Its imposing presence along the Rhône stretches several city blocks, a UNESCO heritage site and a landmark in the city of Lyon. How often I used to admire that golden façade, the sun glinting off its domes as I walked across the river from our home on the Part-Dieu side of the city. When I learned that my OB-GYN had her practice within its walls, I was thrilled. Now I would have a reason to go inside and discover the magic of this grand old lady of a hospital.
There the romance ended and the realities of dealing with a hospital within a historic monument became rather like most of my encounters with French life. It started with a little game I call ‘find the entrance’ that I’ve blogged about before.
And then there was the name: God’s hotel? Not being a pious type, I put my faith in medical science, or at least the capable hands of the midwives, to steer me safely through pregnancy and childbirth.
On that count it was a safe bet. The building was ancient, its origins dating to the 11th century. But the hospital itself was run by the Hospices Civils de Lyon, a solid medical institution that manages several other establishments in the greater Lyon area. Once you got inside its walls, a modernized inner shell, there was little connection to the historic past of the building. Still, the limitations of the physical setting made it less than luxurious in terms of practical things like stairways and elevators.
As often happens in this fair land, I was continually confused about where to go, frequently transiting dark corridors with abandoned gurneys that made me think of the morgue. When I did figure out where I was headed, it felt like navigating an obstacle course to get there: down one floor to check in for my appointment, up another to the doctor’s secretary, to still another for a scan.
A few months into my second pregnancy, when every extra step seemed to take its toll on my body, I broke down on my rule of avoiding the elevator. I remember one terrified moment on that contraption, one of the jerky type I fear most, when the lights went out and it heaved to a stop between floors. Thankfully the presence of other less panicky souls prevented me from giving birth there and then, until someone came and helped us out.
The big day came 25 years ago this week. I forgave the old building all of its quirks and inconveniences when my when my daughter made her first appearance in this world – pink and in perfect health. Happy birthday, Madeline!
For close to twenty years after, I returned each year to Hôtel Dieu for my annual checkup with Dr. Champion, a wonderful name for a baby doctor if there ever was one. Little ever changed. A few coats of paint, a few more grey hairs, and still, each year, the same confusion about where to go. Until one day it all changed: the hospital was closing. It moved to a somewhat soulless suburb east of the city called Bron. Rebaptised as the Hopital Mère Enfant, Mother and Child Hospital, it surely operates with more well-oiled efficiency than it could in that historic location.
‘Grand’ Hôtel Dieu‘ was recently reborn as a luxury hotel and shopping complex in the heart of Lyon. The official inauguration took place a month ago.
It’s sad on some level that a temple to gastronomy and luxury should be built on a site where so many deeply human stories played out. Some of the work is still ongoing until next year. Time will tell if they are able to pay fair homage to the spirit of generosity that reigned there.
I haven’t been back yet, but I intend to. If I can find the way in.
Have you ever been to a hospital in France?