Is there a docteur in the maison?

It began with an insect bite. It was spring, the windows were open, anything could have flown in (French windows don’t have screens). The puncture on my hand was surrounded by a swollen area that got larger as time went on. I treated it with what I had in my travel first aid kit, which wasn’t much. When it got difficult to move my fingers, I went to a pharmacie, as one does in Paris.


The pharmacist suggested I see a doctor. There was one right in the neighbourhood, she said (this was in the Marais), and handed me a card. I called and was given an appointment for later the same day.

I expected to see a middle-aged person in a white coat. What was I thinking? This is Paris. Norman and I were ushered by a fashionably dressed young woman to a waiting room decorated in white, black and orange, with translucent Philippe Starck furniture (did I mention that the doctor’s card was orange?). We weren’t there long enough for our eyebrows to return to their normal resting position when the doctor himself appeared.

He must have been in his early thirties. He was tall and thin, with longish dark hair, dressed in black jeans and an open-necked black shirt. Around his neck was a chain from which dangled a tiny articulated skeleton made of silver. I am not making this up.

Seems you don’t need a white coat to be a professional. He knew what he was doing. I explained some of my homemade efforts to deal with the swelling, which had included soaking the affected hand. He shook his head gravely. “Erreur. Erreur.”

He gave me a prescription for an antibiotic and a cortisone cream and a bill for about 50 euros (this was some years ago). My hand returned to normal in a couple of days.

I now believe that it was a horsefly bite. I have been bitten several more times since that visit, and each time I’ve had an allergic reaction. To this day I do not travel without antihistamines, cortisone cream, and insect repellant. Every night in Paris, while other women drench themselves in Chanel No. 5, I coat myself in Off.

Our latest encounter with the French medical establishment took place last summer. This time, Norman was the patient. He had a painfully infected foot.

At the first pharmacie we visited, the woman behind the counter, whose French was fractionally worse than ours, seemed confused by our request, and said she had no idea where to find a doctor (this in an area with three large hospitals).

The knowledgeable staff at the next pharmacie directed us to the nearest S.O.S. Médecins. It was a Friday morning. The office was closed. We called the number shown on the door. A faint voice told us to leave a message. Norman suggested that we go to an emergency room in the Cochin Hospital nearby, but my Canadian experience of emergency rooms was of long and tedious waits. I wanted an appointment with a named human being. Now.

At this point, I had a hare-brained idea. We had passed a sign for a clinic on a side street. Perhaps they could help.

The clinic was in an 18th century building with a courtyard, somewhat marred by the installation of portable offices. Despite the urgency of the situation, I simply couldn’t resist taking a photograph.


The nun at the desk was stern. We did not have an appointment in advance? Non, we could not see a doctor there. Pas question. She did, however, relent sufficiently to give us the phone number of another S.O.S. Médecins in another arrondissement.

At this point, I was glad of our little French mobile phones. [Short digression: In our last blog, I expatiated on the blessings of a Navigo card. I should also mention that the second thing we do in Paris after renewing those cards is to head to an Orange or SFR store to get a chip for our European flip-phones. The phones are cheap – I think Norman paid 25 Euros for his – and the chip is about 20 Euros for six months. We have never regretted this expense.]

The good news: S.O.S. Médecins could give us an appointment. The bad news: it would be in the 19th arrondissement. Here we were in the 14th, clear across town. Could we be there in 90 minutes? Ouf, we would try.

Norman gamely hobbled to the Metro station, which was not nearby, and seemed to get farther away as we walked. The Metro was unusually slow. Then we had to transfer to the T3 tram. It wound its way through construction sites (does anyone live here?) and deposited us on the boulevard Macdonald opposite the S.O.S. Médecins clinic.

No Philippe Starck here, but stark. No receptionist. Nothing except a row of chairs in an otherwise empty room. The only other patient told us that when he came out of the doctor’s office we should simply go in without being asked.


