A 12 hour flight, heavy luggage and tons of communication problems had taken it’s toll. I was in Paris, the city of lights and on my first night there, all I could do was collapse into my bed. My body just shut down! I wasn’t sure how much time had passed when my eyes slowly rolled open, greeted by the pitch black room and the crisp autumn air; but I knew that I was paralyzed. I couldn’t move. My neck was frozen stiff and every motion was punished by violent jabs of pain. Terror coursed through my veins. I was alone, in a foreign land, in a dark room, and I couldn’t even yell help, well, not in French. “I’ve got to pull myself together!”, I said aloud. And through sheer determination I was able to get out of the bed and make my way to the door of the courtyard that led to the telephone room. I needed to call a doctor. But I couldn’t speak French and anyway, the door was bolted shut. It was 2:00am and not a soul in sight. No hotel employees were around and no phone number (or phone) to contact someone in case of emergency. I was on my own. There was only one other way to that telephone room, the window. I grabbed my Paris tourist guide which had the number to an English speaking pharmacy and proceeded to climb out of my window and into the courtyard. Needless to say, it was an extremely painful and hazardous experience; but I was determined to get some help. I felt like a genius code breaker as I deciphered the French instructions for the phone and was able to connect to the English pharmacy. “Bonsoir!” the vaguely friendly voice answered. “Bonsoir!” I responded. I hurriedly explained my condition to the voice and was promptly directed to a 24hour pharmacy near my hotel. Relief! I was finally triumphant! At least that’s what I thought.
Getting to the pharmacy was easy enough; but when I arrived, I was greeted by a blank faced Frenchman who spoke very little English and understood none. Trying to explain my desperately serious condition was like playing a game of charades, in the dark. I pointed, I mimed, I feigned ugly faces of pain until finally he muttered something in French and handed me two packets of pills. Speaking French, broken English and signing the number two with his fingers the man explained to me how many times a day I should take the medication. Or was it how many pills I should take? Oh well, I didn’t have a clue! I just gobbled down the pills and hoped for the best. As I made my way back to my hotel, I felt immediate relief from the pain that held me captive only moments before. But after a few minutes on the train, I began to feel light headed, as if I was floating away into the overcast Parisian skies. That’s when I realized I was fainting. “Can anybody speak English?! Help me please!,” I shouted. Three young French women rushed forward and caught me as I went down. The metro doors opened and they gently carried me off the train. The women sincerely cared for me, giving me chocolate and calling the ambulance. They waited with me until the medics arrived. I was so unaccustomed to this type of civility. I just knew that when I fainted I would probably wake up butt naked and robbed of every worldly possession. When the medical workers arrived, my Parisian angels bid me “Au revoir”. Refusing any token of appreciation, they went on about their day, as if it was just another task to save the poor fainting foreigner in Paris.
As my body slammed from side to side in the speeding ambulance, I feared I would sustain serious injury and really need a doctor or a casket. The roller coaster ride came to an end as we stopped in front of Cochin-Saint-Vincent-de-Paul hospital. As I rolled through the doors seeing the white robes and dingy walls I suddenly experienced a “medical service and expense” panic attack. Horrendous flashbacks of a $1000 emergency room visit, $300 ambulance ride and a $40 aspirin dogged me. Then I heard it, the soothing voice of one of my Parisian angel. “Don’t worry. In France hospital is free for everyone!” The word “everyone” echoed in my ear. Certainly everyone didn’t refer to me.
There were a lot of people in the hospital, all speaking a different mother tongue. Curiously enough, it seemed as if I was the only patient who was there alone. Everyone else arrived with a delegation of husbands, wives, children and friends. All gathered around the stricken’s bedside. As I lay on the stiff cot awaiting my fate, the water stained ceiling and chipped paint greeted my roving eyes. A robust English-speaking nurse smiled at me. “I take your blood sugar. Did you eat?” she asked. I hadn’t eaten. It never crossed my mind to eat. I was then quickly whisked into a private room that was curiously bare of most equipment you find in American hospitals. A lamp overhead and a string of wires connected to some type of meter were the room’s only furnishing. A different nurse entered the room speaking rapid French and brandishing a needle filled with morphine. “Stop!” I yelled. I could only imagine what would happen if I had been given more pain medication. An overdose? Death? Oh God why didn’t I learn French?! All these thoughts ran through my head as I desperately tried to explain using my French dictionary and panicked English that I had already taken more than enough pain medication and that taking more may prove fatal. Thank God, she understood. When the doctor entered the room, he was friendly and spoke very good English. He asked me to undress. “Okay?” I thought to myself as they stared at me. After waiting a few moments I realized they had no intention of giving me the privacy I wanted. I guess the French have a different sense of modesty. As I reluctantly undressed, their eyes never left me, they just continued to stare and stare and stare. Now don’t get me wrong it was nothing perverted about their staring. To the contrary, they treated my body like it was just another piece of equipment in the room. If a leg was out of place they positioned it. If I was facing the wrong way the wrong way, they turned me. If a breast was in the way they just moved it. It’s not a problem for the French who never bother themselves with such petty things.
Tests were run, x-rays developed and a diagnosis rendered. “You have a stiff neck.” the doctor informed me as if I had not been able to figure that out. I was given a prescription for painkillers, muscle relaxants, a neck brace and sent on my way. Luckily I found a pharmacy and miraculously only paid $12 Euros. Amazing! After returning home I received a bill from the French hospital in the amount of $300 Euros, which included all services rendered. Not so bad; but a long way from free. The only problem that I faced was the bureaucracy of getting the bill paid. For months I tried to get the bill translated into English to no avail. My insurance company required paperwork that the French hospital had not provided and still has not provided despite multiple requests. I spent so much money and time calling France and trying to solve this issue that I have given up and decided to pay the bill when I return. Because once again Paris calls and when Paris calls I always come running even if she is a pain in the neck.
If you ever get a stiff neck in Paris the contacts below may prove helpful:
63 boulevard Victor Hugo in Neuilly suburb
Metro: Porte Maillot, then bus #82
Tel: 01 46 41 25 25
English-speaking pharmacy (open 24 hours a day)
Pharmacie le Champs
84 avenue des Champs-Elysées
Metro: Georges V
Tel: 01 45 62 02 41