I don’t like being out of my comfort zone. Not only does it make me uncomfortable, it makes me regress.

Carrying out my life in a foreign language has made me revert to the awkward, shy teenager that I try so hard to forget I was. Being a thirtysomething who is not guaranteed to put together an entire sentence, let alone an entire thought, gramatically correctly has made me self-conscious all over again. I speak minimally, do not expand upon thoughts in a profound way, and am constantly worried about my accent and whether people can understand it. Even if people compliment me on my French or assure me that my accent is charming, it is exhausting at times to be constantly reminded how I am different. Of course being unique is great but not every time I open my mouth.

When I first moved to France, I did anything I could to avoid vocal interactions with other Frenchmen. Thankfully, buying a baguette is formulaic, e-mail and texts have replaced phone calls, and more and more things have become automated, like buying movie and metro tickets.

However, since doctors are not machines I knew that I would eventually need to carry on a medical conversation in French, something I was not dying to do. But after seven years of chronic knee pain it was time to see if the French could cure what the Americans could not.

I liked my new primary care physician, Dr. Martin, from the start. He set aside a few hours each day for unscheduled appointments which allowed me to avoid phoning a secretary to make one. I was surprised to see upon my arrival, however, that a secretary was nowhere to be found. The door opened onto a waiting room with 10 other patients already inside.

There was nobody there to explain which doctor out of the three in this particular office I was there to see or why. There was no patient information form to fill out nor was there was a sign-in sheet. I took a seat and waited my turn, hoping it would be obvious when that turn would come.

I’m often scared of conversations I’m not convinced I can have, and get tongue-tied when around people of authority. In this case, I was not only worried about spitting out the right words and articulating clearly, but was anxious that I wouldn’t understand what the doctor had to say back. Sometimes doctors have relevant things to say concerning our health and I didn’t want to miss anything important.

I had brought a book with me to help pass the time but I was too busy repeating medical vocabulary and formulating practice sentences in my head. MRI, physical therapist, cortisone, shot, pain, limp, anti-inflammatory…the translations for these words were all pirouetting through my head in a stressed-out frenzy.

When I finally made it into Dr. Martin’s office an hour later I did my best to explain that I had had pain in my right knee every day for at least seven years. An MRI (accompanied therewith) led an American doctor to determine that I had bursitis (in layman’s terms, an inflammation). Said doctor gave me a painful shot of cortisone and sent me to a physical therapist. The physical therapist showed me stretching exercises that should cure me and then sent me to a podiatrist because I walked funny and needed custom-made insoles for my shoes. [At 28, this walking funny business, and possible culprit, was news to me.]  Hundreds of dollars later, none of this worked.

Dr. Martin simply gave me the name of a specialist, wrote me a prescription for an anti-inflammatory, and sent me on my way. That wasn’t so hard. Then he asked me for the 22€ I owed him for the visit, which I would be reimbursed for later. Through my domestic partnership with Luc, I’m in the French health care system. Even if I wasn’t, I could afford a doctor’s appointment.

The bad news was that I now needed to go to the pharmacy. I don’t like pharmacies here because there’s no Advil, Tylenol or NyQuil — no recognizable comfort drugs that remind me of home. They also don’t sell chocolate candy, cigarettes, school supplies or lawn chairs.

Once there, I silently handed over the prescription for the anti-inflammatory, praying for a simple exchange. No such luck — the pharmacist asked for my government issued medical ID card. I obliged. Since I was new, I wasn’t yet entirely in the health system. Instead of not having to pay anything upfront, he explained that I would need to pay for the drugs myself and that I would get reimbursed later.

“Will that be possible for you?” he asked with sincere concern.

I quickly calculated how much money was left in my checking account and subtracted the amount I guessed the drugs would cost based on past experiences in the US.

“That should be ok. What will the medication cost…80, 100€?”

“14.”

My leg specialist, while very kind and American-friendly, did not do much to cure my bursitis which he decided was tendonitis (in layman’s terms, an inflammation). After more drugs, cortisone shots, and useless months of physical therapy he sent me to a surgeon. Although I was scheduled to see the surgeon at 11am, I didn’t enter his office until 2. Not only was he behind schedule, he made me wait while he ate lunch.

Within 5 minutes, the well-fed surgeon with spinach stuck in his teeth determined that an operation would be too risky and advised against it. When he told me the cost of my consult, I thought he had said 120€. I was not shocked because I figured surgeons earn more than primary care physicians so I handed over my cash. Later, at home, I looked at the bill and saw that my consult actually cost only 80€. Not only did the good doctor waste my time, he ripped me off.

Could I dare go back and question this man, a prominent surgeon? I had no paper trail to prove anything; it would be my accented-word against his.

I was reminded of the time when I chewed on glass in a restaurant while dining with friends visiting from home. No, the menu did not mention anything about glass so I was quite startled when I bit down onto that shard. The waiter was very apologetic but I was dismayed when the bill arrived with the cost of my meal on it. I was foolishly too shy and too concerned about being the “obnoxious American” to demand that my meal be free. It’s one of those things I often think about with regret.

