My first encounter with the French health care system was after I had been living here, as a student, for about ten months. I was bicycling home late one Friday night from my job at a restaurant when I misjudged the angle at which I should mount the concrete lip of the driveway. I flew off the bike and it landed on top of me with a crash. The accident was so loud that it woke up the residents of the apartment building in front of which it happened; they ran downstairs and called the ambulance. Eventually there was quite the crowd of chattering French people grouped around me as I lay half conscious on the sidewalk; I could vaguely make out some oh la las and c’est une amÃ¨ricaine! in their conversation.
The ambulance took me to the emergency room, where I was somewhat promptly seen and given eighteen stitches. They even managed to dig up a French intern who had spent her adolescence in Southern California and who spoke fluent, almost accent-less English- quite a nice touch, I thought.
The taxi driver who took me home, at 4am, refused to believe that my mangled face was the result of a bike accident. He kept asking whether my boyfriend was still at home or had already been taken off by the police.
The next Monday, when I went to school, I flippantly explained that, in fact, accidents were very useful things to have when living in a foreign country. After all, you learn all sorts of vocabulary: stitches, anesthetic, pain, ow… the others didn’t really think it was all that funny. I do still remember how to say all those words though!
Several months later I received a bill for the ambulance ride at my mother’s house. It was in French francs, and I don’t remember how much it was but I think it was around $75. I never received a bill for anything else. Not the stitches, not the medicines used, not the services rendered. Nothing. I, as a foreigner, having suffered a fairly serious accident, didn’t have to pay anything except for the ambulance service.
I’m not quite sure why this was. Maybe because it was an accident and I was taken to the emergency room? Maybe my American health insurance company was billed without my knowing about it. It probably wasn’t because the French have a kind heart and treat their patients without billing them. I couldn’t tell you the answer. But I do have to say that my first experience with French health-care, although admittedly traumatic, left a positive impression. And a nice two inch scar in and above my left eyebrow.