French Health Care … and a Chocolate Eclair

By Michele Reed
michele@cny55.com

The grounds at the hospital are beautifully landscaped and patients are encouraged to take long walks to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine.
The grounds at the hospital are beautifully landscaped and patients are encouraged to take long walks to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine.

What if you fall in France? What will you do?” It was one of the first questions our daughter asked me, when Bill and I announced our plans to explore retiring abroad, and it’s no doubt one many potential expats of a certain age consider.

So, like Nelly Bly, your intrepid reporter went undercover (or under covers, as it were) to research the question for you.

I didn’t have a magazine story in mind that September afternoon, when I headed downstairs for a promised lunch and French perfume-shopping trip with Bill. The bus was in 10 minutes and I’d dressed in my prettiest long skirt and a new pair of sandals and headed down the stone stairway to our main floor. As I reached the third step from the bottom, the one where the stairs curve and narrow, I caught my skirt under the sole of my sandal and went crashing to the stone floor of our kitchen. Crashing is not an exaggeration. I reached out to break my fall and the tempered glass oven door shattered, leaving me lying in a snowdrift of tiny balls of safety glass.

I could feel the lump quickly forming on my head and the pain in my side told me something was definitely wrong there, too.

Luckily, we had posted the emergency numbers right next to the home phone. In France, 911 is 117, so Bill dialed and in his best French told them, “My wife has fallen on the stairs, please send the pompiers.” The pompiers, from the word for pump, are our firemen and in our village of 1,800 people, they also run the ambulance service.

In no more than five minutes, a trio of burly young men, whom we recognized as players on our village rugby team, were in the kitchen, telling us that since no EMT was on duty that day, they’d have to transport me to the hospital. “Don’t worry, we don’t think you’re badly hurt,” they said. Then they saw the oven. All three pointed and exclaimed, “Ooh la la! The oven!” Obviously, in their eyes, the stove came out worse in the altercation than I did.

Bill timed the journey and it took no more than 15 minutes to reach the regional hospital. A doctor later told him the hospitals are located so no one is more than 40 minutes from a hospital.

The pompiers wheeled me into Urgences, the emergency department. It was pristine, modern and totally uncluttered. There must have been other patients, since the hospital served our entire metro area surrounding the city of Beziers, totaling more than 120,000 inhabitants. But no lines of people waiting to be seen, no stretchers in the hallway and only a handful of people in the office waiting for their paperwork.

After some quick X-rays, which confirmed that I had a broken rib but not a fractured skull, I was being discharged. That’s when I stood up and saw stars.

The Hospitaliers Centrale de Beziers, where Michele spent an unexpected weeklong “vacation.”
The Hospitaliers Centrale de Beziers, where Michele spent an unexpected weeklong “vacation.”

It didn’t take them long to figure out something was seriously wrong, and I was whisked back into the heart of the hospital for more tests. A sonogram and CT scan later, came the verdict: internal injury.

I soon found myself in the intensive care unit, poetically named Reanimation in France. The doctor explained to a worried Bill that they didn’t think I was in any grave danger, but they wanted to keep me there while they made sure.

A woman from admissions, who spoke flawless English, took my passport and insurance card. When Bill assured her we would pay any charges the insurance didn’t cover, she said, “Don’t worry, it won’t be much,” and gave him a conspiratorial wink.

In France they have a national health service. If we were members of that service, which our neighbor later told us costs him 50 euros a month (about $59), everything would be free. That’s why when Bill questioned a doctor as to why they were keeping me so long, he replied, “Mr. Reed, this isn’t America. This is France and here it is free. She will go home when I think she is ready. “

I was transferred to the Visceral Surgery unit, until a future scan would show the internal injury was healed.

But I couldn’t complain about staying eight days in the beautiful, pristine Hospitaliers Centrale de Beziers. Everyone was great, with all the doctors speaking near-perfect English and the nurses and staff also trying to. We patients were encouraged to walk outside in the landscaped grounds, and going downstairs to the café for a coffee with Bill was smiled upon.

Also, the food was amazing! Not only is food important to French culture, but they see it as part of the healing process, so from Day 1, I had wonderful meals. In the ICU, the doctor ordered a soft diet, and I dreaded the arrival of a sad tray with broth and applesauce. What came instead, was a beautiful omelet and salad. I was surprised that this was “soft diet,” until I got to the regular floor and enjoyed the meals there.

Every meal was accompanied by a baguette and brie or another yummy French cheese, and consisted of vegetable or salad, appetizer, main dish and dessert, along with fresh fruit. I was given a linen napkin and silverware (not plastic), and the staffer serving the food would wish me a cheery, “Bon appetit!” One day I had squid Provençale, another, roast pork with mashed celery, and even crepes stuffed with the delicious but unfortunately named mushrooms, the trumpets of death. Dessert could be anything from a custard to a cake or — my personal favorite — a chocolate eclair. And the fruit was not syrupy fruit salad or applesauce. I was served whole apples, peaches, pears and plums. Tea at 4 and 8 p.m. rounded out the feasting. I was a little sad to leave all that good eating (and no cooking or dishes).

This “castle” at sunset was the view from Michele’s hospital room. We think it was a former monastery or convent, now being used as a school. The round structure behind it and to the right is the rugby stadium.
This “castle” at sunset was the view from Michele’s hospital room. We think it was a former monastery or convent, now being used as a school. The round structure behind it and to the right is the rugby stadium.

I must add a word about the importance of travel insurance. My retiree insurance from my employer works worldwide, so I was covered, but we had purchased a travel policy from Allianz. They would have paid the entire hospital bill and promised to pick up the leftover charges from my employer’s policy, and because we had “repatriation” coverage, they flew us home, two days after I was discharged from the hospital. Because of my injuries, they booked us in first class, with seats that totally reclined, and arranged for a wheelchair to whisk us through the airports and customs. They sent a car to drive us two and a half hours from our home in France to the airport in Barcelona, and when we landed in New York City, another car was waiting, which drove us right to our door in Oswego, the driver even bringing in our bags. The total cost for this wonderful policy? $249 to cover both of us. My advice is: never travel without it.

The final surprise came when the Allianz adjuster told us told they had received the estimate from the French hospital. The total bill they received, for my eight-day stay, with three days in intensive care, two CT scans, numerous X-rays and ultrasounds, amounted to (drum roll) $5,000. No, I didn’t leave off a few zeros — five thousand dollars.

So if you are considering a French adventure, don’t let fear of a medical emergency hold you back. The medical facilities are wonderful, the care is great, and always buy that travel insurance!

Editor’s Note: CNY 55 Plus columnist Michele Reed has a story in the new Chicken Soup for the Soul book, “Step Outside Your Comfort Zone,” published Oct. 31. Her story, “Off My Rocker in France,” relates how Reed and her husband, Bill, made their dream of a part-time retirement in France a reality.

Michele Reed retired after a career spanning four decades in public relations, advertising, journalism and higher education.  She now writes travel articles, book reviews, haiku poetry and fiction. Bill Reed retired after four decades in social services with the county of Oswego, and now works at travel photography and photojournalism, along with writing book reviews.

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