The French Medical System, May 18, 2017

Posted: June 18, 2017 in France trips

On a Thursday morning we put our two bicycles on the street, strapped on our gear, and headed off bicycling south for an eight day ride along the Rhone River.   We would first have to bicycle out of the city of Lyon and its suburbs.   One bicycling guide online had recommended that instead of bicycling the first ten miles out of Lyon, one should take the commuter train to the town of Givors, to avoid riding in all that traffic.  Lyman wanted to take that advice, but I convinced him that we should just tough it out.

We had not gone more than six blocks when I stopped at a red light, in traffic.   I was not disobeying any traffic rules.    I came back much later that day to take this picture.


Under the blue arrow I was stopped with a bunch of car traffic, trying to meander around a construction zone.  Like an idiot, I was using clipped in bicycle sandals.   Watching the traffic instead of where I was going, at a speed of about two miles per hour ran over I the base of that blue sign.   I gently fell over.

I got right back up and continued bicycling but I knew right away that something was wrong.  I had hurt my arm.   It felt broken.

Lyman and I pulled over and discussed the situation.   We were about to leave a major city.   If I needed health care it would likely be easier here than in some small town.  Plus, I could not put any weight on my arm at all.   I could only bicycle with one hand.

We bicycled about three blocks further down this street.    When we had stopped there was a large building with a sign saying Hopital...

A note about language.  Romance languages are all similar.   I know Spanish the best because of my college study abroad in Colombia.    I had taken an intensive course in Portuguese for one year in 1979 and thus I can haggle reasonably well with Brazilians.  I have bullshitted my way through Italian and French for years but it is always a struggle.   Before this trip I had memorized several phrases in French, and this worked out reasonably well, if one needs to say something in a restaurant like: Hello sir.  I need a table for two persons, please.  I do not have a reservation.    But how do you say:  I think have broken my arm; can you help me?  I have no idea how French health insurance works!

The receptionist in this “hopital” building was quite helpful, and in a combination of French and English she indicated that this “hopital” was an office building for processing medical paperwork.    She told me the name and address of an emergency room three and a half miles away.  With the beauty of Google Maps on I-phones, Lyman and I got back on our bicycles and headed off in that direction, me with one arm dangling by my side.

It took about half an hour bicycling a mostly a straight shot down Cours Gambetta to Hopital Edouard Herriot.

Inside, it looked a lot like a small hospital in the USA, except maybe a little rattier.    You walk in a small dated looking lobby, and there is a window with a couple of receptionists.   You talk to them a while, they take down some information, then the automatic doors open, and you walk to another counter where a nurse briefly checked out my condition and took my blood pressure.   He directed me through another set of double doors, point to a small waiting room, and said something in French meaning Wait Here.   Lyman and I sat there many many hours.


Every half hour or so we would see the crew from an ambulance come in the hallway outside, with apparently the results of Lyon’s latest car wrecks.

There was a coterie of people who had broken bones, and we felt like a small club as we sat around waiting for something to happen.  After about five hours, my name was called,  and I was taken to a small room and told to Wait Here.    Lyman was a super friend and hung with me.  We then sat there another hour or so.


Eventually a young man who I later learned was a medical student came in an examined my arm.    He did not immediately ask for an x-ray.     He reported back to someone.   About half an hour later a friendly thirty-something doctor walked in.  She was kind of peeved at the medical student for not sending me to x-ray.   She gave me some papers and sent me down the hall to x-ray, where I was directed, of course, to a waiting room.   I only waited there about five minutes when they took the x-rays.   I went back to the room and sat again on the examining table.

Our fetching young doctor walked back in with the x-rays.    She said that she could not find a fracture on the x-rays, but that forearms are complicated and that there might be a break that did not show on the x-ray.   She put my arm in a removable cast, a velcroed wrist brace.  She said to stay of the arm completely and go see another doctor if the pain did not go away in ten days.  She gave me a big envelope with my x-rays and a printout in French of the medical record.

So the next day I bicycled the first of eight days in France using only one arm, with the x-rays stuffed in my rear trunk bag.

Two observations:

  1.  The arm to me still seemed clearly broken.  When I got back to the USA nine days later, I went immediately to an orthopedist.   Both a PA and an orthopedic nurse looked at the French x-rays and immediately saw a small fracture.     Did the French doctor not see this, or did she chose to ignore it for some unknown reason?  The hospital was really busy that day.
  2. As I left the French hospital in a cast carrying my large x-ray envelope, I blatantly paused in front of both the check-in windows, on both sides of the electric double doors.    Nobody asked for payment or anything else.   They have my USA name and address, but it has been over 30 days and I have not received a bill in the mail.   So I guess this is all free!

It was 5:30 PM and we had had no lunch.    Back near the center of town we shared a charcuterie hold us over until dinner.



  1. david summer says:

    Mais oui, je comprend votre histoire.
    Like most places hospital care varies quite a bit from place to place in France. We had our own encounter in Angers with a client who we thought had a stroke.
    The care was diligent and professional and quite good. Triage is the key word here. If your injury or complaint is not obviously life threatening your are going to be there for a long time. Not unlike UNC.
    Eventually when you are seen by a doctor, you usually get a highly qualified person. Our doc was a neurologist trained in Houston. She was professional and understanding. Her English was perfect and she was eager to discuss the differences in French and American healthcare. We did this for half an hour. Enlightening.

  2. Susan Dorn says:

    Interesting! In 2011 I broke my ankle in Paris. Thought it was only sprained but I lacked the chops to tackle the mysteries of medical care in France, Plus, it was my last day! Hope your accident will not discourage further adventures.

  3. Ripley says:

    A great Day One story, detailed and well-told. And the photos are so good I would have assumed you had two operational hands. Your only omission, the photo of the fetching young doctor, was intentional, right?!

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