In December 2013, 23-year-old DC, who had recently moved to Paris to teach English at the Sorbonne, was diagonised with a rare form of cancer. He opted to undergo treatment in France rather than returning to the UK, and a few months later he was given the all-clear. DC spoke to Expatriates Magazine to share his story about being seriously ill in Paris in the hope that it might help other expatriates in the same position.
How did you first realise you were unwell, and what was it like to be going through that so soon after moving to Paris?
It took a while to realise something was wrong. There was no sudden moment where it all clicked; instead there was just a slow realisation that the pains I had been experiencing were not going away but rather getting worse. I had made a few visits to doctors who had promised me it would get better before they figured out what was actually going on. I was struck by the inconvenience of it all; I was looking forward to exploring Paris, travelling around and doing all sorts of new things; instead I had to go through hospitals, operations and large periods of being stuck indoors!
What were your first thoughts about being ill in Paris? Did you initially want to go home and be treated in the UK, and what made you decide to stay?
When I finally realised that it was going to be a long-term thing, the first thing I realised was how annoyed I was by letting this get in the way of enjoying Paris! I’m sure there is no good time to have an illness like mine, but when you’re young, just having graduated and experiencing a new lifestyle in such a vibrant city, the last thing you want to do is spend so much time in hospital waiting rooms and doctors’ surgeries.
Immediately post-diagnosis, my doctor suggested returning home and going through treatment there. To be honest, I wasn’t keen on it at all. The doctor saw the benefits – the NHS is free and much more familiar; there would be no language issues, and I would be surrounded by friends and family who could take care of me. I only saw the possibility of losing my job in France, of having to give up on my Parisian adventure so soon; of having to deal with my parents fussing over me all the time. I had stubbornly made up my mind even before he suggested going back to the UK.
How did you go about getting doctors’ appointments, going to the hospital, applying for a “Carte Vitale” etc. And do you have any advice to fellow expats in the same situation?
Finding a GP in France is actually simpler than in the UK. You don’t have to register with the GP beforehand if you don’t want to. However, you do have to pay – how much and when depends on if you have a “Carte Vitale” or not. My most important advice would be to apply for one of these the moment you arrive. Applications take a long time (in my case, four months) and you never know when you might need it. I never bothered, and by time I got one, I had already advanced considerable sums of money – the paperwork for my reimbursements was, like all paperwork in France, an absolute nightmare. Check if your employer applies for a carte for you, and if not, go to your local “assurance maladie” office and start the ball rolling.
Not too bad. In a way, doctors and hospitals speak their own foreign language. My French was good enough to understand what was happening, and all the medical jargon was explained to me so I didn’t feel too out of the loop. In fact, I would actually say that the experience was beneficial. Obviously in terms of vocabulary, I acquired a lot of experience in the medical field, but it also helped in terms of confidence. When a nurse is asking you questions about your life in order to distract you while a doctor sticks four large needles in your abdomen, you stop caring about grammar and you just talk! In fact, I got very used to the ‘Tu fais quoi dans la vie?’ question that seemed to emerge whenever the doctors were sticking needles in me or gassing me before an operation. Similarly, you don’t really have the time to be shy to the medical staff who are taking care of you when you wake up – especially when you are dependent on them for everything, even getting dressed and undressed!
What do you think of the French health system? Could you tell us a bit about the different stages of your treatment?
I was very impressed with how I was dealt with. The early stages were not ideal; when I first visited a GP he told me it was nothing and would go away within a few days. It was only on my second trip to A&E, with an impressive wait time of just an hour, that I managed to see a specialist (who, by chance, had stayed on after the end of his shift) who recognised the more worrying signs immediately. After that, things happened pretty fast; I came back a few days later for tests and then a week after that for confirmation of my diagnosis. I don’t know how fast the NHS deals with this kind of medical situation, but the French seemed very efficient. I was offered an operation a few days later but refused because I wanted to spend Christmas at home instead. My MRI happened in the UK (the only part of the whole process that did) and getting the French and British systems to talk to each other was a nightmare. It took me a long time to convince my GP in the UK to refer me for an MRI on the basis of a French diagnosis, and then even longer to get the hospital to send the MRI results to my French specialist!
When it came to the operations, the hospital was different to what I expected. I only had to share a room with one other person, for one. The hospital seemed clean and efficient. Of course, the way you paid was different. At the end of each operation I had to sign out via the payment offices before being discharged! Each operation and treatment had a fixed cost and if you have a “Carte Vitale” the government pays 80%. The rest is down to you, although most French people have a “mutuelle” (private healthcare insurance) that covers this.
What helped you get through the experience of being ill abroad?
I was lucky to have a brilliant group of friends from work. They stuck by me through the whole process and I will be eternally grateful to them for it. Shortly after I first received my diagnosis, I phoned a friend from the Sorbonne, and she organised a group of friends who turned up to spend some time with me and talk things through. They took me to and from my operations, collected clothes from my apartment when I had to stay in hospital for longer than expected, and visited me during recovery. They even covered the classes I was meant to be teaching! I also owe a lot to my housemate, Eva. I will never forget the memory I have of her the morning after I had been discharged from hospital, kneeling on the kitchen floor in front of a blender, surrounded by fruit and vegetable peels, making me a fresh smoothie to help me get better. I had only known her for three weeks at that point, but her kindness during that time was unforgettable.
Following his treatment in Paris, DC is in full health. He returned to the UK in July 2014 and now works for the University of Liverpool campus in London.