Traumatologie and Traumatisme: Crutching 101
I had big plans for my Year Abroad. I promised myself I’d do things I wouldn’t dream of doing at home. I’ve made it up three physical mountains and countless metaphorical ones. I braved the thought of being seen undressed by strangers and took out a subscription at an Olympic-sized swimming pool. And I bought myself a pair of rollerblades.
The hilarious thing about practising a sport in France is that according to the Unwritten Sporty Type Code, you are obliged to wear the right gear. French sport shops are actually for these sporty types and not for Vicky or Ricky Pollards looking for a cheap tracksuit. At a public pool: no swimming cap, no swim. Go visit that vending machine over there if you forgot yours. A jogger wearing spandex and running shoes is a jogger. A jogger wearing jogging bottoms probably nicked something.
So I embraced this No Half Measures sporting culture… possibly a little too heartily as it turns out.
What with swimming and skating weekly, frequently hauling myself up mountains and twice daily jogging up and down metro stairs, I was starting to feel fitter and healthier than I had done in years.
And that’s when I was forced to discover the French healthcare system. I had many big plans for my Year Abroad and seeing a French doctor was not one of them.
Traumatology and Traumatism
By the end of my second trip to the Pyrenees, I had finally been forced to realise that all was not well with my right knee. Having a dicky joint was one thing Suffering Hippy and I had in common and we’d taken to stumbling and limping through the snow arm in arm, laughing at how mismatched our mental and physical ages currently were.
Hippy bullied me into seeing the on-campus doctor. The on-campus doctor sent me limping off to a sport injury specialist. Off to the sport injury specialist I limped, after a weekend of further resistance, denial and excuses (“It’s probably just a sprain and if it’s arthritis I don’t want to know”).
The cabinet de médecine et traumatologie du sport was “accessible” via a small staircase and a heavy door. I went to hand deliver my letter of referral and make an appointment. I came out having been bent into all kinds of shapes in hilariously inappropriate underwear by a terribly good-looking doctor, whose chiselled features I admired as he pushed my right leg past my ear and as I pleaded with myself not to accidentally fart.
It turns out I’m quite limber apart from the one knee.
Like I said, I’d gone with the intention of making an appointment, but had jumped at the chance of being seen straight away, marvelling at the efficiency of it all in comparison to in the UK. Of course, unlike in the UK, it was not free. The Trauma Doctor had seen me in skimpy lady boxers with pictures of frogs and the message “Hop to it” on them and it was me paying him 30 euros…
Let’s get a proper look at that knee- How will you be paying?
From here, I was sent to get some scans done- x-rays and a special MRI called an arthroscanner. I only learned it was called that after my third mispronunciation, however. If you think medical professionals in Britain have poor handwriting, try interpreting a French doctor’s scrawl over the phone to an impatient receptionist with the IQ of a sloth and the personality of a Venus Fly Trap.
Palm Tree, my Adoptive French Mother extraordinaire, accompanied me to the Médipole, a clinic way out of town and kept me amused as we watched people in various states of disrepair hobble, roll and drag themselves in and out of the waiting room. As well as the scans, which were uneventful apart from being told to “ne bougez pas” so many times that I daren’t even move my eyeballs, I was also there to have some injections. I’d had to buy the ingredients myself and leave them sitting on my desk during the lead up to my treatment, warning me not to drive or operate heavy machinery after their use… No chance of that.
Lying under a mirror and a machine that went ping, in slightly more appropriate underwear, an elderly French doctor shuffled in and told me to stay calm as he covered half my leg in iodine. He then proceeded to inject me not once, but three times with needles reaching the width of my knee. He seemed a bit surprised to hear the stream of English profanities I came out with as he went for knee-dle number two.
“Ah, vous venez d’où ?” (“Ah, so where do you come from?”), my doctor asked.
I’d entered the clinic fairly mobile, feeling sorry for the hobblers, the limpers, the two-wheelers, the four-wheelers… And upon leaving, it was me that got a good eyeballing as I dragged my fat, unbendable leg behind me, wincing as I was forced to put weight on it.
The whole experience cost me a disgusting amount of money, which I’m yet to see back from my insurance. But I did get a nice souvenir booklet. A “This is Your Knee” book, if you like.
My cousin, who came to visit a few weeks later (see next post) and who is a GP in the UK, gave me a brilliantly blunt idea of what was going on in layman’s terms: “It’s all a bit knackered around this bit really.”
I had big plans for my Year Abroad. I’ve overcome the agony of administration. I’ve had some shockingly bad test results. The Year Abroad Operation has felt a bit like extracting Water on the Knee from time to time. But I plucked up the courage to see a medical professional. I’ve learnt the French for “limp”, “crutch” and “knee brace”. I finally realised that when my doctor reaches out his hand, he’s not asking for the paperwork or scans I’m holding- he simply wants to shake it (that handshake costs about 11 cents by my reckoning). But most importantly, I’ve learnt how to crutch.
The Wife sent me a message asking how the knee and I were doing. I replied that I’d had a major breakthrough: “I’ve figured out a good place to lean my crutches when I go for a tinkle,” I told her.
It’s stuff like that you don’t think about until it’s you. How do people on crutches get off the John? Why don’t you notice the awkward camber on all French roads until you have four legs? How long does it take to go down 5 flights of stairs when the lifts are switched off? Can a can of Coke fit in my back pocket? How ridiculous will I look carrying this newspaper in my mouth? How do you yawn politely without the use of your hands?
And so my Year Abroad experience offers me a new life lesson. I currently feel like my average day could be put to Benny Hill music, fading out to the soundtrack of kindly French people wanting to give up their seats. Some prefer to offer an encouraging smile, or to ridicule their peers as they’re overtaken by a speedy cripple (true story).
And what a conversation starter. The amount of times a day I’m required to ask perfect strangers to borrow their hands, to explain what I’ve done and that I don’t quite know how I managed it and to graciously thank those who go out of their way to help me out (like the 4″8 Chinese girl who looked upon me in horror as backed impatiently/ threw myself backwards into a closed door and proceeded to run ahead and open the next three, nod at me and walk away in the opposite direction…)
For the first time in my life, I’m not “the ginger one”, “the English one”, or “the one with the green leather jacket”. A Glaswegian Erasmus student I met for the first time last week made me chuckle with her “Ah, you’re the one with the leg.”
And as I await surgery, with my crutches to play with, my transformation into a ginger Robocop is complete with my new toy: a high-tech hinged knee brace.
I’ve learnt many things on my Year Abroad. One is that it could always be worse. Another is that I am unlikely to grow old gracefully. And my favourite is that I’ll never manage to blend in.
Although perhaps more than a tiny nun.