pompier rang me to determine my address and said they'd be on their way in 30 mins. I scraped some spare knickers, my phone, toothbrush and PJs into an overnight bag, unlocked my door and clung to the bed.

I saw two guys in dark grey uniforms carrying kit bags walk past so I let them know, yes it was me. None of this was easy because I was now in a situation for which I had little vocabulary. They asked me some questions, I tried to explain my problem. I locked up while they carried my bag and then installed myself in a seat in the quaint little red truck ambulance. I have never been in an ambulance before. I've always driven myself to hospital, even in emergency situations. It was very cramped. The guys, both young, good-looking and serious, checked my vital signs and asked questions about medicine. I was handed a barf bag. Alas, I needed it but the vomiting was so violent that I couldn't aim properly. They weren't worried about the pool of yellow stomach acid on the floor. We didn't have far to drive but I couldn't see how we got there or where we were. I was wheel-chaired into emergency and there I was left, in distress, a lot of pain, in the corridor where everyone just ignored me apart from the silliness of asking me for my birth name, and went about their cheerful business. Torturous hours went by - maybe only two but it felt much longer.

Eventually I progressed through the questions and pre-admission stuff (including a guy starting to take off my hospital gown without explaining who he was - not a doctor, just an orderly - to being connected to IV -never a pleasant experience) and a room was found for me. Nil by Mouth for two days, under observation, many blood tests, urine tests, ultrasound of my stomach, xray of stomach, scanner of lungs and stomach. I got used to the routine of the nurses and recognised what they were asking me to do even if I didn't understand all the words.

I was very distressed when I saw a list of prices on the wall of my room. I pointed this out to the registrar but he said not to worry, they weren't the USA. I tried not to worry. There was nothing for me to do each day or night except stare at the walls and ceiling. I was so grateful to have my own little room. I could shut out the sounds of a foreign language all around me. I could shut out the noise and light at night.

I was not encouraged to shower despite my request. I was perspiring so badly I needed one but instead I was handed paper towels and told to use the tap and the liquid soap in the toilet. That was tricky with one arm out of action. It got trickier as the days went by and each arm developed venous problems due to the IV. Several unsuccessful attempts to open collapsed veins just added to my misery but I was told there was no choice. I must stay on IV and as soon as one arm became unusable they would switch back to the other one.

The diagnosis from the scan revealed I had a serious lung infection and fever. My GP never picked up on it, declaring my lungs fine both visits and instead prescribed oral steroids-a complete no-no. His medications created havoc in my stomach and left the door open for the infection to rage. A doctor at the hospital said the regime I had been put on by my GP should never have happened. My GP had not listened to my concerns, he was cursory in his examination. Friends of mine in NZ tried to ring him and left a message but this was ignored. I'd like to know what was said when the doctors from the hospital rang him. I will find another doctor- less 'nice' but more competent?

As is normal, there was a range of 'service ethic' across the staff. Some chose to ignore my concerns or requests until too late (problems with side effects of one of the antibiotics-I gave up and suffered). Almost no one spoke any English despite medical degrees-I felt so isolated and lost. One bright spot occurred when a different orderly noticed I wasn't eating the roast chicken or pork or fish or plain yoghurt. He went in search of something to tempt me and came back with some fromage frais for kids in berry flavours. I was so grateful for his observation and thoughtfulness. Later he asked me if I would like a coffee. Yes but could I have a cup of tea? Milk and sugar? He'd get right on to it. I should mention here that it is not usual for cups of tea to have milk supplied in France. That cup of tea, when it arrived with a cookie, was so wonderful. I thanked him profusely and he rushed off to get me another one. Superbe, I said, you are the best. The next day I lost my little room and was moved up to level 3 Cardiopulmonary service.

I shared a room with a very elderly french lady who was almost impossible to understand by her mumbling and breathing problems.I introduced myself and for the next day helped subtly where I could. She was a bit rebellious and didn't want to co-operate and use the oxygen even though she clearly needed it. She would put it down as soon as they left the room so I told staff she was having 'some problems'. They handled her by allowing no rebellion and no negotiation by speaking so she couldn't get a word in edgeways in an unnaturally cheerful way punctuated frequently by loud 'voila's.

By now I had been incommunicado for many days and was becoming anxious that folks back in NZ might be wondering what had happened to me. There was no way for me to contact them. I gave staff Laura's name and her nana's phone number in case of emergency and also Laura's email address as I have no close friends in France. I couldn't phone from my mobile as it's prepay and I didn't have enough credits for international and I didn't have my charger either. My colleagues did what they could by keeping a phone contact with me each day but that was the extent and none of them have Laura's details or access to my studio-I must do something about that next week.

I couldn't sleep so a senior nurse allowed me to use her computer to send Laura a message and for me to leave a message on my blog. There was a firewall preventing access to Facebook, alas-that would have been better. This helped my anxiety somewhat. A small gesture but a kind and important one by the nurse so I could let folks know I had a problem but it was under control.

On my last afternoon in the hospital my boss stopped by. I'd had no visitors during my stay. It was so good to see a known face and to discuss stuff in English while the little old lady read her book.I appreciated his effort.

Getting out of the hospital wasn't easy. The doctor informed me they couldn't help me further but that I would be given Augmentin to continue my recovery at home. Woohoo but no paperwork arrived. I was dressed and ready to go. Several times I asked staff what was happening but each time they would just disappear. I had no idea what paperwork would be required (very little in fact). Eventually I was on my way out but had to take a number and wait to check out at a booth.

Oh God- I was presented with a bill for 3500euros. It's not free you know, I was told. Can't pay for every Tom, Dick and Harry who gets sick. In NZ, if you are working and especially if it's an emergency you don't get charged anything. This sum is completely beyond my salary to pay. I was asked about my social security number- I'm waiting for my card still, I replied. This fell on deaf ears. Without that I must pay the full amount. I don't have any money to pay this I said. Suddenly pleasant woman stood up and left and unpleasant woman sat down and glared at me. She explained how much I would pay if I had social security - much less but still many months of penny-pinching to pay for it. I wasn't well having just been discharged and to be hit with this was horrendous. Every month something happens to threaten my financial viability to live. Tears of despair held no 'water' with my interrogator. I was told to speak to social security to establish my situation and come back and pay the bill.

As you know, I completed all my convoluted and expensive documentation before Christmas and each day I have looked in my post box for my Carte Vitale. Nothing. It turns out they should have given me a paper by social security but I wasn't given one and didn't know to expect one.

I must now go back to social security on Monday to plead my case to the witches there once again. God help me- they've got all my stuff-I don't have more but I can't prove anything. I do hope NZ isn't as abusive to immigrants as the french government departments are.

Feeling hopeless and helpless I set out with my bag to walk all the way home in the cold. Not ideal. No money for a taxi.

I don't know about you, dear reader, but I'm more than ready to have something less excruciating and catastrophic to talk about soon.

For an idea of what a french ambulance can look like see the video link below.


Alison said...

Well, sh*t! I am at a loss for words really. Look after yourself, and I hope that you are feeling a zillion times better and that the financial crisis is resolved. xxx

Sonya said...

Oh my God, Frances! What next? I do hope you are feeling a lot better now. What an horrendous ordeal. x

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