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The wonderful thing about Paris is that after 25 years in the City of Light, one can still find new things to do, new facets of the city and the French people to discover. So in my never-ending quest for novelty (am I laying this on too thick?) a few weeks ago, I went to a French hospital, and not just as a field trip, but for real life surgery, where they put you out and cut you open. Now, I’m no sissy, and I wanted the true native experience, so I didn’t go to the American Hospital in Neuilly. I’ll leave that to Princess Stephanie of Monaco and Sylvester Stallone. Wimps. I went to a French hospital, Assitance Publique. I’d rather not mention which one, in case I should ever have a relapse.
Preliminary to going in, I of course had had appointments with specialists, surgeons and the anesthesiologist. I’d had x-rays, blood tests, urine test, an EKG, all to make sure I was healthy enough to survive the operation, and to make sure the surgeon would find what he was cutting for.
So I arrived at the hospital at 2 p.m. on a Thursday for an operation scheduled Friday afternoon. It seemed a bit early to go in to me, but who am I to argue with French bureaucracy. Even Sylvester Stallone and Princess Stephanie of Monaco wouldn’t argue with French bureaucracy. Not if they know what’s good for them.
I went to admissions, exchanged some papers and was sent up to the service. Everything normal, so far. I gave them my admission form. And they asked if I had my dossier with me. No. I leave it with the doctors there; it’s thick and large with x-rays and test results. Fine, would you mind sitting here – in a hallway – for a moment. Okay. I had brought a book with me so I started reading. After almost a whole chapter a nurse came over. Did you see a doctor here yesterday? No. Perhaps he had your dossier? No, I haven’t seen a doctor here in ten days. Do y
ou have your dossier with you? No. Do you leave it at home? No.
Now, I used to read Sherlock Holmes when I was little, so I know something about putting clues together, and I was starting to wonder if maybe someone – not me – had lost my dossier. But I wasn’t reading Sherlock today, so I went back to my book. “Will in the World” by Stephen Greenblatt. Want my review? It’s a good book if you don’t know anything about Shakespeare and you don’t especially want to know anything about Shakespeare. Nothing new that isn’t made up and silly. How do you write the sound of a fart?
I look up at the end of a chapter to see a huddle of doctors and nurses, some stealing glances in my direction. This time a doctor comes over to me. When’s the last time you saw a doctor? About ten days ago. Did he have your dossier? Yes. Did you keep it? No. Do you have it at home? No.
I’m now getting a bit bold, so I venture, Is my dossier lost? Am I going to get to go home early? Oh, no, no, no! I’m just checking the facts. Nothing is lost . Don’t worry, you’ll be operated on tomorrow.
This is all starting to seem a little “louche” (a ladle, literally, but you could translate it more adventurously as fishy, “poissonesque”). What was going on here? But, then I remembered those magic words: French bureaucracy. So I went back to my book.
Another nurse came over to me. Did you leave your dossier with your personal physician? No. Well, your room isn’t ready yet, so maybe you’d like to take a little walk? You could arrange for the telephone and television while we’re getting your room ready. Sure, why not? I was getting a little tired of that hallway and of my book.
Anyway, after a little walk around the hospital grounds in the cold rain, (but I had my pipe with me, so it was okay) and some more waiting in the hallway, and some more of my book, they finally put me in a room, just in time for supper.
“Hospital food” is an international language all by itself, so there’s no need to say anything about it. So I only had time to set aside my untouched tray when the head surgeon came in, followed by a gaggle of lesser doctors, interns and nurses. The head surgeon solemnly explained to me that to due to a scheduling problem, my operation was being cancelled. As soon as they could re-do the schedules of the surgical staff, I’d be informed of the new date of the operation. I said, with an almost straight face, and maybe you’ll find my dossier by then. He was surprised! What? Is there a problem with his dossier? No, this is strictly a problem of scheduling. And after he left, the head nurse held back so she could explain the checkout procedure and to assure me that they would certainly find my dossier soon.
So, now in addition to my normal fears about being cut open, and I have been known to pass out at a blood test – not even my own blood test – I had to worry about putting my life into the hands of people who would tell absurd, contradictory lies about a missing dossier. But, keep in mind, I was in a lot of pain and would be until they operated on me.
Four days later, my surgeon called to reschedule my operation in a week and to explain that two emergency cases had arrived the Friday of my scheduled operation, which was why it was cancelled. Now at this point, I was spending several hours a day curled up in a little ball, moaning in pain – after I had taken my morphine-based pain killers. I was so relieved, that I didn’t even point out to him that the operation was cancelled Thursday evening.
