Lovely Awkward: A Year of Wine, Romance and Life Among the French

Lovely Awkward: A Year of Wine, Romance and Life Among the French

Thursday 9 June 2011

My doctor thinks I'm a moron

Since arriving in France, I've had to go to the doctor several times -- most of the time, for simple things like check-ups and teeth cleanings. I've seen doctors, dentists, gynecologists, and eye doctors, the usual people that you see over a year when you live in a place. At least, they're the same people I always saw in Canada. Well, by profession. Definitely not by personality.

The doctors in France seem to still be all-knowing, whereas the doctors I had in Canada seem, to me, to work in more of a collaborative diagnostic system. Doctors in Canada ask their patients, "What seems to be the problem?" and you're allowed to answer "I think I have a sinus infection," if that's what you think it is.

In France, however, I told one doctor that I had a sinus infection, and his response was, "That's for me to decide. You don't know what you have. You're not a doctor. All I need to hear are the symptoms." He'd then asked me about any symptoms I might have anywhere in my body, as a means of narrowing his diagnostic field. He hadn't just started with my head, as a doctor in Canada would have.

I imagine that hospitals might have been like this in Canada back when my grandmother was a nurse in the 50s, back when doctors had special doctor bags and secret textbooks they could look in. They kept mysterious fluids in needles and made house calls and didn't have their professions exposed on House, Grey's Anatomy or the internet.

Basically, I found it interesting that Docteur House and the internet haven't had the same influence here in France. It's not that I think patients should be in charge of diagnosing their ailments, but I'm used to being able to hint at them.

Anyway, that's not why I was considered a moron. In fact, it was almost for the opposite reason. That diagnosis discussion was just to set the scene.

So here's the story: Two days ago, I went to a doctor who couldn't tell the difference between my language barrier and my level of intelligence. I'm sure this is something that happens to new Canadians all the time, that it doesn't just happen in France, and that it's not just a problem with doctors.

Nonetheless, the appointment was incredibly frustrating.

My doctor said a few medical words that I didn't understand, which I hadn't looked up because, as mentioned above, they don't like it when you do that here. I asked her to repeat them, and she repeated them just as quickly as she had the first time. To me, she was saying crazy, foreign words, with letters I couldn't even identify. And since she didn't offer definitions, I politely asked her if she could say them again, slowly, so I could write them down and look them up at home. Maybe my willingness to look them up myself was my mistake? I don't know.

After that, the doctor decided that I couldn't understand anything she was saying in French. She tried to change an appointment with me and said five times, "Do you understand? This appointment is going to be on a different day. Understand? Understand?"

Of course I did! Those are French words that I know. Those are normal words, with less than 14 letters in them. She didn't, however, believe me. After asking my questions, I found it almost impossible to convince her that my understanding of French was fine, even if my understanding of medical words was lacking. I'd ruined my standing by showing that there was something that had gone over my head.

It's a medical catch-22 for les étrangers like me: If I don't look up the medical words beforehand, some of the doctors think I can't understand French. If I do look them up, they think I'm a cocky ass who isn't respecting their level of expertise.

I'm sure this kind of thing happens to non-native speakers all over the world, I've just never been one of them. And I never realized how frustrating it can be!

That said, I'm banning myself from sinus infections until I go back in Canada, where I'm allowed to hint at my sniffles. At least, I'm banning myself once this one is gone.


  1. Oh poor you! Some doctors in France definitely have a superiority complex. And I agree, how dumb to treat you like an idiot because you didn't understand a couple of medical terms!

    I don't like my experience with Canadian doctors much so far. I recently went to the doctor for a check-up, sometimes I hadn't done in years because between the immigration and the lack of GPs in Canada, I hadn't had the chance. The doctor treated me like in idiot, saying "well, in OUR country, we do that every year". In France too dummy, I just explained honestly why I didn't do it lately!

    And it's the University Health Center (I ended up there by luck) so it's really trying to spot some "student" issues. I had to tell her twenty times that yes, I was married and no, I wasn't cheating. No, I don't have suicidal tendencies and yes, I eat well.

    Finally, she weighed me and measured me and I ended being about 5'2 and 500 pounds (barely exaggerating). Yeah... never mind. Very accurate scale and measuring you have here!

  2. Zhu: Ridiculous!

    I've had some odd experiences in Canada, too. At the University of Toronto clinic, the doctor actually brought in a handyman while I was half undressed. I guess there are a few reasons people are supposed to stick with one doctor, once they find one that fits.

    I hope you find one you like soon ... I know I'm still looking!

  3. Neti pot, Neti pot, Neti pot. <----helps with sinus infections, not arrogant french doctors.

  4. keendemann: Haha. I have one of those! (well, I have all three of the things you've mentioned, but the weird little tea pot seems to be the best bet)