French Healthcare Adventure

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As President Macron announces major changes to France’s healthcare system, Tootlafrance editor Conor Power recalls when he got more than he bargained for in a trip to Alps last January

“Does it not bother you at all that you can’t walk?”

The doctor in the clinic at the ski resort of l’Alpe d’Huez asked me this question out of sheer puzzlement. I answered that it did but that I felt a beer followed by lying down for a while would do me the world of good. She shook her head seriously and told me that that particular treatment wouldn’t cut the mustard on this occasion.
She was right, of course. I did think that she was over-stating the case a bit when she was talking about this paralysis that started at the extremities and which can work its way into the core of your body, not allowing you to even breathe. She didn’t put a name on it but another doctor at the CHU (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire) de Grenoble did: I had Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

Artist’s Impression: a representation of Conor Power by his room-mate

GBS is an auto-immune disorder that can occur during freak circumstances – normally when your body is trying to cope with an attack from a virus. In trying to defend itself from the virus, the antibodies begin to attack your central nervous system, munching away at your nerves and the coating around them, convinced that they’re doing you the world of good when in fact they’re paralysing you.

In my case, I was suffering from a bad flu and, accompanied by my 22-year-old son Emmet, I was going on a three-day trip to the ski resort of l’Alpe d’Huez. I left my home in West Cork at 4am in a bleary state and when I stopped half way to buy a coffee, I found that my legs didn’t seem to have awoken properly. My left leg in particular seemed to have almost no strength and caused me to limp like an old crippled man. I got back in, found that I still had enough strength to press the clutch and carried on. With Storm Eleanor pursuing us all the way, we continued on our journey until we reached l’Alpe d’Huez at 8pm that night.

The next day, I found that could hardly take a single step in the deep snow outside the hotel and had to be brought by the hand into the clinic next door by Alpe d’Huez’s Press Officer Céline Perillon.

Things moved fast once I arrived at the hospital: “This is a good place”, said the medic as we pulled in by the Urgences (A&E) door. “It’s where they brought Michael Schumacher after his accident.”

Haven with Heavenly View: The CHU Grenoble Nord

The CHU Grenoble Nord has a reputation as being one of the best public hospitals in Europe for neurology so I couldn’t have been more fortunate. After a short period on the trolley, I was taken to the 6th floor clinic. There, with a magnificent view of the mountains that tower around Grenoble, I was put under some uncomfortable tests involving sending electric shocks through the nerves in my legs and measuring their efficiency. I was given my diagnosis by a doctor who told me that I was lucky to be in France where Guillain-Barré is always treated immediately.

By 9pm that night, I was receiving treatment in the form of a blood plasma drip. Using the hospital’s WiFi, I watched the RTE News, where the main story featured chaotic scenes of people on trolleys in the middle of a flu epidemic. The same flu was keeping them busy here too but I was in a comfortable bed, diagnosed and being treated within a matter of hours. The doctors couldn’t tell me how long recovery would take, other than that my condition was serious and that I could be here for “a number of weeks”.

Square Meal: Conor Power spent 2 weeks recovering at the CHU Grenoble Nord

The Wikipedia information on Guillain-Barré Syndrome wasn’t encouraging, with talk of people never fully recovering, permanent limps and long-term incapacitation. My neighbour in the room was an Englishman who’d been living in France for 30 years along with his Offaly-born wife. He had Parkinson’s and told me how he had received a blood test result and diagnosis on a Monday after he had been to see his GP the previous Friday. His doctor had even apologised for the “delay” in getting the result because of the weekend. The efficiency in the French health system was clearly on a different planet to the one inhabited by the HSE. As it turned out, he was also an artist and he sketched me a portrait of myself, which helped cheer up my miserable, shocked state of mind.

Through the night, I was awoken every two hours to check my vital signs and get me to blow into a tube to ensure that the paralysis wasn’t affecting my diaphragm. A few times, I wondered if I’d died and gone to heaven because I was invariably awakened by a small group of beautiful women speaking to me gently in French.
The next day, my condition had worsened and there was talk of ventilators and ICU, but things turned around rapidly after that. I could feel the strength returning to my legs and was able to walk more-or-less properly again by the third day.

Drink your Medicine! A welcome break in central Grenoble was good for the soul at least.

In the interim, the phone calls and texts were constant throughout the day. It was busier than a call centre, between updates, enquiries and chats with my wife, my mother, extended family and friends, editors and, of course, my son Emmet. I was very sorry for him that the skiing trip had turned into a plasma drip but very glad that he had been able to continue skiing for the next two days.

The communication in the hospital was amazingly clear. I could speak fluent French (courtesy of having spent a year and a half in college there) but I found that every junior doctor, every consultant and every nurse that I encountered were all fully up to speed with my file and were quick to answer any questions and give clear explanations of what was happening. At the end of my stay, they even gave me a detailed satisfaction questionnaire to fill out, asking me to rate such finer details as the room temperature and the quality of the food (top marks for the food!).

Home is Where the Heart is: Conor with his wife Fiona at the Hotel d’Europe in Grenoble

I left after two weeks in their care. Under the E111 system, I found I was covered for 80% of the cost of my emergency care, leaving me to try to persuade my holiday insurance company to cover the remaining 20%.

My wife came to collect me and we spent the last day as tourists in Grenoble. It’s just over an hour from Lyon Airport and it’s one of the most lively and pretty large towns in France with a vibrant high-tech industrial scene and surrounded by stunning alpine peaks. I had first visited the city as a student 30 years ago and promised myself that I’d come back some day and spend some time here. You really do have to be careful what you wish for!

(originally published as “Voyage of Recovery” in the Sunday Independent)

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