So I knew that this time I had to go back, defend myself and get my money. I practiced the hypothetical conversation while limping back to the doctor’s office. I nervously explained to the medical secretary that I misheard quatre-vingts (80) for cent vingt (120) and that the doctor must not have paid attention to the amount I gave him. The secretary spoke with the doctor and after a moment of very awkward tension he conceded his error. I was proud of myself for not letting my timidness cost me nearly $60, the equivalent of 5 minutes with a cheap hustler [shameless plug alert — see Hey].

I don’t believe in hocus pocus, but when friends raved about a miraculous “magnetiseur” who cost only 25€, I was intrigued. Since such a person is not recognized by the government as a legitimate health care practitioner I would not to be reimbursed. But for 25€, I figured that I had nothing to lose at that point.

I’m still not sure what a magnetiseur is exactly, but Judith is some sort of healer who transfers her energy to her patients in order to cure whatever ailment they have. After listening to my medical history, which I had gotten quite good at recounting by then, she asked me to roll up my pants leg before she placed her hands strategically onto the inflamed portion of my knee. For her, the tendonitis v. bursitis debate was of little importance.

Judith seemed to be deep in concentration which I was quite uncomfortable with. I always feel the need to make small talk (even in French) with anyone providing me with a corporal service. I did not know if she could transfer energy and speak at the same time. I hesitantly asked her if I could talk; she replied “yes” while laughing [at me?].

“Did you study medicine to do this kind of work?”

She laughed, again. “No,” she replied with dignity. “It’s a gift.”

Whatever you want to call it, it worked. After 3 sessions, some weird plant extracts and shark cartilage imported from Luxembourg, Judith did what 5 doctors, 3 physical therapists and a whole lot of drugs and shots could not. Nowadays my tendonitis only flares up when it rains, like an arthritic 80 year old.

I’ve come to worry that Dr. Martin thinks I’m a hypochondriac. When I recently found out that there is lead in our tap water at home, I went straight to him insisting on blood tests. According to a very reliable source, the Internet, any amount of lead can be dangerous. When I explained why I was there, I could see his eyes rolling in his mind.

“Are you sick?” he asked me. “Any digestive or respiratory problems. Problems with your motor skills?”

“No. It’s not that I’m sick now, I just worry that lead will make me sick later.”

He took my blood pressure and checked my breathing. I must not have said what I thought I just said. He told me that I was fine.

My blood tests showed that I do indeed have lead in my blood, but not enough to warrant medical attention. I’m only halfway there; I always was an underachiever.

Then there was the time I found a lump. I was convinced I had cancer even if lumps don’t form where this one was. A few days later Dr. Martin took me down from the ledge of hysteria. I had a hernia, he explained — essentially, a whole in my stomach muscle’s lining which required surgery. Gulp.

My surgery was scheduled for a Monday morning, so I had to check-in to the hospital late Sunday afternoon. I’m not sure why. Once I was shown to my room, I had nothing but free time until my 5am wake-up call. Luc and I took a tour of the grounds since there is nothing more depressing than being a healthy patient in a hospital bed.

Although it felt like a prison, or boarding school, there was no kind of “lights out” policy in effect. I was warned that I may miss dinner if I returned to my room too late but I was willing to take that risk. In fact, Luc and I decided to have drinks and dinner in a small bistro nearby. Coincidentally, my surgeon [not the knee one] chose the same place. I was not sure if she recognized me from our one previous encounter but I wasn’t about to go over and say hello. But I did keep my nervous eye on the bottle of wine in front of her.

It’s not that I have a fear of hospitals, I just don’t care for them very much. In my experiences, nobody comes out of a hospital cured, they’re just temporarily fixed until a health issue becomes unmanageable again.

Sure, mine was a minor surgery, but surgery nonetheless which required general anesthesia. Not everyone wakes up from that. So, I’ll admit it — I was scared. Which was unfortunate for the unassuming woman tasked with wheeling me from my room to surgery. I was alone, in a foreign country, and about to go under…I needed reassurance.

“I’m scared.”

“I’m sure that everything will be fine.”

If the surgery didn’t kill me, the cliché would.

In the operating room I was greeted by the anesthesiologist. I’ve seen every medical show created for television since “Trapper John M.D.” so that gas mask was no surprise, the suffocating sensation was. No instructions were given, at least none that I understood. I was breathing, and then with the mask on, I was not. I panicked and gesticulated for them to remove it. They confirmed that I was meant to breathe normally, even with the mask on. They replaced the mask, I breathed in twice, and then woke up what felt like one second later in recovery. That was cool.

It’s worth mentioning that I had absolutely no out of pocket cost for this entire process which included a consult with the surgeon , two nights in the hospital, one surgery and two weeks of much needed pain killers.

*****

Then there was the time I went to the proctologist…

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GREGORY MESSINA graduated with a degree in business from Washington University in St. Louis, quickly forgot everything he learned, and now works in publishing.

18 responses to “The One Where I Go to the Doctor”

  1. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    Hooray! Something new at last!

