Peg-Leg In Paris


Nancy Massand

Copyright 2002 by Nancy Massand

Photo courtesy of Alessia Marzotto at Pexels.
Photo courtesy of Alessia Marzotto at Pexels.

The worst times make the best stories. Accounts of climbing the Eiffel Tower and boating along the Seine are endured with polite yawns, but when I get to the part about crumbling in a disabled heap on a cobblestone street and ending up in a provincial emergency ward, people are riveted until the final scene when I am forklifted onto a plane back to the States. I didn't make this up.

Smack in the middle of a trip to Paris and the Loire Valley I found myself in an emergency ward full of doctors and patients who spoke no English. I had no idea what was wrong with me; I had been walking down a cobblestone street in Angiers and suddenly my ankle had buckled, forcing me to sit down by the side of the road until the group had finished the morning tour and our guide was able to get me a pair of crutches. Knowing I couldn't put any weight on that foot, I spent most of the day with my leg elevated on the bus in transit to Nantes, where the driver let me off at the hospital before proceeding with the group to check in at our hotel. An ice pack had deadened the pain, but I knew there was something significantly wrong.

I sat in the waiting room listening to waves and oceans of conversation that I could not understand. Occasionally I picked out a word or two, but the general meaning was beyond me. As a teacher I had always taken communication for granted, but this was about to change. A nurse gestured toward me in a hurried conversation with a colleague and I strained to understand. What was she saying? It was all too fast. When she finally addressed me I was at a loss to reply, so she continued to converse with her colleague while pushing my wheelchair at a brisk pace down a corridor to an examination room, where she left me without further comment. I waited here alone for several minutes, faced with impending dread.

When the doctor entered, I mustered a smile and shook his hand. "Parlez anglais?"

" Non. Puet-etre un peu. Parlez francais?" He looked hopeful and encouraging.

"Puet-etre un peu." So there we were! "Maybe a little," on both sides. How could I explain to him what had happened or understand his counsel for treatment? I had taken French in high school, but that was thirty years ago! We stared at each other helplessly after he examined me and shrugged our shoulders. "Zeut alors," I sighed. He smiled and echoed my sentiment.

He called in several colleagues, but no one was able to translate. Then he motioned to me to wait a moment and proceeded down the line of curtained beds, inquiring of patients if anyone spoke English. I began to laugh, and several people who saw the humor in the situation joined me, including the doctor. I suppose he realized then that I could understand enough for simple communication, and he returned to my wheelchair to initiate the attempt.

I have always believed that total immersion is the best way to learn a language but had never been exposed to the method until that day. Neither of us used a word of English. When I didn't understand a phrase, which was often, we drew pictures, made faces, or pantomimed. My accent was atrocious; my vocabulary that of a three year old. I wanted to tell him that I had elevated the leg during the long bus ride, but with my limited vocabulary I said something like, "I put the foot up and the butt down." Anatomical explanations were a challenge for the good doctor since I didn't know any words for body parts that weren't in the song "Alouette," but his patience and drawing skill prevailed and he finally succeeded in making me understand that I had "cut a string in my ankle" (torn a ligament) and that the severed ligament had taken a chip of bone with it, which eventually would reattach itself and drag the ligament with it. Then I could walk again without crutches. In the meantime, I would have to wear a plaster cast.

How long would this take? I misunderstood his reply and grinned broadly until he clarified that it would not be four days, but four weeks. When he made sure I fully grasped what they were about to do, he wheeled me to the next doctor, who prepared the cast. He assured me that I would feel much better soon and that he was the best doctor in the hospital. We laughed and joked through the whole procedure, I suspect more at my attempts at expressing myself than at the actual humor in the situation. Then he chauffeured my wheelchair to yet another doctor who would face the most formidable challenge--explaining about the medication I would have to take until returning to New York.

The French have no qualms about self-injection, and it is not unusual to dispense a box of disposable hypodermics instead of a prescription for pills. Needles don't really bother me, but I'd never done it myself and was a little apprehensive. Not to worry, he said, he would show me how. The explanation was proceeding well until he said something about a six inch needle in the stomach and I panicked. "Non, non, non. Pas moi! Au revoir, je suis finis." I got up and hobbled toward the door; he gently but firmly ushered me back to my seat, at a loss to understand why I was so upset about "a little needle." LITTLE? Finally he lifted up his shirt and showed me what he meant--six inches away from the navel, not six inches into the belly, and only about a half inch of needle jabbed diagonally just under the skin of a pinch of flesh. Another doctor who was witnessing this scene with great amusement teased him about the abundance of flesh he had available. It was certainly no trouble to pinch an inch, he said; he could hold a handful.

At this point I felt that it was time to rejoin my group at the hotel and asked the doctors to phone a cab for me, but they refused. They didn't want to release me until I had an interpreter to make sure I understood my condition and their prescribed care. I assured them that I understood perfectly, but my mispronounced phrases were not convincing. Didn't I have anyone in the group who spoke French? One father and daughter did, but as the head teacher I was reluctant to cut in on their tour time. Then there was our tour manager, but to call her would leave the rest of the group stranded. The conversation continued for some time, and we seemed to be at an impasse. At that moment the tour manager appeared; she had checked the group into the hotel and given them some time to shower and settle in before dinner, and made a quick dash to the hospital to check on my progress. To everyone's amazement, including my own, she confirmed that my crash course in French had enabled me to understand everything necessary for my release. The papers were signed and I was on my way, to complete the rest of the France tour in a plaster of Paris cast. As I related my experience to the students at dinner that night, one of the girls who had only come to the USA six months ago was spellbound. Knowing her situation, I understood why. She left her chair and gave me a big hug, saying, "Finally someone understands how it is for me. For a few hours in the hospital you felt how I feel every day in New York."

The rest of the week was a challenge, but I didn't miss a thing. In fact, my total immersion experience was enhanced by having to find alternate modes of transportation and service elevators instead of hoofing it as was my normal fashion. The piece de resistance was boarding the plane back to New York. The jet was on the tarmac, which meant that our group had to walk outside and climb the stairs into the plane. I'd been on crutches for nearly a week and had become pretty good at navigating, but for insurance reasons the airline would not allow me out of a wheelchair from the moment I entered the terminal until I was actually seated on the plane. I would have to be transported from the tarmac to the plane, wheelchair and all, in a forklift! Many spectators cheered as I bid adieu to France, feeling like a departing dignitary wounded in the line of duty.

The kindness and patience of strangers was my most cherished memory of our tour, as well as the confidence born of the uncertainty of immersion in a foreign language. On our yearbook page, each tour participant was asked to complete the phrase "I'll never forget..." Amid all the superlatives--the sumptuous food, Parisian lights, the gorgeous chateaux--"the emergency room" appears to be a jest. I was serious, though; I never will forget the experience of learning to communicate, and as a result have a renewed compassion for visitors and newcomers here in the States who bravely plunge into a new situation and learn by necessity. Not gregarious by nature, I now find myself engaging in conversations with people who are learning English, using words, pictures, pantomimes, whatever it takes to understand each other. It is my hope that they depart feeling as I did in France, that language need not be a barrier where there is humor and good will. 

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