We all prefer to think that if something unpleasant is going to happen to us then it will at least happen at an appropriate time. And getting appalling intestinal pains eight hours before boarding a plane to the UK does not apparently fit into any definition of “an appropriate time”. Which, as we intimated in an update on last week’s blog, is exactly what happened to Alison, nearly two weeks ago on the Sunday night.
After Chris had rather sleepily established that these were “serious pains” and “no, not just indigestion”, it was time to take a 2 AM drive through the vineyards and over the hills behind us to our local hospital. He drove carefully because one of the nocturnal threats around us is wild boar, which at anything up to 200 kilos in weight can seriously inconvenience you if hit them. (A week later we saw three adults and ten charming young cross this very road in broad daylight: sorry – we didn’t get a photograph.)
Once we got to the Urgences at Centre Hospitalier de la Dracénie at Draguignan and they had established that we had a) a French medical card – the absolutely essential Carte Vitale which tells the hospital that the state will pick up 80 percent of the bill – and b) the equally essential Mutuelle which tells them that remaining 20 percent is being covered by your insurance company, the hospital systems swung into rapid and effective action. First a nurse, then a junior doctor, then a specialist brought from home examined Alison. There were blood and urine tests and a radiographie (strictly an ultrasound) which revealed a twisted colon, causing an intestinal blockage. (In answer to the inevitable question: apparently it’s not related to some bizarre yoga manoeuvre, it’s the sort of thing that “just happens“).
So just before dawn doctors tried an endoscopy to see if this could solve the problem. However after the second ultrasound at midday suggested it was only a partial fix, it was time for surgery. We both found life slightly more complicated by the fact that we found few staff who spoke English, and there are lots of medical terms that the French learner never bothers with. Eventually, late in the evening, Alison was wheeled into the operating theatre and subjected to the routine of pre-operation questioning (again in French) before going under the anaesthetic. (By this time Chris had done the sensible thing and returned home to catch up on some much-needed sleep.) Thankfully, the operation was successful and the speed of response sufficiently fast that the trapped bit of intestine merely needed releasing rather than being chopped out – something that can commonly occur.
For the next four days Alison was in a two-bed room with a view of woods where she made a fairly rapid recovery. It would be exciting to report vast cultural differences between French and British hospitals but frankly medical technology and treatment in Western Europe is, at least to our untrained eyes, pretty standard. Both of us – and Alison in particular – were very impressed with the quality of care shown by both doctors and nursing staff, and the high standard of cleanliness. There was a gratifying tolerance of bad French and a willingness to repeat until we understood.
There were however some differences. So for example French hospitals don’t seem to worry too much about what anything costs: if they think you need two ultrasounds and an X-ray that’s what you will get. And although our experience of UK hospitals is very limited, there was a curious absence of any of those disturbing and depressing signs that read “Please do not steal the equipment”. One difference that did briefly catch us out is that when they discharge you and tell you that a nurse will change the dressings it’s up to you to choose your local nurse and arrange a visit.
We were particularly touched by all the expressions of sympathy and prayers. A particular high point was the visit of our next door neighbour, Michelle who we actually don’t know terribly well and who doesn’t speak any English. When Chris told her Alison was in hospital she was very concerned – and drove over to pay a visit. We were also touched by the fact that Giles, our pastor, drove all the way from Cannes to see Alison.
Eventually Alison got released on the Saturday afternoon and after the inevitable trip to the pharmacy to collect a whole heap of medicaments has since been convalescing at home. The staples have just come out and we look forward to a full recovery.
In retrospect yes it wasn’t an appropriate time to have a medical emergency. However we have since considered what might have happened had the problem occurred just a few hours later while we were travelling or in the UK. It is not a happy thought. It is universally agreed that starting surgery in one country and ending it in another is not a good idea. So maybe it was appropriate. And for that, much thanks.