LOURDES, France — “It’s the American,” said the nurse when I walked into the emergency room at the Centre Hospitalier de Lourdes for the second time in one night. The nurse didn’t say it in a derogatory fashion, as one might expect. In fact he and the rest of the medical staff working the overnight shift could not have been nicer.
If there was a silver lining to my four-day bout of food poisoning, it was my experience with the French healthcare system, one that, unlike the healthcare system in the U.S., seems much more intent on actually helping people than gouging bank accounts and amassing senseless amounts of bureaucratic red tape.
My first trip to the emergency room came after nearly 24 hours of making mad dashes to the bathroom and enduring cramps that, as I told the nurse, were about an eight on a 10-point scale. At the end of that visit, the doctor prescribed a pain medicine, an anti-diarrheal, and an antibiotic known as cipro, or ciprofloxin. I left the ER confident that the pharmaceutical cocktail would stem both the pain and the runs and that I’d soon be doing what I set out to do when I went to southern France.
Located in the foothills of the Pyrénées, Lourdes is France’s second largest tourist attraction. Every year, millions of people from around the world visit the town of roughly 15,000 people to both meander through the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrénées and bathe in spring waters believed to have medicinal powers. In the mid-19th century, the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared before a young peasant girl 18 times. On the ninth visitation, she pointed the young girl in the direction of the healing waters, located in a grotto that’s now part of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Skeptical of the spring waters and their curative potential, I opted for modern medicine, and since it was a holiday and well past midnight at this point, I had to take the prescriptions to the police station, where a police officer would call the overnight pharmacist to let him know I was on the way. Fortunately I was traveling with two friends, Susan and Bruce, and together we zigzagged from the ER to the police station to the pharmacy and back to our hotel. The process was a bit labyrinthian but crime-fighting savvy, and in the end, it didn’t take all that long.
Medicine in hand, I took each pill as quickly as I could and looked forward to a time in the not too distant future when I would no longer be tethered to a toilet bowl.
But, alas, that time would have to wait.
The first sign of trouble was a persistent itch on my legs and arms, and then I noticed the welts. They were everywhere, prompting me to look up the possible allergic reactions for cipro, and voilà, there it was — “hives or welts.”
So what to do? Keep taking it? Stop taking it? Or get a different prescription? I tried calling the ER, but I don’t speak French and couldn’t get through to the doctor. Hence the second visit, the nurse’s “It’s the American” greeting, and the doctor’s recommendation that I stop taking the antibiotic and rely on the pain medicine and the antidiarrheal. That turned out to be bad advice.
The runs continued for another 24 hours before I went back to the ER again. This time nurses drew blood, hooked me up to an IV drip with fluids, and asked for a stool sample. Turns out, I had salmonella. This time, the doctor prescribed a different antibiotic, one that proved (Thank God!) to be effective. It took nearly 24 hours to kick in, but it worked!
And the total cost? 85 euros.
I paid the equivalent of roughly $95 for three visits to the ER, IV fluids and lab work. By way of comparison, I ended up at an urgent care facility (not an ER) in Raleigh this weekend for another ailment — I’m on a roll — and my copay alone was $75.
Never mind the nearly $500 I pay every month to ward off even bigger bills, and that’s an improvement, of sorts, because we now have Obamacare, which I’m all for, but the fact that it’s a mere Band Aid for what truly ails the healthcare system was made starkly clear to me by learning firsthand how they do things in France.