    Right now, I’m laughing heartily at myself. I read this: “Being a thirtysomething who is not guaranteed to put together an entire sentence, let alone an entire thought, grammatically correctly has made me self-conscious all over again. I speak minimally, do not expand upon thoughts in a profound way, and am constantly worried about my accent and whether people can understand it,” and I thought, that’s exactly how I feel every single day! And then it sunk in that you meant this is how you felt while *speaking in a foreign language* (whereas I feel this way speaking English). And also I shouldn’t read so fast maybe.

    But struggling in another language definitely amplifies such feelings. I spent a summer in Spain living with a host family who knew no English, and the only one I could comfortably carry on conversations with was the toddler they made me babysit. I did love the pharmacies there, though. They’d give you anything! I was fond of their codeine cough syrup.

    You are a funny, funny man, Gregory. Lines like this, “My blood tests showed that I do indeed have lead in my blood, but not enough to warrant medical attention. I’m only halfway there; I always was an underachiever,” have me rolling.

    • Gregory Messina says:

      Thank you for your continued enthusiasm, Cynthia. I had essentially finished this over a month ago, but just couldn’t let it go; there were a few things I wanted to fix but just couldn’t figure out how…so I took a step back for a few weeks and it worked.

      Now that you mention it for yourself, I may just be inarticulate in English too!

      I sincerely appreciate your encouragement. Un abrazo.

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Damn, Gregory!
    That was my favorite line too!
    Now I’m an underachiever!

    You should ask how high your blood mercury level is.
    Maybe you’ll pass that test!

    I think you should have Luc come in with you to the doctor from now on.
    Just to make sure you aren’t saying your right knee instead of your left by mistake, or your elbow or something.
    And what if the doctor talks to you a mile-a-minute?
    Bring Luc with you from now on, so I don’t have to worry about you!

    • Gregory Messina says:

      Thanks, Irene! It’s funny because I worried that line was completely unoriginal.

      Fear not, after so many years, I’ve learned my right from my left. I’ll be ok.

      And whenever you get to Paris, we’ll sit down and chat over wine.

  3. Gloria says:

    “Sometimes doctors have relevant things to say concerning our health…” ha ha hahaha ha! Yeah, sometimes…

    I love reading your stuff. It’s always a romp! 🙂

    Now, about this proctologist…

  4. Jessica Blau says:

    Hilarious!
    You’re like a younger, better-dressed Woody Allen in Paris.

    • Irene Zion says:

      @Jessica Anya,
      Doesn’t he just look so comfortable?
      You just want to sit down next to him and chat.

    • Gregory Messina says:

      Thanks, Jessica. That’s very flattering. I wouldn’t dare say or think that, but if you’d like to, I’m very happy with that.

  5. dwoz says:

    wonderful little bit. Great sardonic tone.

  6. Judy Prince says:

    “ ‘No. It’s not that I’m sick now, I just worry that lead will make me sick later.’

    “He took my blood pressure and checked my breathing. I must not have said what I thought I just said.”

    Wonderful way to put the feeling one gets after speaking “foreign” words, Greg. And here’s another that nails the “foreign stranger” feeling:

    “Even if people compliment me on my French or assure me that my accent is charming, it is exhausting at times to be constantly reminded how I am different.”

    And, of course, it got worse when you were at the doctor’s office:

    “I was too busy repeating medical vocabulary and formulating practice sentences in my head. MRI, physical therapist, cortisone, shot, pain, limp, anti-inflammatory…the translations for these words were all pirouetting through my head . . .”

    At least you got “thought-revenge” with this:

    “If the surgery didn’t kill me, the cliché would.”

    Great closing line, too! HA! Yes, how about the visit to a proctologist?

    BTW, I usually cured myself while in Taiwan simply bcuz the alternatives were so frightening.

    • Gregory Messina says:

      Judy, hi!

      Thanks for your encouragement. It’s quite nice to see what lines stand out for people. The closing one, about the proctologist, was the first and easiest thing that came to me. It just took 2 months of rewriting to get there.

  7. JoAnn says:

    Very funny piece, Gregory. When I spent 6 weeks in Morocco, I felt the same way. After a while, I realized some of what I was saying wasn’t interesting to the people around me anyway. My sense of humour or how to navigate a social situation didn’t work for them, so I had to think not only of HOW to say it but WHAT to say. It was like I had to become a new person, learn to reveal myself differently, while I was there. I was able to avoid medical visits during my stay, which is an entirely new level of cultural and linguistic disorientation! Nicely conveyed, and I commend your courage.

    • Gregory Messina says:

      JoAnn,

      That’s exactly it…it’s learning what to say on top of how to say it which in turn makes us different people. Very well put.

      Thanks for reading and your very kind compliments.

      Gregory

  8. Marni Grossman says:

    “Judith seemed to be deep in concentration which I was quite uncomfortable with. I always feel the need to make small talk (even in French) with anyone providing me with a corporal service.”

    I feel you. Hairdressers, GPs. Even therapists. I feel compelled to inquire about their children and their weekend and whatever else I can think of.

    This was such a funny piece!

  9. Gregory Messina says:

    Thanks so much Marni! I’m glad that you were entertained and can also relate to that bit about obligatory small talk.

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