'Dentists Without Borders'
One thing that puzzled me during the American health care debate was all the talk about socialized medicine and how ineffective it's supposed to be. The Canadian plan was likened to genocide, but even worse were the ones in Europe, where patients languished on filthy cots, waiting for aspirin to be invented. I don't know where these people get their ideas, but my experiences in France, where I've lived off and on for the past thirteen years, have all been good. A house call in Paris will run you around fifty dollars. I was tempted to arrange one the last time I had a kidney stone, but waiting even ten minutes seemed out of the question, so instead I took the subway to the nearest hospital. In the center of town, where we're lucky enough to have an apartment, most of my needs are within arm's reach. There's a pharmacy right around the corner, and two blocks farther is the office of my physician, Dr. Médioni.
Twice I've called on a Saturday morning, and, after answering the phone himself, he has told me to come on over. These visits too cost around fifty dollars. The last time I went, I had a red thunderbolt bisecting my left eyeball.
The doctor looked at it for a moment, and then took a seat behind his desk. "I wouldn't worry about it if I were you," he said. "A thing like that, it should be gone in a day or two."
"Well, where did it come from?" I asked. "How did I get it?"
"How do we get most things?" he answered.
"We buy them?"
The time before that, I was lying in bed and found a lump on my right side, just below my rib cage. It was like a deviled egg tucked beneath my skin. Cancer, I thought. A phone call and twenty minutes later, I was stretched out on the examining table with my shirt raised.
"Oh, that's nothing," the doctor said. "A little fatty tumor. Dogs get them all the time."
I thought of other things dogs have that I don't want: Dewclaws, for example. Hookworms. "Can I have it removed?"
"I guess you could, but why would you want to?"
He made me feel vain and frivolous for even thinking about it. "You're right," I told him. "I'll just pull my bathing suit up a little higher."
When I asked if the tumor would get any bigger, the doctor gave it a gentle squeeze. "Bigger? Sure, probably."
"Will it get a lot bigger?"
"Why not?" I asked.
And he said, sounding suddenly weary, "I don't know. Why don't trees touch the sky?"
Médioni works from an apartment on the third floor of a handsome nineteenth-century building, and, on leaving, I always think, Wait a minute. Did I see a diploma on his wall? Could "Doctor" possibly be the man's first name?
He's not indifferent. It's just that I expect a little something more than "It'll go away." The thunderbolt cleared up, just as he said it would, and I've since met dozens of people who have fatty tumors and get along just fine. Maybe, being American, I want bigger names for things. I also expect a bit more gravity. "I've run some tests," I'd like to hear, "and discovered that what you have is called a bilateral ganglial abasement, or, in layman's terms, a cartoidal rupture of the venal septrumus. Dogs get these all the time, and most often they die. That's why I'd like us to proceed with the utmost caution."
For my fifty dollars, I want to leave the doctor's office in tears, but instead I walk out feeling like a hypochondriac, which is one of the few things I'm actually not. If my French physician is a little disappointing, my French periodontist more than makes up for it. I have nothing but good things to say about Dr. Guig, who, gumwise, has really brought me back from the abyss. Twice in the course of our decadelong relationship, he's performed surgical interventions. Then, last year, he removed four of my lower incisors, drilled down into my jawbone, and cemented in place two posts. First, though, he sat me down and explained the procedure, using lots of big words that allowed me to feel tragic and important. "I'm going to perform the surgery at nine o'clock on Tuesday morning, and it should take, at most, three hours," he said -- all of this, as usual, in French. "At six that evening, you'll go to the dentist for your temporary implants, but still I'd like you to block out that entire day."
I asked my boyfriend, Hugh, when I got home, "Where did he think I was going to go with four missing teeth?"
I see Dr. Guig for surgery and consultations, but the regular, twice-a-year deep cleanings are performed by his associate, a woman named Dr. Barras. What she does in my mouth is unspeakable, and because it causes me to sweat, I've taken to bringing a second set of clothes and changing in the bathroom before I leave for home. "Oh, Monsieur Sedaris," she chuckles. "You are such a child."
A year ago, I arrived and announced that, since my previous visit, I'd been flossing every night. I thought this might elicit some praise -- "How dedicated you are, how disciplined!" -- but instead she said, "Oh, there's no need."
It was the same when I complained about all the gaps between my teeth. "I had braces when I was young, but maybe I need them again," I told her. An American dentist would have referred me to an orthodontist, but, to Dr. Barras, I was just being hysterical. "You have what we in France call 'good time teeth,' " she said. "Why on earth would you want to change them?"
"Um, because I can floss with the sash to my bathrobe?"
"Hey," she said, "enough with the flossing. You have better ways to spend your evenings."
I guess that's where the good times come in.
Dr. Barras has a sick mother and a long-haired cat named Andy. As I lie there sweating with my trap wide open, she runs her electric hook under my gum line, and catches me up on her life since my last visit. I always leave with a mouthful of blood, yet I always look forward to my next appointment. She and Dr. Guig are my people, completely independent of Hugh, and though it's a stretch to label them friends, I think they'd miss me if I died of a fatty tumor.