Getting Salmonella in the Land of Haute Cuisine

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.


As photographer Bruce Perrone said, that was NOT the expression I’d had on my face up to that point.

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.