I don’t know how many times I have used that expression when speaking of something unpleasant that I wouldn’t want to do. Well, I take it back. So far, I have had no illness since I’ve been in France that would cause me to visit chez le médecin (doctor’s office). Recently, I felt, and then promptly ignored, the twinging of my gum when I ripped into my daily baguette. I chalked it up to excessive brushing, the gum recession of which I am cursed, or overdosing on baguettes. (Is that possible? I don’t think so.) It wasn’t until I was flossing (yes, I do every day!) that I saw one of my bottom front teeth (gasp) wiggle! Not only did I not want to have dental work done in France, I dreaded having to even call un cabinet de dentiste prendre rendez-vous (a dentist’s office to make an appointment). Face-to-face, I can manage getting my point across, but par téléphone not so much.
Monday, 9:15 am: I anxiously called the first thing in the morning and reached the assistant at the dentist’s office that had been recommended by Stèphane, Steve’s office mate at GEM (Grenoble Ecole de Management). I used basic words: J’ai besoin d’un rendez-vous avec le dentiste. (I need an appointment with the dentist.) She rattled off a time which I heard as 10:30, and even though I repeated it, I wasn’t sure I got it right. I figured I could show up at the office and sort it out if I was mistaken. I arrived a few minutes early, and my name was not in the appointment book. (Computer scheduling is not de rigueur the “done” thing here.) Guess I did get it wrong; however, I was very graciously escorted into a waiting room and told I would be seen in a few moments.
While I waited, I filled in an intake sheet with the basic information. I wondered how they would react to non, my answer to the question about my subscription to dental insurance. A few minutes later, I was called back to the examining room, and I explained my problem in English to le dentiste, Paul-Louis Albertini. He nodded his head while listening intently to my problem. As I was sitting in the chair, he inserted a small rubber-covered device in my mouth and took an x-ray of my tooth. No lead vest over me and no assistant leaving the room. Voila! A computer screen behind me showed the problem. Even I could tell there was something not right. He went on to explain that there was an infection around the tooth. I might need antibiotics, and they could see me again on Friday (we don’t want to rush anything!) to determine what exactly to do, but it sounded like my worst nightmare, the words you never want to hear your dentist say—Root Canal!
Friday, 12:45 pm: I emerged from chez le dentiste (dentist’s office) after about an hour in the chair. As needle-phobic as I am—I used to faint when my children got them—I did not refuse the numbing shot, even though Dr. Albertini gave me that option. Following a little drilling on the back of my tooth, he cleaned out the inside of the tooth and assured me there was no “funny smell” (his exact words!), so I wouldn’t need to take any antibiotic. He packed it with some thread-like stuff and put a temporary cover over the hole. As temporary was the operative word, we were not finished yet. By the time I was ready to leave, his assistant, who is an unusual luxury in a medical or dental office in France, had gone to lunch. I wasn’t able to determine how much this root canal was going to cost and felt a little bit anxious about that. Would it be 1,000 euros? 1,200 euros? I made an appointment to return in about two weeks for the permanent cover.
As I was in the dentist chair with my mouth gaping, Dr. Albertini told me he had spent a few weeks in America, specifically Iowa and California, in the 1990s. As happens with almost all the French people we meet who have spent time in America, they are eager to talk about their experiences and hope they will have an opportunity to return there. They often speak of the differences between our countries. The doctor remarked that it seemed to him that Americans do not spend enough time enjoying their food, family, or friends. He believes the 1- to 2-hour lunch with delicious food, interesting conversation, and good friends are essential for the physical and emotional health of people. I think he’s on to something!
Before leaving the office, I asked the good doctor if I might take a picture of him for my blog. Unfortunately, he declined. His reason?—in France, dentists are banned from advertising their services. Government regulations forbid this because they believe your work must speak for itself and word of mouth (an apt phrase here, oui?) recommendations are the best advertisement for your business. He is allowed a brass plaque outside of the entrance door to the building he occupies and can list his name in l’annuaire téléphonique (the telephone directory.) Dr. Albertini felt that my posting his picture might be counter to the regulations. I told him not to fear my blog would boost his business with Americans flocking to France for his dental services or that anyone would praise him on their Facebook page, but I’m not sure he understood what I was referring to.
Wednesday, 8:30 am (12 days after my root canal): Armed with the checkbook (credit cards are not used for services such as these) and hoping there was enough in the account to cover the bill, I showed up for my appointment to have my tooth checked and to pay up. My tooth seemed to be wiggling a lot less, and I felt no pain. I hadn’t given up baguette eating, but I was still playing it safe by avoiding using the bottom front teeth to tear into them. I was hopeful that it had healed as Dr. Albertini had said it would and I could return to my adopted French gustatory habits.
I was the first appointment of the day, and Dr. Albertini’s assistant opened the door upon my ring—doctor’s office doors are locked throughout the day, and you must ring the doorbell to be admitted. The doctor appeared in the waiting room and escorted me to the treatment room. He proceeded to remove the temporary tooth cover and applied a permanent one. It took about 10 minutes, and I was done.
Now, the moment of truth—how much would I be set back? He printed out the bill and presented it to me. He asked, “It’s okay?” I steeled myself for an amount that could be our vacation to Barcelona and took a glance. 87, 57€ (about $126.40)! I don’t know why it wasn’t a round number. I was stunned. The Levi jeans here cost 120€! I’ve never had a root canal before, but I think it might be a bit higher in America than what he charged. The doctor explained: the fees are set by Sécurité Sociale, the government health insurance, and he is not allowed to charge more than the set amount for the procedures. Since 1945, everyone in France has had a form of la couverture maladie universelle (universal health coverage) because it is provided based on the idea of solidarity—no one should be without health protection and that medicine/dentistry should not be a money-making business. (Wait. National health care, everyone with paid access. What a novel idea!) In most cases 75% of the total health expenditures are covered by the public health insurance, and the balance comes from subscriptions to private health insurance and/or patients paying out-of-pocket expenses. What’s the catch? Not entirely sure, but nothing is very fancy here in terms of health care delivery—no plush expensive offices, no extra staff for filling out insurance claims, and no drug reps pushing the latest and greatest.
Dr. Albertini, like all doctors here is France, personally escorts all his patients to the door and bids them “bonne journée,” “au revoir,” “merci.” I was so pleased with the results of my experience that I shook his hand and barely refrained from kissing him. (He thinks I’m crazy enough.) Before I left, I asked him about how long I would have to wait for a return appointment for a cleaning. “Oh, as you like,” he replied. Looking in the appointment book, he suggested the following week. Incredulous, I asked, “You don’t have all your appointments taken for next week?” He smiled at me. “Oh, no. I don’t take too many patients. I don’t like to work all the time. Life is for enjoying. N’est-ce pas?”