So this time, everything went fine. Back to the hospital, showed to my room right away. A doctor and two nurses even kidded me about being so silly as to think someone could lose my dossier. And the operation would be early the next morning.
I was supposed to take a shower that evening, and another next morning. They don’t like to cut open dirty people in France. So a nurse came in to prep me (which means to shave the area to be opened) before my shower.
Now this nurse was a bit special. At first I thought, “She looks fairly masculine,” then I thought, “He looks fairly feminine.” Then I thought, “Eenie Meanie Minie Moe.” But as the shaving began, I could see that he needed a shave, himself.
They were going into me through the back, so, not too surprisingly, he started on my back, with an electric razor, humming along with it. He would shave, then lean close to blow away the hair. Fine. On my back. But then he moved on to my side. “Hmmm,” I thought. Maybe it was just to make sure that the whole area would be clear. But he kept moving on towards my stomach, shaving, then, dreamily leaning in to blow away the hair, humming to the tune of the razor.
Now, I should point out that much to my relief, I wasn’t yet in a hospital gown, but in my very own jammies, so under the rules of the Marquis of Queensbury, I had a belt which he was not going to go below. I watched uneasily as he continued, shaving dreamily, humming, blowing. Finally, when he had shaved my stomach up to my belly button, I said maybe that’s enough. He shuddered, as if he were coming out of a deep sleep. Sure, of course. But he looked disappointed.
So the next day I was ready. Showered and shaved (I have a beard, so I’m referring to my back and stomach). They gave me some very pleasant little pills – equivalent to about three martinis, so when they rolled me down to the operating section I was ready for anything. When I arrived, they transferred me to a table that seemed about five feet off the ground and just barely as wide as I am. And they had races down the hallways with me on that high, skinny little table; they didn’t slow down on the sharp corners. I was sure I was going to topple over. I was terrified. It was a lot of fun. They should sell those little pills. Legally, I mean.
When I got to the operating room, two people came and did things to the table I was on; my legs spread, my arms fanned out, but still on the table. Hinges, I suppose. They stuck a needle in my arm, and I didn’t even feel it.
I said, “Let us go then you and I as evening spreads itself across the sky like a patient etherized upon a table.” Really. The doctor said, what did you say. Nothing, just a poem. Then they put a mask over my face and I said “I can’t breathe.” “Quoi? (What?)” “Je ne peux pas respirer.” Just relax.
And that was it.
I had to stay in the hospital a few days after the operation. To let the fever go down, the wound dry up.
After a while, they put an Egyptian man in the room with me who was also in considerable pain (this is understatement, by the way). Moaning and writhing. Every once in a while, a sharp gasp. And he had already been given a little too much morphine by his personal doctor. So, between the pain and the morphine, he was completely out of his mind. In moments of calm, we talked a little, What’re you in for? kind of stuff. After a while, he asked discreetly if I didn’t have an accent. I should point out that despite many years in France, my accent in French is about as subtle as Pépé le Pew’s when he speaks English.
So I admitted to my accent and to being American. It turned out this was a bad decision. Because now he wanted to kill me. For killing Arab babies in Iraq. I could see his point of view, although I take a more moderate position on the subject of retaliation. Anyway, I had packed my toothbrush, my jammies and a couple books for my stay, but, unfortunately, no defensive weapons. All I had was my pipe tool, which is impressive looking when it’s closed, but open has a rounded – rounded! – blade, and a fairly wicked looking long, thin pokey thing, which hurts when I jab it under my thumbnail by accident, but I wasn’t sure it would stop a morphine-crazed, pain-crazed, Iraq-crazed Egyptian. Did I mention he was about 15 years younger than me (and I’m not 25) and about 30 pounds heavier (50 if you don’t count flab (yeah, well, it’s hard to get enough exercise when you’ve been in almost constant pain for 9 months). So how did I survive? What did I do? This is just like one of those old Perils of Pauline cliffhangers. I pulled out my “Bush — Not My President” T-shirt that my kids had given me as consolation prize after Nov. 2. “Ah, alors vous n’aimez pas Bush!” (So, you don’t like Bush either.) And we became friends, trading anti-Bush stories till late in the evening. Brings a tear to the eye.
But I still slept with my pipe tool under my pillow.