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THE FRENCH DENTIST - FIRST VISITS

Making judgements based on anecdotal experience can be dangerous, terribly misleading, particularly given only one data set. But considering how similar our first visit to a French dentist was to our regular visits to our French general practitioner, we feel confident that our experience was not an outlier. My French or expat friends are invited to tell me if I've misjudged.

Cathey broke a tooth some time ago. She didn't have pain and decided to wait until we received our carte vitale, our French public healthcare card, before visiting a dentist. We'd try out the recommendation of our friends Simon and Julia. Two women, one relatively young, one somewhat older, had a dental clinic in Capestang a few kilometers away. They had both studied in the US, so their English was probably better than our French. Cathey decided that we'd go after Thanksgiving. No, after Christmas. No, after the New Year.

And of course by about the second week of January, the tooth that hadn't hurt decided that enough was enough and began to throb.

I arranged our appointment in person. As is the case with our GP, the dentists' office had no reception desk. No assistants bustled about. When the phone rang, the dentists themselves answered. I simply walked in the door after pushing the doorbell that announced my presence, sat in the waiting room, and waited. When the older of the two dentists came to usher in the next patient, I walked up, introduced myself, used Simon and Julia's name (acknowledged by the dentist with a smile), and told my story. Dr. Doucet-Pellequer excused herself, walked back to her office, and came back with her appointment book. We settled on a date a few days later.

We arrived at the appointed time, pressed the buzzer, took our seats, and were ushered into the treatment room by Dr. Doucet-Pellequer herself spot on the appointed hour. The room had all of the familiar bells and whistles - the patient's chair with the dentist's stool and tray of instruments beside it on the right and a sink for rinses on the left. An x-ray machine hung against the wall. The back wall contained a long counter and a series of drawers and cabinets. But there was more. The room was at least four times the size of our American dentist's treatment rooms, perhaps even bigger, several hundred square feet. The dentist's desk with two visitor's chairs in front occupied one corner of the room next to the sliding glass doors that led to an extensive, sunny patio. In the opposite corner from the desk, a little play area for children featured a tiny table and chairs, games, and puzzles.

We explained Cathey's problem, handing Dr. Doucet-Pellequer the little packet of x-rays that our dentist in the States had given us. She held the x-rays up to the light, nodded her head, then laid them down on her desk and invited Cathey to the chair. First, a quick exam. Then an x-ray. No lead apron. No hiding in the next room. Just pulling the cord with the trigger to the far side of the room and pressing the button. As she put the cord away, rehung the machine, and walked over to her desk, I realized that the x-ray had appeared on her computer monitor, larger than life and hi-res. Far out.

Yes, the tooth was deeply cracked. The suggestion was to drill out the nerve and place a pin in the cavity that would eventually anchor a crown. No crown yet, not even a temporary. Let's see if the remainder of the tooth is stable with no more cracking. Come back in about ten days. A couple of shots of anesthetic a bit of drilling later...job done.

She slipped our carte vitale into the little machine that reads its chip, asked about our mutuelle, and we set our next appointment. (A mutuelle is top-up insurance kind of like a Medicare supplement that picks up the difference between what the public system pays for and the actual cost. We don't have one that covers dental, just a catastrophic hospital policy.)

Ten days later, Cathey received a composite crown, swiftly done without fuss or fanfare. The permanent crown? No rush. Come back in six months or more as long as everything feels right.

The bill? $110. French healthcare picked up $75. We paid $35 out of pocket. It is incomprehensible that the American system sucks up twice as much money per capita for healthcare as the European-style, single-payer system. The Constitution is not and should not be a suicide pact. When it comes to healthcare, that's exactly what it has become.


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