I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to the ER this week. More than half of the hospital emergency services in this country are on strike, a movement that’s been building since March. They want more staff, more hospital beds and better conditions. Not so much for themselves as for their patients.

Of which I was one, however reluctantly. My belly-ache hardly seemed worthy of a trip to the ER. But the first available doctor’s appointment was over a month away. It was probably nothing but what if it wasn’t? So off I went.

Here in France profonde as we call it, ‘les Urgences’ are the first and last resort for both the seriously injured and the walking well. We live in an area with few doctors. Hardly surprising, given the proximity of Switzerland where medical professionals earn twice what they do here. We’re too far from the big hubs of Lyon and Paris, where medical care par excellence is readily available. Our local GPs are few and far between; they are over-worked and under-paid. There are no walk-in clinics and basically no options other than the hospital.

Being of a squeamish nature, I avoid such places like the plague (and for fear of the latter). So when I arrived at the hospital, I went first to the general reception desk, hoping that the medical appointment side of the ER might be removed from the one with the helicopter pad. No such luck. Off I went.

I arrived before the set of solid double doors that said ‘Emergency – Push Hard’ and paused. Then I took a breath and pushed. Instead of bloody accident victims and George Clooney running alongside a gurney, I saw a waiting room with people that looked like they might possibly have a pulse. Eyes glazed over with either pain or boredom, possibly both, it was hard to tell. No one spoke. Waiting rooms are silent places in France.

Behind another set of doors was where it was all happening. I took a number and was heartened – 256 and they were currently serving 253! After several minutes I realized that this was the line for paperwork. Another ten minutes went by before I was registered and the real wait began. One of the many signs on the wall informed me that the order in which patients would be helped would not necessarily be in the order of arrival, depending on the nature of their affliction. Fair enough.

I had plenty of time to observe what was going on. The ER was on strike, but that didn’t mean they weren’t taking care of patients. It is more of a symbolic strike, a gesture aimed at raising awareness of the untenable conditions in our hospitals. A bunch of hand-made posters included one that said: “It’s not because we’re on strike that you have to wait so long, it’s because you have to wait so long that we’re on strike!”

After a two-hour wait, I was better informed about the issues surrounding the strike. It’s not just a matter of throwing money at the problem. The system is broken. The health minister Agnès Buzyn wants to fix it with a plan that will take pressure off the emergency services, developing other medical services rather than increasing ER resources. The striking ‘blouses blanches’ (doctors and nurses) aren’t happy with this solution. Clearly it is not the shot in the arm they were hoping for. I feel their pain. But I also believe that a bigger healthcare reform is needed and that the current plan is a step in the right direction.

When I finally saw a doctor, he prescribed two weeks of meds and advised me to follow up with my regular GP when my scheduled appointment finally comes up. I am grateful that this option was there and for the hard-working people who provide urgent care. But I had no business taking up space in an ER whose resources would be better spent helping urgently ill patients.

What’s your experience with the ER?


  1. francetaste · September 19, 2019

    I am relieved to hear you are OK.
    I have been to the ER far too many times. Once a year, for about five years. Usually for my kid (fall at the gym, passed out on a school trip, and, most frighteningly, meningitis despite being vaccinated). But last year it was for my husband, who also had a belly ache. He had an appointment for a scan three weeks later, but, as soon as we dropped off guests at the airport, I took him to the ER because he was in such pain. I don’t remember paperwork. We registered with the carte vitale at one window and waited to be seen by the triage nurse. He was taken in pretty quickly after that. I wasn’t allowed to go with him, and I observed the other people who came in. It was Aug. 15–holiday–and there were lots of children with bobos that were taken care of immediately and they were sent on. Quite a few people stayed at the hospital–the folks in the waiting room were their families. I would see them at the hospital in the days and weeks afterward.In other words, people came to the ER because they really needed to.BTW, my husband had colon cancer and was hours from dying of a blockage, it turned out. He is fine now.
    I have accompanied family to the ER in the US as well. I prefer France. Yes, the ER staff need more help. Perhaps a walk-in clinic would be good for minor things, but would it become clogged with people who don’t bother to make appointments with their own doctors? My doctor (and dentist) have windows reserved for urgent/not-urgent-enough-for-ER cases; it takes some wheedling, but if I really need to see a doctor/dentist immediately, I can. I don’t abuse it. There was the case of my kid with meningitis, which, given the vaccination, I didn’t suspect but I could see it was not a usual case of fever/headache. And the time I needed a root canal; I had waited for the dentist to come back from maternity leave, but it was too long and my tooth was throbbing so much I couldn’t eat or sleep.

