Stuck in a French hospital


Sometime around the end of May, I got bitten in the small of my back by an insect. I didn't think anything of it of course, since I do get bitten all the time. Insects seem to like my blood or something. However, this bite was different. Instead of going away after a while, it got infected and the area around it start to swell painfully. (In retrospect, I may have scratched it after touching a mildly infected pimple I had near my nose. Now I'm deathly afraid to scratch anything on my body.) I tried to treat it myself, with cold compresses, then hot compresses. I put ointment on it and disinfected it. But it didn't get better. It eventually become so painful that I had to resort to painkillers, which worked halfway, but I was still in a lot of pain.

But the swelling spread and became worse, and I was running a low fever, so 3 weeks ago I finally gave up and had The Guy take me to see a doctor. The doctor took one look at it, tried to lance it a bit (without any painkiller - it hurt so much I screamed) and then told me that I had to go to hospital emergency in Carpentras (a town that's the regional center of this area, about a 20 minute drive from our village) right away. After several hours of waiting around and a couple of tests, the surgeon who examined me told me that I'd have to stay overnight, and have surgery the next day.

And so began my totally unplanned stay in a French hospital. I've had three surgeries, to remove quite a lot of infected tissue. They told me that they had to cut away about a 20 cm (7 inch) square and 2 cm (1 inch) deep bit of tissue, since the infection had burrowed quite deep. Also, they suspect I may have the early symptoms of diabetes, since my blood sugar level is elevated (though it may be at least partly due to the infection; the numbers have come down quite a bit in the last few days). At the moment, I'm tethered to a negative pressure dressing system; basically there's a vacuum hose attached to my back, with the other end attached to the wall. The hose is sucking the wound gently closed, helping it to heal up, while it also sucks away excess body fluids. Even when I go home, I'll have to wear a similar, more compact system there for 6 to 8 weeks, during which time I won't be able to walk around or do much exercise. At least my IV was taken out about a week ago, so I'm not tethered two ways. In any case, my first summer of living in France is turning out to be a total loss.

Language problems

For the first few days, I was in too much pain to care about much. But once the second surgery was done (the third was to remove some dead tissue under the wound) I was feeling a lot better physically. Mentally it was another issue. Being hospitalized is never a fun experience, but being in a hospital in a country where your grasp of the language is shaky is really not a good thing. When it comes to French, I can understand more than I can speak (and thanks to 3 1/2 years of French literature in college, my reading comprehension is a lot better than my hearing comprehension). I did quickly learn the most important words and phrases: j'ai le douleur (i have pain), j'ai mal (I don't feel good), etc. But when you are still translating stuff in your head and not feeling totally alert at the same time, it's really hard to communicate. It's damned frustrating.

One particular thing that tripped me up is what The Guy (who happens to speak 4 languages - those smart Swiss) calls False Friends - words that when directly translated mean one thing, but in use mean something else entirely. For instance, prior to my second surgery I had to sponge-bath myself with an antiseptic. Afterwards, as I sat in my paper-like surgical gown with my butt hanging out, feeling very vulnerable, a nurse's aide came in and demanded, "avez-vous fait la toilette?" Translating in my head, I thought she was asking "have you gone to the bathroom?" Since I hadn't been able to poo for a few days (having a major pain in your back sort of prevents you from putting in the effort, shall we say) I replied non. Now, this nurse's aide seems to have some kind of problem - with me, her job, the world I don't know - but she's so bitchy that I have taken to calling her Madame Méchante (Madame Nasty), or alternatively the Blonde Bitch. So she glared at me and started practically yelling at me "ooh la la, vous n'avez pas deja vous lavée??? (You haven't washed yourself yet???)" followed by some rapid fire crap-in-French that I didn't get. I quickly caught on that she meant the washing thing and corrected her, but I still cringe when I think of that moment.

To be fair, with the exception of Madame Méchante, just about all the other nurses, nurses' aides, ambulance workers and other staff I have come into contact with on a regular basis are really nice and very professional. The doctors are so busy that I have barely seen them really, but when they do come around they are also very nice. However, almost none of them speak more than a little English. Something to keep in mind should you get sick in France, especially outside of Paris.

I think that my French comprehension may be considered on the intermediate-advanced level in foreign-language-learner terms, though certainly not fluent. (I found that I could have conversations with other patients quite comfortably, which was really nice.) The thing is, it takes a few ticks of time for me to process and comprehend what people are saying to me. And my comprehension and frustration level depends on how people communicate with me. For instance, every weekday morning I go to a clinic in Avignon (the biggest town in this area of Provence) where I spend an hour or so in a Jules Verne submarine-like chamber for hyperbaric oxygen therapy or HBOT (see Wikipedia entry about HBOT). The doctor in charge there does not speak English, but she always talks to me very clearly, waiting for me to process the information and react, and that is wonderful. The nurse that has been on duty for most of the days I've been here has a similar communication style (and she even tries some English) and that's great too. I wish everyone was like that, but of course they are not. The most annoying way that people try to communicate with you is when they raise their voices, as if SHOUTING makes it easier to understand them. If you've ever been to a foreign country, or encountered foreign-language speakers, and you've done this, stop it. It's intimidating and unnerving and altogether a awful way to talk to someone.

