Chez le médecin

IMG_2965I am blessed with good health, a gift for which I am more grateful with each passing year. (She says, knocking on noggin). This despite the fact that I have spent many long hours chez le médecin.

You cannot raise a family in France without becoming painfully familiar with the doctor’s waiting room. You are given a carnet de santé or health record book that tracks your child’s health from birth to age 16. There are checkups – visites obligatoires – at various ages and stages of development. There are vaccinations, height and weight charts. There are vitamins and prescriptions for every imaginable ailment. You don’t leave a doctor’s office in France without a prescription for something (more on that to come).

But oh, the hours spent in the salle d’attente! The unending, crashing bore of it. The dog-eared, outdated magazines. The stale air and germ-infested space with little to distract a child.

Le toubib, as the doctor is called in familiar fashion, tends to be a lone wolf. Most doctors practice under the category of ‘profession libérale’ which is a fancy way of saying self-employed. There is no receptionist or medical secretary to take calls or welcome you at the door. Le médecin généraliste, meaning GP or family doctor in French, runs his own practice, does the paperwork and answers the phone.

Another reason for the endless wait is that many doctors offer a daily ‘permanence’ or walk-in clinic. The advantage is that if you are suddenly ill you can get in to see the doctor the same day – provided you are well enough and willing to wait.

In our country village outside of Lyon there were two GP’s, each with his own cabinet on opposite ends of the main street. I saw both early on and quickly chose Dr. Fourré, a heavyset fellow (like his name, which means stuffed) with a calm, soft-spoken manner who actually listened when I spoke, and looked me in the eye. The other doctor was younger and more modern with a computer on his desk. He spent the whole time looking at the screen and seemed like a scared rabbit every time I tried to catch his eye.

How well I remember the long hours in Dr. Fourré’s small and shabby salle d’attente. The permanence was in the afternoon and the after-school rush at 4:30 was epic. Sometimes people would open the door, stick their head in to do a quick count, then disappear. I later discovered that some would literally run across the village to the other doctor’s waiting room and go where the queue was shortest. Later on the two doctors got together and coordinated their hours, so that one had permanence in the morning and the other in the afternoon.

I am not a patient person. I simply do not wait well. Which makes me a very poor patient indeed.

But I will always be grateful to Dr. Fourré as he was the one who sent me for the MRI that revealed my acoustic neuroma, a benign but mushroom-size tumor growing in my inner ear. It was removed by a specialist in Paris a few months later with no lasting consequence other than a total loss of hearing on the left side. But it was the simple country doctor who actually listened to my complaint about not being able to understand conversation – the specialist I’d seen a few weeks before had sent me away with platitudes about hearing loss and aging.

French doctors work long hours for little pay. They are the unsung heroes of the healthcare system.

Many GP’s in France still make house calls, surprisingly enough, although these are an increasingly rare species. There is also a service called SOS Médecins. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area covered by them, you can get a doctor to come to you within hours. Unfortunately, where we now live in the Haute Savoie, it’s either the nearest hospital or the waiting room of the local GP.

The first time I went to see a doctor in France, a couple of things surprised me. One was the complete lack of modesty accorded to the patient. In this case it was a gynecologist who had me undress for the physical exam without providing any kind of gown or sheet to cover up. Fortunately he kept up a steady stream of chatter with a lot of eye contact to cover any awkwardness.

Another surprising thing was the fact that the doctor is addressed as Monsieur or Madame rather than ‘Docteur.’ You can call him Doctor if you wish, but not doing so is not the blasphemy it would be in North America, where medical professionals are like gods.

What I found even more embarrassing than being à poil was having to take out my cheque book and pay the fellow (although I was dressed by then). This had never happened in Canada, or if it had I’d always dealt with a secretary. It seemed almost insulting to write a doctor a cheque. Especially for so little.

Unless you see a physician as a private patient, the amount you will pay for a basic medical consultation is 23 euros. Even my hairstylist charges more than this.

How do you feel about le toubib?

Smoke-free in the Land of the Gauloises

e-cigaretteI used to be a smoker. ‘Used to’ being the operative words.

Giving up cigarettes was tough. I started smoking in my early teens. Quitting in my late 20s was like losing my best friend; I felt bereft. The grief lasted much longer than the nicotine withdrawal. But it was something I felt I had to do in order to get on with my life.

When I finally gave up my pack-a-day habit, after multiple attempts and false-starts, I figured I was quit of the evil weed forever. Little did I realize how hard it would be to rid myself of second-hand smoke in the land of the Gauloises.

France has a strong cigarette culture. It comes with the cafés, bars and fashion world. I almost regretted being an ex-smoker when I arrived in Paris; it would’ve been fun to smoke with so much entitlement.

That’s changed lately – smokers in France are now finding themselves ostracized just as they were before I left Canada. But the French being, well, French – it’s as if the marginalization of smokers makes them stronger. Those knots of people hovering in doorways (or further, as the smokers’ corners are moved away from the building entrances), in rain or shine, wet or cold, seem to have their own status of cool. They are the hardy, the daring, the I-blow-smoke-in-the-face-of-death survivors.

Back in the day, the smoker’s right to pollute the collective airspace of offices, restaurants, shops and hotels was sacrosanct. You could still smoke on planes! And smoke I did. On those first overseas flights, convinced that every groan of the engine or minor turbulence was the beginning of the end, smoking and drinking were the keep-calm crutches that propelled me across the Atlantic without a meltdown.

So you’d think I’d keep a soft spot in my heart for smokers. After all, I was one of them. Sadly, there’s no one more intolerant of tobacco than a reformed smoker.

Add to the fact that the French cigarette is particularly putrid. Gauloises or Gitanes, the acrid smoke is an assault that rises up my nostrils and into my brain and tickles my irritation factor. Not that many people still smoke those brands, Dieu soit loué (thank God).

To smoke in French is to fume (“fumer”). I remember fuming, literally, as I tried to work in those early days in a cloud of second-hand smoke. Thinking how unfair it was to have struggled to give up smoking only to be forced to breathe in all that poison. And sneezing: it was as if my body had doubly rejected tobacco after I quit by becoming allergic. Usually a sneezing fit was followed by a crashing headache, brought on by suppressed rage or remembered nicotine withdrawal.

The problem resolved itself, mostly. First, I got pregnant. The French are respectful of la maternité: smokers would take one look at my protruding belly and considerately clear the area. And some years ago they changed the laws to make it illegal to smoke in public places, from workplaces to restaurants.

Now they vape.

La clope, as the French fondly and slangly call the fabled smoke, is starting to fade in popularity. The modern way to indulge at table is to vape. E-cigarettes are all the rage here, and for the time being people are allowed to indulge everywhere – indoors and in transit. It probably won’t last, though: the government is threatening to ban vaping in public places by the end of the year.

But despite the high cost and health warnings, French smokers will still puff away. And I resent the fact that they continue to pollute my airspace, even outdoors. It would be nice to be able to enjoy a drink or a meal on a terrace without someone’s ciggy tickling my nose.

Last week was World No Tobacco Day and I realized it’s been about 25 years since I my last cigarette. And guess what? I don’t miss it all. No butts about it.

How about you? Are you addicted to or offended by the evil weed?