    • MELewis · September 19, 2019

      Oh my! How fortunate that you were able to get your husband there in time….and that he has a good outcome from such a life-threatening situation. 😨 You certainly have experienced the ER to the full! I’ve always managed to avoid it until now (touch wood). Once when my husband fell off a step ladder and tore his ACL ligaments he was transported to the hospital with the ‘pompiers’ but by the time I got here he was in a regular bed. Our GP only has ‘Doctolib’ managing his appointments. And infuriatingly, he now reserves days exclusively for laser treatments. A money-making thing clearly not for the service of patients. But we’re just glad he’s still here!

  2. pedmar10 · September 19, 2019

    well glad all turn out well. sadly looking urgence building, I live in the country but urgences is only 15 mins away took my father there a couple weeks ago, very well treated and now nurses come home for the cure all free; la vie est belle! Salut

    • MELewis · September 19, 2019

      Glad it worked out well for your father! I forgot to mention that I walked away without having to pay for anything…that is truly a blessing!

      • pedmar10 · September 19, 2019

        Yes part of living in France I had service for my mother and wife and continue with my father all excellent.

  3. midihideaways · September 19, 2019

    Sorry to read that you’ve not been well! The “urgences” in our closest hospital were great when one of our guests collapsed, and so for that matter were the “pompiers” who took him there! It could have been a stroke, so the pompiers took no chance. The guests were from the US and were petrified that they would end up with a huge bill. As it turned out it was a blood pressure problem and easy to fix. When they went to pay at the end of their visit to the “urgences” the lady on the desk told them there was no charge – you could have knocked them over with a feather, they were totally astounded!

    • MELewis · September 19, 2019

      Sounds like your US guests were well looked after! A potential stroke or other life-threatening situation is what they do best, IMHO. No charge? That must’ve come as a big shock indeed! Probably better to have made them pay something just for form’s sake but they are probably not set up for such things. Glad it turned out well!

      • midihideaways · September 22, 2019

        It was a huge shock – they did want to give a donation to the pompiers, so I told them where the local caserne was. They have a recreation fund…

  4. acflory · September 19, 2019

    Ugh. Waiting a month to see a GP is awful. Then again, I live in a metropolitan area so what do I know? Glad you’re okay, and I agree that the system needs to be expanded rather than deepened. I hope something positive happens.

    • MELewis · September 19, 2019

      How I wish we could go back to the system of ‘permanances’ where the doctor had drop-in hours part of each day. I understand that they are entitled to a life but the patients need some alternative other than the ER when the wait is so long! Here’s hoping! 🤞

      • acflory · September 19, 2019

        Amen. -fingers crossed-

  5. Neil Lewis · September 19, 2019

    You don’t get to have your cake and eat it too! The trade off of living in the country is that Doctors are few and far between I thought? I had that sudden major bruising on my hand. Emailed my Doctor with a pic and 2 prescription refills. She emailed back with questions. Then emailed me a blood request. And requested an ultrasound and X-Rays. That was Monday and I got the bloodwork done with the results being fine the next day. By Weds they had called and I had my ultrasound/X-rays done. I happened to see her Friday at my Chiropractic appointment where she pulled me aside to say everything is okay. While it wasn’t emergency it was excellent care. The time before I went to Emergency a few years ago was when I thought my liver was ready to burst. There at 8am and out by noon with bloodwork and ultrasound that showed my liver fine. He asked me to follow up with my GP. Before I could my Chiropractor(same office) saw me and diagnosed me with a cracked rib! I didn’t like the ER Doctor not going further to get an X-ray and a resolution but overall my care was excellent. BTW my Chiro adjusted me and taped my ribs so I was good. But I live in the biggest city in Canada. Full medical services just aren’t as readily available in the Country. No idea on solutions?

