A l’hôpital

I had to go to the hospital the other day. Rest assured that I am well (she says, knocking on brain).

It was a routine check-up with my ENT. That’s ORL in French, for the barely pronounceable ‘oto-rhino-laryngologue’. Imagine the mental gymnastics I have to go through every time I have anything to do with this particular medical specialist. E=ear which translates to O=oto; N=nose translates to R=rhino (think: rhinoceros); T=throat translates to L=laryngo. Just as we add ‘ologist’ to any specialty in English, in French you just add ‘logue’.

It’s a mouthful in any language.

Our closest hospital is a 30-minute drive in theory, but I have to allow an hour for traffic and for the fact that I inevitably get lost. It’s not that hard to find the actual hospital but it takes at least ten minutes to navigate the parking lot and figure out where the entrance is. The parking lot is built into a hill (well, we do live near the Alps after all) with four tiers of open-air parking spaces. There are many steps and winding paths leading down to a central drive with tiny signs showing how to access different departments. How practical for patients, I always think, many of whom are about to give birth, presumably not 100% mobile or not quite feeling up to a hike.

I almost always go in the wrong door. This usually leads to the Emergency entrance where I panic and run in fear of seeing someone in death throes or alternatively catching some fatal virus. This time I remembered my last visit two years ago and knew that the main entrance was up and down a series of valleys across which I cut like Heidi.

Arriving at this thriving hub of French culture, where the usual welcoming committee of huddled smokers by the door greeted me while holding on to their IV units, I noticed the new innovation of a welcome and orientation desk. There was no one there and anyway I remembered from my last time that I had to check in at the area called ‘Consultations externes’ just to the left of the main lobby. I was delighted to see only two people ahead of me and took a number. Two minutes later my number came up and I approached the person seated at one of the cubicles. “Ce n’est pas ici,” she said, shaking her head with a rather pleased air and directing me to the other side of the building. A different waiting area for a different set of consultants and services.

Off I went, still on time as for once I’d arrived a few minutes early. I successfully avoid the ER for the second time and arrived at the correct reception area. Here there was no number system but a longer lineup of people waiting to be triaged towards an admin cubicle for check in.

Having determined that I was in the right galaxy, the woman directed me to a zombie whose charm began with a ‘Je vous écoute’ (‘I’m listening’, not the nicest greeting but not as rude as it sounds to English ears). Eyes trained on her screen as she typed in my details, she continued a conversation with her colleague at the next workstation, complaining about some ongoing IT issue. I was invisible until she handed me a paper and told me to proceed to waiting room number 4. “And the waiting room is…?” I asked, having no idea where to go next. “Just behind the divider,” she said, as if the question was absurd. “We have several waiting rooms…”

Seeing the number 6 on the wall, I almost turned around and went on a dangerous tour back to the ER when I realized that the large room had several smaller areas, confusingly labelled ‘salle d’attente’ (waiting room), each with its own number. I found mine and squeezed into a seat. The place was packed. 45 minutes later, eyeing the ladies’ room with increasing envy but afraid to leave in case my name was called, a tiny white-coated nurse came and called out the name of the fellow sitting opposite me. Up he jumped, clearly ready to dance in joy and followed her to the door.

As she left, I heard her mumble something vaguely resembling my husband’s name. Not wanting to risk missing my turn, I grabbed my stuff and ran after them. At the door I asked her if she had in fact called my name. Yes, she confirmed, although admitted she hadn’t said it very loudly. I nodded and joked that thankfully I have good hearing for a deaf person.

She laughed. The ice was broken. Away we went.

The ENT, whom I saw after another 15 minutes in yet another waiting area, confirmed who I was and why I was there. Agreed it was good to get my hearing checked again and asked me to sit in his examination chair.

Before I could ask him what was next he had shoved a metal object up my nose. “It’s ORL,” he reminded me when I acted surprised. I couldn’t help but be grateful he was not my gynecologist.

A quick spin around my upper orifices and off I went back to my seat to wait for the soft-spoken nurse to come and perform the hearing test in a sound-proof booth across the hall. I passed with flying colours. While my left ear is completely deaf due to a surgery for an acoustic neuroma several years ago, my right ear is still going gangbusters.

How I hate hospitals. I say that with all the humility and gratitude of someone who has had the opportunity to take advantage of their services and to come out alive and well. All without having to mortgage my life away to pay for it.

I left with a spring in my step, along with a prescription for an MRI to check that all is well (more on that nightmare later), having paid a grand total of 40 euros. Which princely sum will be entirely reimbursed once I send in the paperwork.

Still. French hospitals. The less I have to do with them, the happier I am.

What’s your best or worst hospital experience?


