We returned from Zermatt by the same route, the only route really, via Sion to Martigny. Only here we deviated from our previous path, leaving Switzerland by a different Col as we climbed and wiggled our way to the mountain town of Abondance, back in French territory. We pulled onto the spacious gravel of the town’s free aire and had our choice of spot, with only three other vans in residence; the large aire could absorb maybe thirty vans. We were undecided about our onward route, and had many days to spare before returning to sign for our house, so we decided to reduce our travelling time and stop here. Plus, Nicky wasn’t feeling very well and wanted to rest up. The latter was later to define our time here, as her painful symptoms exacerbated quickly and rest brought little relief.
Later in the afternoon we had a short hobble around the centre of Abondance, Nicky still suffering with her pains. We looked in several shops and had our obligatory visit to the church, but the effort was too much and Nicky had to return to bed for a longer lie down. We passed a quiet night, but the morning brought her no respite. We could no longer ignore the jabbing stomach pains, especially when a Google of the symptoms brought up a litany of possible, all worrying, causes. So we shuffled over to the only open doctor in town at 8am, thankfully a walk-in centre where we were the only patients, and paid for a consultation. The concerned doctor said the pains were not normal and we needed to go to hospital for a scan. Concerned with us driving a motorhome to the hospital he ordered an ambulance pick-up to come from Thonon-Les-Bains, 30km away, and deposit us directly in their A&E department.
Back at our van we packed a bag with some obvious essentials and awaited their arrival. 30 mins later Nicky was, with over-precautionary detail, laid down, wrapped in thin white, cloth and strapped to a folding-leg gurney for transit. I sat in beside her, holding her hand for comfort as we were driven down the mountain to Thonon. Midway there, interrupted by the opening of a sliding partition from the front seats, we had a form thrust at us, stating that the ambulance service was a private enterprise and as foreigners we had to pay a spot fee of €240 for the privilege of their service. A card machine also magically materialised and was soon sucking on our credit card hungrily. To add further insult, we soon arrived at the hospital, passing through huge swathes of car-parks, all empty and free for hospital visitors. Benny would have easily been accommodated in any number of the larger corner spaces.
But at least arriving at A&E afforded us a modicum of queue-jumping, and we were soon in a ‘box’, an examination room, where Nicky had a cursory chat and examination, all in French, by a very young but thoroughly professional doctor. Bloods were taken for analysis and we were soon demoted to a corridor space for several hours before a scan opportunity became available. We had had only one experience with French health care before, when we had to attend a doctor appointment in Villeneuve-Sur-Lot to have the necessary certification form signed allowing us to compete in our SwimRun event at lake Vassivière. This was a much more stressful day, with Nicky’s constant pain, long periods of not knowing what was happening, when we would be seen, or what the next stage might entail.
We were stuck in a corridor with several very unwell people, especially one poor lady who had serious vomiting issues. She would retch and splutter and bark much louder than we thought was physically necessary, the noise both distracting and nauseating. Hours later she was still loudly attempting to evacuate an empty stomach, her dry, screaming rasps painful to both her and us. Another sick patient, perhaps with additional mental health issues, was locked into an examination room next to us and would desperately knock the window to gain our attention, punctuated with occasional screaming and cursing in French. She would also have terrible periods of mimicking the vomiting lady; each desperate throat-rasping evacuation she suffered was repeated sarcastically, louder and more elaborately-voiced, from the small window of the room. It was not a good space to relax in, yet we had to spend seven hours here, living with the guttural sounds and the tense, medically unknown and unresolved situation.
Nicky was eventually called for her scan, whereas I was denied entry and instead ejected to the public waiting room. She was wheeled off as I waited outside. During this time she was left locked in the room with no information or guidance, anxious. An hour later a kindly passing nurse informed me my wife was back out, dumped again in a nearby corridor. I found her and we sat another long while, before our young doctor reappeared to explain the situation. Yes, an obvious inflammation was confirmed on the scan and coupled with the blood test results an infection in Nicky’s gut was confirmed. Yes, antibiotics will clear it all up, here’s the necessary prescription. But there was more. We had to collect prescription off-site, not in the hospital, and it was now late; we had sat, between a small examination room and the busy corridor, for an amazing nine hours in total, since our arrival. We’d had no opportunity for lunch and had to beg several times even for a refill of our one water bottle.
We walked a loop around the hospital but found all buses into town had stopped running at 7pm, so returned to the main reception to request a taxi to town and the exact location of the after-hours pharmacy. After a long day of waiting, we had another 45 minutes to restlessly sit until the promised ‘in 20 minutes’ taxi arrived. He took us into Thonon, but to the wrong pharmacy. Stranded, we asked how much his taxi back to Abondance would be and he quoted over €100, so we declined. We managed to walk a few hundred metres and find the correct pharmacy. We picked up the required medication, but it was now pushing 9.30pm in an unfamiliar town. With limited options we decided the taxi fare back to Benny was better spent on resting up, so we located a central hotel and happily procured a nice room for €69, opposite the bus terminal that would take us back to Benny for €6 each tomorrow.
Exhausted from the day’s stress and drama, we sprawled out in our room, so glad to be somewhere other than a hospital corridor. Nicky took the first round of her medication, hoping for quick action. We’d not eaten since breakfast, other than a shared dry cereal bar, but didn’t have the will or energy to worry about dinner – sleep was more immediate and necessary. We slept soundly until 9am, even with the heat of our top-floor room. I popped out for breakfast bananas and croissants, the latter fresh out of the oven and beautifully soft; never had croissants tasted so buttery and sweet, or been devoured so fast. The colourful Thonon markets were in full bloom, but the stifling morning heat combined with continuing stomach pains were too much for Nicky, so we lay supine on a patch of shady grass for an hour, overlooking the glistening Lake Léman as we awaited the next bus back to Abondance.
We boarded and watched the mountains draw closer, surprised at there being so few customers on the double-sized bus. Forty minutes later we were ejected on the main street of Abondance and walked the short distance back to where Benny was waiting, relieved to be reunited with our own deeply comforting safe space. Rest and recovery for Nicky was now our key objective for the coming days.