    • MELewis · September 19, 2019

      Health issues suck but it sounds like you have good support! How wonderful to be able to get all that done based on digital technology — fast, convenient and efficient. You are right though: living in remote areas means trading off the convenience of big urban areas like the GTA. But there has to be a minimum service level available to patients outside cities. Medical centres with several practitioners sharing services in the bigger towns would make total sense, but the healthcare system needs to be reformed to encourage this. Most doctors in France are independent professionals work on their own.

  6. Joanne Sisco · September 20, 2019

    The ER is one of those things you hope you never have to deal with and yet are very grateful for it when you do need it.

    I’ve had a few too many experiences with the ER over the years – all of it very stressful – and each time I was grateful for the care and attention we received. The most serious was my oldest son’s burst appendix. We learned quickly that when you are admitted immediately without any waiting, it is very serious. I now consider the waiting part as relatively good news … they don’t think you’re at risk of dying any time soon.

    Glad your wait wasn’t overly long – 2 hours isn’t too bad. I hope the meds have been helpful and you’re now feeling much better.

    • MELewis · September 22, 2019

      That’s a really good perspective, Joanne! I will try and remember it next time (hopefully not too soon!). Feeling quite a lot better, thanks!

  7. Garfield Hug · September 20, 2019

    I am glad you are ok now Melewis! I had my recent experience at the ER and it cost me a bomb! $1,600. Money can be earned back and I went to a private hospital around the corner where I live. So it was convenience I was looking at but it was not great. Still, it is never good to be going to any ER! Take care now! Garfield Hugs.

    • MELewis · September 22, 2019

      Always good to have options nearby, even if costly. A lot of money but as you say, it’s less important than your health. Hope you are fully recovering after your time in hospital! For my part I am better for now and hoping to stay out of the ER. 🤞

      • Garfield Hug · September 23, 2019

        Yes. Exactly! Avoid ER if we can is best👍😉

  8. fatdormouse · September 20, 2019

    We’re lucky, out here in the country, to have a Medical Centre with not one but TWO doctors!! Good ones too. You can almost always get an appointment for within 2 days, if it’s not too urgent, and that day if it is. Our nearest big town is 30 minutes away, with a good public hospital and a private one, both with Urgences dept. My only experience has been when I thought I was having a heart attack – I wasn’t, it was either bad indigestion or the start of a hiatus hernia (diagnosed about three years later) And I was seen practically immediately (though left waiting for a good hour once it was discovered I wasn’t having a heart attack!) My OH has been whisked in via the Pompiers, when he was knocked off his bike by a drunk on a moped. Happily there was no permanent damage.
    And I had wonderful care during my cancer experience. I think I’ve been lucky, TBH!

    • MELewis · September 22, 2019

      Wow, that is quite a lot of experience with the ER and you have indeed been very fortunate! 😅 Wish we had a medical centre nearby…I discovered one in a town not too far away but only after hours for ‘urgences’ so no better than the hospital. During the day they have a team that does house calls but unfortunately not in our area. This type of service is definitely one that should be developed all over France. Stay well!

  9. eyelean · September 22, 2019

    We are supposedly a fairly “major” city but we are a medical desert in terms of ophthalmologists and radiologists. And sometimes dentists. So our local ER is the go-to for urgent eye and tooth problems… and the urgences dentaires are only Sunday mornings. Fortunately, I’ve yet to have to resort to that. But I make my ophtalmo appointments months in advance… when there are any to be had. My sister in law lived in the Paris suburbs for a few years and it was shocking to me how quickly she got theses same hard-to-get appointments there…

    • MELewis · September 23, 2019

      That’s interesting. I go to the dentist in Geneva (on the Swiss side) because I have poor teeth and the care is far superior — if more expensive. As for the ophthalmo, appointments are notoriously hard to get everywhere but I recently discovered an eye clinic in a nearby town where you can get an appt very quickly (ie, within a couple of weeks). The doctors are not French natives but Eastern European which is absolutely fine by me. A bonus advantage is they also speak English!

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