This doctor was young and brisk. She glanced at Norman’s foot, pronounced her diagnosis (correct, we found, when we checked with our own doctor on our return), and wrote out several prescriptions. One was for a painkiller strong enough to fell a horse (which Norman never did use). Cost of visit: 76 Euros.

We got back on the tram. We limped onto the Metro. We broke our journey at the Place Jules Joffrin, where a pharmacist filled the prescription and gave us careful advice about side effects (also correct, we later found). Then we collapsed into café chairs and Norman took his first dose with a jolt of espresso. We had a grand view of the mairie opposite.


We spent the next few days quietly, and Norman felt much worse before he started to feel better, but his foot did heal in time. In the apartment we were renting, we found a cane that he could use to get about. This proved to have some interesting benefits. People on buses would spring to their feet to allow Norman to sit down if no other seat was available.

Now we’re not superstitious, so I mention this just in passing, but it was our 13th trip to Paris together and that visit to S.O.S. Médecins took place on Friday, June 13.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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15 Responses to Is there a docteur in the maison?

  1. Anne Spiselman says:

    On your infected hand: Did you soak it in cold water or hot? I’m allergic to bee stings and, at my doctor’s suggestion (over the phone, no less), soaked a very swollen hand in very hot water for 20 minutes at a time over the course of a few hours. The swelling was gone in a day–rather than the usual eight or nine. Hot water seemed counter-intuitive but worked beautifully.

  2. Pam Shuttlesworth says:

    It’s much better to call SOS Médecin for a home visit. Generally someone arrives within a half hour. We have done this several times and find it quite satisfactory.

  3. Ken Bowes says:

    You sure can spin a tale! I couldn’t stop reading! Ken B

  4. Meg Morden says:

    I agree with Ken! Rivetting stuff! I wish you had taken a picture of the orange chairs!

  5. Our experiences with the French medical system have all been great. But my favourite experience was in the emerg at the Princess Grace Hospital in Monaco. We were surrounded by some of the worst paintings and sculptures of the Princess. And we also had one of the most gorgeous doctors any where. Jack was enchanted and allowed her to treat him without a murmur or complaint. I would never hesitate to go to a doc or clinic there thanks for SOS Medecin.

  6. barbara sullivan says:

    Great article. I enjoy all of your newsletters but this was a good o.e.

  7. Susan Walter says:

    I think you might have been surprised by French A&E. They are run by the SAMU who are a specialist A&E team. In our experience (detached retina) they are quiet, you are a name not a number, and the waiting room is not full of drunks (which it would be in Australia or the UK). The wait is reasonable but of course depends on triage. We arrived just after a group of people who’d been in a car accident so we waited perhaps an hour. I told reception that I suspected a detached retina (although at that stage I didn’t realise that ‘detached’ was ‘une décollement’, not ‘détaché’ so I did manage to tell the receptionist that I thought my husband had a stain free retina). Mind you, all this was in the provinces. Paris is likely different.

    I thought SOS Médecins only did home visits. I had no idea they had clinics.

  8. Charlotte Grandjean says:

    SDR = sans domicile fixe = homeless
    SFR = phone company

  9. victualling says:

    Love your descriptions of the clinics.

  10. Ana says:

    The cultural differences are endlessly fascinating. You never know what awaits! Another service for a visiting nurse is
    Last May I arrived in Paris with 5 stitches over my eyebrow that needed to be removed in a few days. (An unfortunate encounter with an overly enthusiastic Labrador). When I got to my rental apartment I asked the owner for advice and he said, no problem, a nurse could come to the house. Wow. Really?
    Before I had a chance to call I went to a pharmacie and they directed me to a clinic across the street. I went to inquire and was told that a nurse is available every day from 12 to 1:30, without appointment. The next day I walked in, waited three minutes and was greeted by a nurse. She saw what needed to be done and took care of my stitches very ably. Only then did she ask me for insurance. When I said I didn’t have French insurance, she responded, very concerned, “It’s 10 Euro!”. My answer: pas de problème. I paid, without filling out any forms or even giving the nurse my name!

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