By necessity, rather than by design, I’ve been exploring the unfamiliar terrain of the French medical system. I sort of knew how the US healthcare system worked (to the extent it did), but I had to learn a somewhat different system here.
This includes seeking medical help for conditions I’d never heard of—like a blocked saliva gland and a misaligned jaw. I’ve since learned that both are quite common. But because I’d never had them or heard of anyone who’d had them, the conditions were new to me.
Seeing a physical therapist who would address my jaw pain did not seem particularly threatening or worrisome. Consequently, on a carefree Monday afternoon, I breezed into a physical therapist’s office in Castelnau-le-Lez, where I live.
The therapist spoke fluent English. After I gave him a brief explanation of what I was there for, he led me to a small room and had me lie down on the exam table. When he began his exam, he told me that the treatment was going to hurt but that I would one day thank him for his work.
Undaunted, I reassured him that I would be fine—that I could tolerate pain in pursuit of getting my jaw realigned.
My confidence in my pain tolerance turned out to be delusional. Clearly, I underestimated the kind of pain he was about to inflict. After ten minutes of his treatment, I forgot his name and began calling him “The Tormentor.”
As he continued the exam and treatment, the pain mounted. I lay on the examination table moaning and thrashing around as his fingers pressed on muscles, nerves, and bones inside my mouth and outside on my head. I had no idea that head pain could be so excruciating.
Expresso let me hold his hand so I could squeeze it during the worst pain. I also remembered to use the labor breathing I learned for giving birth to my children decades earlier. Indeed, the memory came in very handy.
Several times the Tormentor asked me, “Comment ça va?” as in “Are you okay?” or “How are you doing?”
I didn’t know how to say “No, I am not okay” in French, so with a mouthful of his fingers, I tried to say “Non, je ne suis pas bien” or something like that.
Whether he understood my words or not, I do not know. But if he did, it didn’t stop him from continuing the torment.
As he continued working, he again repeated, “You will thank me one day.” I guess he meant to reassure me that going through the pain would be worth it.
Perhaps, I thought, I’ll thank you one day. But today won’t be the day I say “Merci.”
Leaving the Office Woozy
When he finished a half-hour later, he told me I would be somewhat groggy for a while. He also told me that I might feel very tired and relaxed later in the day.
“Groggy” was a serious understatement. When I sat up on the exam table, the room began spinning. I felt as if I had drunk a pitcher of grog. My whole head throbbed.
Expresso helped me to the car. I could hardly wait to get home and take the ibuprofen the therapist had recommended. But I had one more appointment before I could go home, so relief had to wait.
When I made it home two hours later, I was surprised that the pain was completely gone, and I felt remarkably relaxed. And my jaw didn’t hurt as much the following morning either.
Perhaps it was better not to know what I was facing the first time. Clearly, I was oblivious what was in store for me. The Tormentor reassured me that the first session would be the most painful, even as he told me I would need seven more visits.
Session Two—Not Quite as Painful
I’ve been back for a second treatment, and this time I was determined to do a better job of managing myself during the painful moments.
Viktor Frankl is reputed to have said, “Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
I was going to try to take advantage of that space to focus on a beautiful picture. For sure, the Tormentor was going to provide the stimulus—the pain—but insofar as possible, I was going to choose not to suffer. Or at least not suffer so much.
Despite my lofty goal, I still suffered. However, the Tormentor was right. The pain, while still excruciating at times, was less so. (Not enough less, I hasten to add, that I look forward to my next appointment, but definitely less). Or maybe focusing on the mental picture helped. Or both?
Grateful for Care
Despite my complaining, I am grateful that even as an immigrant, I have access to competent, caring, affordable dental care and physical therapy.
Rabbi Harold Kushner said, “One of the most sublime experiences we can ever have is to wake up feeling healthy after we have been sick.”
I would paraphrase his quote to say that one of the most sublime experiences I can have is to wake up without pain after having my jaw worked on.