When the NHS is found lacking, think “Vive La France!”

A constant burning pain in my chest woke me from a deep sleep around 5 a.m. I got up and walked to the bathroom, tripping over my suitcase and wakening my sleeping wife. Standing in the bathroom I hoped the pain might lessen but it stubbornly remained.

I had had some chest pain and was breathless walking back from the restaurant the evening before. Biarritz has a steep incline up from its roaring surf beaches but the pain had eased when I reached flatter ground and it disappeared, as it normally did, when I stopped walking. The Friday before I had a similar episode walking home from work so now, in the darkness and cloying air of a September morning, I knew I was in trouble.

Foolishly attempting not to alarm my wife, I told her I needed to see a doctor, pulled on shorts and a T-shirt and walked downstairs to reception. It was a small three-star hotel and I worried no one would be on duty. Thankfully Chloe who has registered our arrival the day before and spoke perfect English was still there. I calmly told her I had chest pain and suspected a heart attack so she quickly telephoned an emergency number and translated my acute symptoms. Within twenty minutes an ambulance was outside the hotel, I was placed on a stretcher, blood pressure and oxygen saturation measured and my worsening symptoms assessed using Chloe as translator. I was driven off in darkness to the A&E at the main regional hospital, fifteen minutes away in the town of Bayonne. Passport, European Health Care card and Covid-19 vaccination status were recorded, a PCR Covid-19 test and bloods were taken and I was stretchered into a private room to await a doctor who when he arrived insisted, in broken English, I should not attempt to stand up. By now my confused anxious wife, refused a ride in the ambulance, had arrived by taxi and was allowed to join me. The language barrier was difficult but we managed and nervously we discussed between us what had just happened and what might be about to happen. Our immediate and long-term future was uncharacteristically uncertain.

Within half an hour blood tests were back and a heart-attack confirmed so with a negative Covid-19 PCR test it was agreed I should be admitted. I was given a bolus dose of anti-platelet medicine to challenge clotting and by 11 a.m. I was in a private ICU bed, my chest and right arm wired up to an ECG/BP/oxygen saturation machine and a saline drip inserted into my left arm. At 2.00 p.m. all went quiet, my wife was asked to leave and I was prepped for theatre and told again I should not attempt to stand up.

By late afternoon I had a five-year old stent replaced but then the complications started. Clots from this failed stent had moved further down the artery and I spent the next five days in ICU where they pumped a series of clot-buster drugs into my left arm with the aim of blasting these imposters out. Their cunning plan was unsuccessful so on Sunday I had two additional stents inserted and allowed to finally stand up and, on the Monday, leave hospital with an impressive medical dossier, in French, and just in time to catch my Ryanair flight back to Dublin early Tuesday morning.

Leaving hospital I found I had to pay. On admission to A&E I had a European Health Card (EHC1 now a World Health Card) and I had travel insurance. But my EHC1 was out of date (expired 2013) and I was told that my insurance was contingent on a valid EHC1 something I didn’t know. A new EHC1 was registered online when I was in ICU and on departure I had to pay only €144.

I’ve had better holidays and my wife had holidays with much more fun, but on reflection, my experience of the French healthcare system was reassuringly wonderful. I would most likely have received this level of care had the event happened in the UK perhaps without the private ICU bed.

Biarritz was not our planned destination. We had arranged to walk for a week in northern Spain but cancelled due to Covid-19 and instead used the flights for a Biarritz beach holiday. Had this medical event happened on Camino, somewhere in rural northern Spain, I don’t want to speculate what options might have been available but perhaps that is being unfair to the Spanish health-care system.

Returning to Belfast I attempted to contact my GP as I was told by my French cardiologist I must speak to a local cardiologist within four weeks. I had huge difficulty making contact by phone and finally resorted to writing a letter which prompted an urgent GP appointment but a month later I was still waiting to see a cardiologist; the waiting list back then was ten weeks. So I went privately to see my NHS cardiologist who put back onto his NHS list and since then I have had one telephone assessment. On the positive side I have been assigned a nurse practitioner who has been more than helpful and reassuring but I do worry my residual angina is more than “just to be expected”.

In the UK the NHS remains an institution beyond reproach. Critics risk being accused of heresy so we complain indirectly about lack of investment or poor management. We never it seems wonder why, if our beloved NHS is such a great idea, no other country has replicated it or has plans to do so anytime soon. When I next feel the squeeze on my coronary arteries I might consider ringing Ryanair rather than 999. Vive La France!

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