  1. francetaste · May 2, 2019

    You would think that of all places, an ENT/ORL practice, where they undoubtedly run into a concentration of people with hearing problems, would know they have to call names loudly.
    I think French hospitals could use some wayfinding consultants. The hospital here does paint different wards in different colors, so when lost you can at least stutter to someone, “he’s in a green hallway.” But for the consultancies that can be accessed directly from outside, they could put up bigger, clearer signs, so one can drive to the right parking lot and also head for the right door, rather than circling the building and having to walk up to each door to see what’s behind it.
    OTOH, I have nothing but praise for the quality of care. Signage is a small detail by comparison.

    • MELewis · May 3, 2019

      You are right. Despite the sometimes dehumanizing lack of communication, the quality of care is good. And when you scratch the surface, some very nice people working very hard. Very grateful for that.

  2. Liz · May 2, 2019

    Very well described Mel!! And honestly, it is not far off some of my own experiences in seeing medical specialists here in Canada!
    Glad to hear you got a good report!
    Liz xo

    • MELewis · May 3, 2019

      Thanks, Liz! I’m surprised to get so much feedback about the universal lack of humanity in the hospital experience. Still very grateful to have access to good quality care! 🙏🏻

  3. Suzanne et Pierre · May 2, 2019

    It looks like hospitals are all the same anywhere. Here (in Quebec/Canada), we might get more courteous services but it is always shoveling from one area to the next to finally see the person you need to see and hospitals are always confusing and it is so easy to get lost. Touching wood, I haven’t had to visit many hospitals recently but I can relate to your story.

    • MELewis · May 3, 2019

      Interesting to hear that the experience is so similar everywhere, Suzanne. Glad you have been steering clear of them lately!

  4. Dad · May 2, 2019

    Same in TO. Still think the only solution to hospital incompetence is privatization, competition and the profit motive.

    • MELewis · May 3, 2019

      A little competition is always good and efficiency could definitely be improved. Still, I am glad not to have my care driven by the profit motive!

  5. Ann Lamb · May 2, 2019

    Actually, I have not had that problem in finding my way to the right place, and the staff is always helpful and courteous. Perhaps that is because it is a large non-profit health care provider rather than government-run. When I make my appointment the scheduler is always careful to give me directions and the hospital has colored zones for various specialties. Finding a parking spot is sometimes a problem, but if it is in a parking garage, there is an elevator, not a hill. There are reserved spots near the ER, handicapped parking, and valet parking near the drop-off zone for the main hospital when necessary. There is a Starbucks, a gift shop and a cafeteria open to the public, in the lobby. I don’t have to pay out of pocket for the services (the latest was my annual mammogram) because of my insurance. Perhaps the better experience is because I have the option to choose among many other hospitals and medical services within a reasonable distance of my home, am not required to go there.

    • MELewis · May 3, 2019

      Where are you based, Ann? It sounds like your choices are quite good (Starbucks in the hospital? Mon Dieu!) We don’t have to go to a particular hospital and have the choice of two within a similar distance, but being outside of the big medical hubs in Lyon and Paris, for example, there are far fewer specialists to choose from. Normally I don’t have to pay but in this case, despite the atrocious wait, I was seeing the doctor as a ‘private’ patient so had to pay out of pocket.

      • Ann Lamb · May 3, 2019

        I live near Seattle, Washington, in a small town that has grown to become a suburb. Perhaps my better experience is because I don’t have to go to the city for medical service as the suburbs are well-served and not overcrowded so you are usually served within a few minutes of check-in .
        Oh, and in the Seattle area, Starbucks is EVERYWHERE. A small shop inside every large grocery store and another larger Starbucks in its own storefront outside, some with drive-throughs. In Target too.

  6. Joanne Sisco · May 2, 2019

    Any trip for any medical attention seems to be a similar experience regardless of where you go. My goal is to stay out of them for as long as humanly possible!!

    • MELewis · May 3, 2019

      I cannot agree more, Joanne, and wish you ‘bonne santé’!

  7. Heide · May 2, 2019

    What IS it with hospitals? Most of them really do seem as if they’re designed to compound the misery of people who are already injured or sick. But thank goodness you survived your ordeal without seeing anything too gruesome in the E.R., and that you were also able to locate your car when it was all over.

    • MELewis · May 3, 2019

      Oh, yes! I was indeed happy to find my car and the upside with the complicated parking lots is that you do remember just where it is! It does seem that the hospital experience is universally bleak…😒 Glad to be done with it for now!

  8. Susanne · May 2, 2019

    Your description of the whole experience was marvellous- from the Heidi hike to the indifferent clerk to the perils of the ER. You survived sans frais (not sure I got that right) and it was good!

    • MELewis · May 3, 2019

      So glad you enjoyed it, Susanne! I definitely had more fun writing about it than I did in the moment. And I will indeed be ‘sans frais’ once the money is refunded. La vie est belle!

  9. acflory · May 4, 2019

    I’ve never had to go to our equivalent of your ENT hospital, but I’ve been to quite a few ordinary public hospitals, and they all seem to be designed to get people lost. I love the idea of colour coding different categories of care. Even it they only painted arrows on the floors, it would help. Hope the MRI is for something relatively minor as well.

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