The first sign that something was amiss was the dull pain creeping up my lower left leg upon waking up on our first morning in Paris. I decided to shake it off because we’d only be staying in Paris for one full day so we needed to get an early start and see as many of the major sites as we could.
I popped over to a corner store to get some breakfast supplies then we ate a quick bite in our cramped room. We soon set of on a short walk from our hotel to Notre Dame. The nagging pain in my leg intensified. Even more troubling, I began to have a sharp pain in the lymph nodes inside my left thigh. After a few minutes of walking each step was excruciating and I was having difficulty keeping up with Annette and the kids.
No time for emergencies, we’re on sabbatical 🙁
Lots of thoughts were swirling through my head. First, we didn’t have time for me to be sick or injured. Also, if I had to see a doctor I wanted to avoid doing so in France due to the language barrier and not knowing how to get care or what it might cost. I tried to tell myself I could hold off until we made it to the UK the next day, but with each step it was increasingly clear that I needed medical attention now.
I started Googling how to visit a doctor in France and searched for local hospitals. I found one nearby, the Hotel Dieu hospital which was right next to Notre Dame. The reviews were mixed (some people waited for hours and were never examined). I said a prayer and decided to give it a try; better to address it now than let it get worse and completely ruin our trip. I found my way to the “Urgences” entrance and sent Annette and the kids to visit the Louvre and Notre Dame.
At the Hotel Dieu Hospital
I walked into the ER waiting room where I found a few staff behind a desk, another patient waiting to be seen, and several police offers hanging around. I told a nurse I needed to see a doctor and was given a form to fill out. After filling in my information I handed in the form and sat to wait.
A few minutes later a bandaged (and seemingly hungover) man emerged from behind the doors escorted by several doctors. The police officers who had been waiting led him away as he ranted in Russian. The other patient was then called back for examination. About 15 minutes later they called my name.
Um, no parlay the Francais…
A nurse led me back to a small room where she took my vitals. The nurse asked me something in French and I responded “je ne parle pas français.” She said she spoke a little English and so I started to explain my symptoms. She frowned, clearly I was not getting my message across. She disappeared and few minutes later an English speaking nurse arrived and we started again. I explained the blisters in my feet and the pain in my legs. The English speaking nurse asked if I had recently taken a long flight (clearly trying to figure out if I was suffering from deep-vein thrombosis). The other nurse frowned again, clearly she thought this dumb American had no business being there.
Next I was led back to an exam room where I waited another twenty minutes before a doctor emerged; a young gentleman wearing jeans and a plaid shirt under his white coat. He also only spoke French but I was able to communicate my health issue with a combination of charades and the Google Translate app.
I already had a good idea what my problem was, and it primarily came down to a rookie travel mistake. I had purchased new footwear right before our departure and didn’t take time to break them in, other than a walk around the living room at home. To make matters worse I had chosen waterproof shoes (I suppose I imagined myself hiking through the Norwegian wilderness where that feature might come in handy).
Not surprisingly walking all over Munich and hiking the Alps in new shoes gave me blisters, and the problem was compounded by the waterproof (read: not breathable) shoes that created a moist environment ideal for bacteria to infect the blisters. The pain I was feeling in my leg was an infection beginning to creep upwards from my foot.
I was embarrassed to show the doctor my grotesque feet but he examined them without flinching. He nodded as he prodded the swollen lymph nodes on my upper thigh. He said something in French and disappeared for a few minutes, then reappeared with the frowny nurse. He had a conversation with her in front of me, pointing at my feet and gesturing as he talked. I’d like to imagine he was telling her it was indeed good that I had sought treatment due to the infection, but who knows.
They left the room with me still sitting on the exam table. 30 minutes passed. I decided to lay down on the table, and a little while later I jerked upright when someone entered the room. It was a nurse looking for supplies, and she seemed surprised to see me.
Finally after about 45 minutes the doctor returned clutching a handful of papers, along with another doctor who I soon found out was tagging along because he had some basic English skills. Doctor number one handed me the papers with prescriptions while doctor number two explained the treatment protocol. Treat the blisters with disinfectant, apply the medicated lotion twice a day, take the antibiotic three times a day with meals.
After getting my instructions doctor number one said I could go, shook my hand, and showed me the exit. I said a “merci” with as much appreciation as possible and walked back through the waiting room. At this point I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to check out (or pay), or if I was indeed free to go as the doctor had indicated. I walked slowly past the reception desk and waved at the nurse that had checked me in, trying to get an indication whether there was anything further I was supposed to do. She didn’t motion for me to stop so I wandered back out to the sunlight and caught up with the family outside Notre Dame.
Totaling up the cost of my medical ’emergency’
We walked together through the cathedral and then headed back to our hotel through the lovely Paris streets. On the way back I found a pharmacy to fill my prescriptions, which cost a total of about 40 Euros. About half of that cost was for a probiotic that (I realized later) the doctor hadn’t actually prescribed. I don’t know whether it is standard practice for the pharmacist to throw in a probiotic whenever dispensing an antibiotic or if this was an up-sell, but I was relived that the total cost of my medical ’emergency’ was only 40 Euros and I was happy to pay it.
After getting back to the hotel I did some additional research and confirmed that a visit to the ER in France is indeed free in most cases like mine. If I had searched out a doctor for a visit outside the ER the cost of the visit would have been about 25 Euros. To us this is pretty amazing considering a trip to the ER in the US is typically at least four figures for anyone uninsured or with a high-deductible health plan and a standard doctors visit is usually over $100. Maybe I got lucky and caught the hospital on a slow day but I was pretty happy with the ‘socialized’ medical care I received.
Thank you France!
Upon returning to the hotel room I collapsed on the bed, feeling awful. Annette entertained the kids while I fought off a fever that persisted for several hours (the antibiotics had not kicked in yet). It is a good thing that I sought treatment when I did and I’m grateful to the doctors and nurses that attended me. I’m also grateful (and surprised) that the whole ordeal only set us back 40 Euros.
More important than the minor monetary cost was the lost day of sightseeing on our only full day in Paris. This was disappointing but I’ve come to terms with the fact that we’re not going to see everything this year. Problems will arise that will get in the way of our plans and that is okay, we can always come back again 🙂
On to jolly old England!
The next day I woke up way too early to catch a train to the airport to pick up our leased car so that we could begin our European road trip. More about that in the next installment!