I've actually seen this in another context. My father was hospitalized earlier this year - he actually has advanced diabetes (one reason why they think I may have diabetes, because of my family history) and had to have his left leg amputated at the knee. (He's now back home and coping well, by the way.) My father understands English perfectly - he grew up around native English speakers since his parents were both in the Salvation Army, he was an English major in college, he's spent more than half his adult life in the U.S. and England and was a company executive for decades, and he's been in an elder in his church for 20 odd years. When I'm talking to him he even has a tendency to switch from Japanese to English because at this point it's somewhat easier for him. Still, he does have an accent, and in his weakened state it was taking him a few ticks and more to respond to people. I witnessed the nurses, nurses' aides, ambulance workers and so on talk to him LOUDLY, as if he were deaf, and also talk down to him as if he were a child. I don't know if this is the natural inclination of hospital workers, but to me it's a horrible, demeaning way to talk to adult patients. Please, if you happen to be reading this and you work with sick people in any capacity, do remember that to treat them with respect and dignity. Just because they are sick, and may have an accent, does not mean they are dumb or have reverted to childhood. An above all, don't YELL.

I've never been hospitalized for such a long time before, but ironically when I was in Switzerland I never experienced these frustrations in a medical context. For one thing most Swiss people speak at least some English - some very well in fact. And for another, no one really assumes that a foreigner understands or speaks schwiizerdütch or Swiss-German, which is a German dialect that sounds totally different from the standard Hochdeutsch that you might learn in school. So there was really no talking down or yelling. Our GP where I used to live was fairly elderly and spoke no English, but he always communicated clearly and slowly so that I would get it, or waited for The Guy to translate. But many French people, in hospital or elsewhere, just seem to assume that you should be able to understand French if you're there (and especially if you had the temerity to buy a home there). I guess French conversation classes are definitely in my future, if I'm going to stay here.

Oh, the hospital food

One thing that people seem to be very interested in is how the food is in a French hospital. Well, as I said I don't have much first hand experience with hospital food in general, but I have observed both my father and my mother (who has spent a total of 80 plus days in hospital, from late last year to June, for surgery on her severe case of ulcerative colitis) and the food they ate. My mother's food in Japan didn't look that bad to me, though she said it was blah; it was certainly quite varied, and even had touches of color - greens and reds and yellows. (See also: Plastic food models used for nutrition education in a Japanese hospital.) My father's food in New York looked absolutely awful, and when I asked him about it he just said "I think of it as medicine". Of course the food they were getting was quite different - after most of her large intestines were removed my mom was able to eat just about anything, while my father was getting a low-sugar diabetic menu - but still, it's hard to think of anything more depressing than food that's all in shades of grey and brown.

The hospital food I've been getting here has been mixed. Mostly it's quite blah, and the colors do tend towards greyish-green an beige. But there are some bright spots - for instance we get a small wedge of real cheese (mass-produced stuff, but still) at least once a day, and fresh fruit too. The bread rolls are crusty and not bad, far better than the floppy bread slices my father was getting. (Incidentally I am also on a low-sugar meal plan, and I was surprised that it's white bread, and that I also get white rice, pasta, potatoes, even pastry. I had always assumed that diabetics couldn't eat refined carbs, but I guess I was wrong. If it turns out that I do indeed have diabetes, I'm going to have to do a lot of research.) Low points are the tasteless stewed or canned fruit and fruit salad that comes instead of fresh fruit for some meals. We are right in the middle of one of the major fruit growing regions of France - the town even has a variety of strawberry that bears its name, Fraises de Carpentras, and Cavaillon, famous for its melons, is just a hop away - so I don't see why the yucky poached stuff is necessary. But I guess I'm just being difficult.

Here are some of the meals I've been getting, shot surreptitiously with my iPhone. (But if they don't like me posting these, they can throw me out of the hospital! Whee!) After all, this is still a food blog.

This is the breakfast I have every day: a bowl (a cafe au lait bowl, with no handles) of tea, with two packets of biscottes - melba toast essentially - and a pat of butter. I can get coffee instead of the tea but I've never been a morning-coffee person. I think people with no sugar restrictions can also get hot chocolate. One time, Madame M. put some jam and sugar packets on my tray, but I'm sure that was a mistake. (I ate the jam anyway.)


