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August 19, 2009

My Experience with the French Health Care System

Health care I've overheard many heated discussions and debates about health care recently.  I've heard many say, "Why is this happening all of a sudden?" and "President Obama is acting rashly, this is being pushed through too fast."   In our household the subject of health care has been front and center for a long, long time.  Health care and how to pay for it doesn't seem  "sudden" to me.

Every job/career decision my husband and I have made over the last twenty years has been predicated on whether health care would be included or not.  When I became an independent contractor and paid for all my own costs, we thought long and hard about my loss of health care coverage.  I was covered under my husband's policy but as you will soon see, there were issues. 

When I became pregnant with our first child, our coverage dictated that I leave the hospital within 24 hours of delivery.  Because it was over a busy Memorial Day week-end and because it was just 24 hours, I never had a lactation nurse or anyone for that matter, watch me nurse my new infant to make sure she was latched on and receiving adequate milk. 

When we got home, there were no after care or follow-up phone calls.  My favorite neighbor with children had recently moved  so local support was nil and we had no family members nearby.   To be honest,  we didn't think we needed help.  Everything seemed fine.  In fact, we gushed about what a great baby our daughter was; sleeping all the time and making our life so easy.  What was all this nonsense about babies keeping you up at night?  Then the smoke detector went off because my husband "over"-cooked something.  Our baby slept right through the horrendous, ear-splitting sound.  The alarm was a mere 3 feet from her.  That's when I became worried.  We took her to our doctor's week-end clinic and as soon as he looked at her, he yelled, "Get this baby to the ER".  Our precious baby was horribly dehydrated and on the verge of a coma.

I'll never forget the three block drive to the hospital, crying the whole way, or the ten days she (and I) spent in the hospital trying to save her life.  Within one week at home, she had lost 2 pounds and she was only seven pounds when she was born.  Her electrolytes were so messed up it was like a science experiment around the clock trying to find the right combination of fluids to pump into her.  That was after the painful search for a vein on a tiny, dehydrated body.  Often they used the veins in her head and that sent me down the hall into the storage closet - to hide and to cry.   I made my husband hold her hand during those procedures.  I knew we needed to be with her, but I was a physical and emotional wreck. 

I used a breast pump around the clock because I had begun to lose my milk.  You see, I had never, ever nursed her.  I thought I was nursing her around the clock.   She looked like she was nursing.  But, she was not getting any nourishment or fluids for a week.  She never latched on correctly.   For one whole week I was starving my baby.  Did I feel guilty?  You bet.  Was it preventable?  For sure. How much money did the insurance company really save by covering only a twenty-four hour period after birth?  You would be shocked to hear the cost of the medical bills for our infant's stay in the critical care unit for ten days.  They didn't save money.  It cost them money. 

Fast forward to our next child.   We lived in France in an old farmhouse surrounded by sunflowers.  It sounds idyllic and yes, it was in many ways.   But, I was an "older" mother with an 18 month old toddler to tend  and a husband who traveled frequently.  This second pregnancy had already started out with sadness because at the age of 41 I had been pregnant with twins but by the time we moved to France, I had lost one twin in utero. While in my second trimester, I was on my way to a doctor check-up when I fainted, falling forward onto the sidewalk and onto my baby.  The people in the cafe carried me into a booth and called an ambulance.   I was rushed to the hospital where my vital signs showed contractions due to the fall.  They kept me in the hospital over night where they succeeded (through iv medications) to stop the contractions.  The care I was given was immediate, personal and top-notch.

From the beginning of my French pregnancy, my Ob/Gyn had told us to be prepared for a hospital stay of  at least a week.  This was a common length of stay in France - not just for "older, expat mothers".   He felt very strongly that it took at least five days to make sure a baby was successfully nursing and the mother was rested, nourished and "taken care of" before going back home to be the caretaker for everyone else. Because I also had a toddler at home, he made it a full week for me.  How important that time was!  The nurses returned time after time to make sure I was comfortable with the nursing and they were on the watch every hour to make sure my baby WAS getting fed. But, they weren't just caring for the baby, they cared for me.  They were concerned if I was sleeping, how much I was eating, did I get to spend time with my toddler?  Yes, they gave my baby son a french "toilette" every day,  but beyond that I felt nurtured and cared for.   After my first experience, I was much relieved that someone else was on hand to take over if necessary.  By the time I returned home, I was strong enough to tackle a newborn and a toddler by myself when my husband was traveling.

The French complain about their system but mostly are very proud of it.  It is considered the best universal health care system in the world. It has flaws and in it's entirety it's not a good fit for the U.S.  But, for those of you who haven't experienced another health care system, please know that there is a place that does things differently and it's not all bad. 

"Myrna's back on American soil chasing her two teenagers and writing about life with teens at "  AND of course, this is an original 50-Something Moms blog post