Lunch and dinner are always more or less the same: a protein dish, a vegetable, some kind of carbohydrate, plus fruit of some kind, cheese or yogurt or fromage frais. There's usually a bread roll or more of those melba toast things too.

This was the second meal I ever ate here I believe, and it was a bit of a shocker. The pool of greyish-white stuff that looks like cracked plaster is actually brandade de morue - poached salt cod in mashed potatoes. I prefer my version, or even better a version made by Chef Erick Vedel when I took a cooking lesson with him last year - the salt cod was mashed into brebis, a fresh sheep's cheese, and stuffed into puff pastry. But this one was just extremely starchy and salty. The grey-green broccoli didn't help much.


This was not too bad...roast pork in rather watery jus, mashed potatoes or pommes purée, and grey-green spinach. I guess it is the fate of vegetables to turn grey-green in a hospital kitchen. It didn't taste too bad though.


This thing was gratinéed celery - it well, made me giggle. I have a dirty mind I know. It tasted ok, though I had to eat it with just one eye open.


Now this is very French - an andouille sausage is the main. French andouille, unlike the Cajun kind, is not spicy, and is filled with pig's intestines and stomach bits. I'm not too fond of it normally since it's a bit barnyardy, but it was a welcome surprise in this case. The ratatouille, which appears often, is not too bad - well we are in Provence after all - and the carrot salad was refreshing. Note the crusty roll and the wedge of Cantal cheese - and fresh apricots!


This is colorless but actually tasted quite okay. It's a beef stew with pasta and...I'm not sure what that beige vegetable was, I think it was white beans. I suppose that vegetables cooked in big quantities and kept hot on a steam tray does lose its color.


And finally, when I saw this meal I actually teared up in joy. Spaghetti bolognese! Not as good as mine, but...spaghetti bolognese!


I know I am way more obsessed with food and how it tastes and looks than the average person, and some might (and do) say that I an GODDAMNED SPOILED, but what can I do, it's my nature. I suppose the food is tolerable. I do look forward to meals - I get really hungry anyway. Still, I dream about the food - the still healthy and within-guidelines food - that I could be making for myself at home - properly cooked vegetables, fresh salads, whole grains to keep me regular. And I get the oddest cravings, especially after dinner. Things like butter-poached almonds, fresh macadamia nuts, spare ribs, a pastrami sandwich from a good New York deli, steamed pork buns from Eiraku in Yokohama, roast chicken with crispy skin, still rare-on-the-inside magret de canard, and plates of glistening sashimi haunt my waking dreams. I think that after this experience, I'm never going to take good food for granted again, and I will certainly think twice before wasting a meal on some junk from a fast food place. Curiously though I don't have any sugar cravings, but then I have never had a huge sweet tooth.

In any case, I am still here, typing away at my laptop set up on my little table-on-wheels. Madame M and a couple of other staff don't like that I have my laptop here, but the doctor said it was fine, so screw them. I need my laptop and the ability to write, and get online, to maintain my sanity. At this point we are waiting for my Swiss insurance to sort out the payments or whatever for the home care. There's a chance I may have to move back to Switzerland temporarily - we'll see. In any case, I just know that I can't wait to get out of here.

Last but not least, I am so, so grateful for everyone who is out there in Twitterland who have given me words of encouragement when I've lost it and whined like crazy there, as well as all the great comments I've gotten on this site and Just Bento, as well as flickr. My family and 'real life' friends live in other countries, most in other time zones even, and without my online friends I don't know how I could have gotten by so far. I know lots of people scoff at Twitter and such, but from my perspective human kindness and support in whatever way it gets to one is gold. To you all, I say, I give you a big, cautious (because of that hole in my back) hug and kiss and say thank ou, merci beaucoup, danke vielmals, arigato. I'll still need your support until I escape!


Well it's Monday, 2 days after I posted the above. This morning they suddenly told me that 1. I could leave the hospital and that 2. I don't have to have the VAC thingie attached anymore! Woah, that was a pleasant shock! So anyway, I am now home! Thank you EVERYONE for all of your wonderful support! I may post another update, or just go back to FOOD... ^_^

Incidentally, the last dinner I had at the hospital last night was this beauty:


It was so completely beige that it was funny. The white beans were okay, and the rice was what it is, but the thing in the foreground was definitely problematic. I had an impromptu guessing game on Twitter to see if anyone could figure out what it was; NolwennP did (could have helped that she is French ^_^) finally. It's a fish gratin with carrots and onions or leeks or something in it, by the way. The sauce had curdled somewhat, which didn't help things.

No more hospital food - whee!

Life is good again.

Add new comment