'Does it not bother you at all that you can't walk?" The doctor in the clinic at the ski resort of l'Alpe d'Huez asked me this question out of sheer puzzlement. I answered that it did bother me, but I felt that a beer, followed by lying down for a while, would do me the world of good. She found that amusing, but shook her head seriously and informed me that my particular treatment of choice wouldn't cut it on this occasion.
She was right, of course. I did, at first, think that she was overstating the case a bit when she was talking about a type of paralysis that starts at the extremities and can work its way into the core of your body, not allowing you to even breathe. She didn't put a name on it, but another doctor at the CHU (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire) de Grenoble did: I had Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
GBS is an autoimmune disorder that can occur during freak circumstances - normally when your body is trying to cope with an attack from a virus. In trying to defeat the virus, the antibodies begin to also attack your central nervous system, munching away at your nerves and the coating around them, convinced that they're doing you the world of good, when, in fact, they're paralysing you.
In my case, I was suffering from a bad flu, but went on a three-day trip to the ski resort of l'Alpe d'Huez, accompanied by my 22-year-old son, Emmet. I left my home in west Cork in a bleary state at 4am, and hired a car when we landed in France.
When we stopped halfway to buy a coffee, I found that my legs didn't seem to have woken up properly. My left leg in particular seemed to have almost no strength and caused me to limp like a crippled old man. I got back into the car, found that I still had enough strength to press the clutch, and carried on. With a storm pursuing us all the way, we continued on our journey until we reached l'Alpe d'Huez at 8pm that night.
The next day, I found I could hardly take a single step in the deep snow outside the hotel and had to be led by the hand into the clinic next door by Celine Perillon, l'Alpe d'Huez's press officer.
Things moved fast once I arrived at the hospital: "This is a good place," said the medic as the ambulance pulled in by the Urgences [A&E] door. "It's where they brought Michael Schumacher after his accident."
The CHU Grenoble Nord has a reputation for being one of the best public hospitals in Europe for neurology, so I couldn't have been more fortunate. After a short period on a trolley, I was taken to the sixth-floor clinic. There, with a magnificent view of the mountains that tower around Grenoble, I was put through some uncomfortable tests involving sending electric shocks through the nerves in my legs and measuring their efficiency. I was given my diagnosis by a doctor who told me that I was lucky to be in France, where Guillain-Barre is always treated immediately.
By 9pm that night, I was receiving treatment in the form of a blood-plasma drip. Using the hospital's Wi-Fi, I watched RTE News, where the main story featured chaotic scenes of people on trolleys in the middle of a flu epidemic. The same flu was keeping them busy here too, but nonetheless I was in a comfortable bed, diagnosed and being treated within a matter of hours. The doctors couldn't tell me how long recovery would take, only than that my condition was serious and that I could be here for "a number of weeks".
The Wikipedia information on Guillain-Barre Syndrome wasn't encouraging, with talk of people never fully recovering, having permanent limps and long-term incapacitation. My neighbour in the room was an English man who'd been living in France for 30 years, along with his Offaly-born wife. He had Parkinson's and told me how he had received a blood test result and diagnosis on the Monday after he had been to see his GP the previous Friday. His doctor had even apologised for the 'delay' in getting the result because of the weekend.
The efficiency in the French health system was clearly on a different planet to the one inhabited by the HSE. As it turned out, my neighbour was also an artist and he sketched a portrait of me, which helped cheer me up.
Through the night, I was woken every two hours to check my vital signs, and to get me to blow into a tube to ensure that the paralysis wasn't affecting my diaphragm. A few times, I wondered if I'd died and gone to heaven, because I was invariably awakened by beautiful women speaking to me gently in French.
The next day, my condition had worsened and there was talk of ventilators and ICU, but things turned around rapidly after that. I could feel strength returning to my legs and was able to walk again more or less properly by the third day.
In the interim, the phone calls and texts were constant throughout the day. It was busier than a call centre, between updates, enquiries and chats with my wife, my mother, extended family and friends, editors and, of course, my son, Emmet. I was sorry that the skiing trip had turned into a plasma drip, but very glad that he had been able to continue skiing for the next two days.
The communication in the hospital was amazingly clear. I can speak fluent French (courtesy of having spent a year-and-a-half in college there) but I found that every junior doctor, consultant and nurse that I encountered were all fully up to speed with my file, and were quick to answer questions and give clear explanations of what was happening. At the end of my stay, they even gave me a detailed satisfaction questionnaire to fill out, asking me to rate such finer details as the room temperature and the quality of the food (top marks).
I left after two weeks in their care, fully recovered, apart from some minor fatigue issues. Under the EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) system, I found I was covered for 80pc of the cost of my emergency care, leaving me to try to persuade my holiday insurance company to cover the remaining 20pc.
My wife came to collect me, and we spent the last day as tourists in Grenoble. It's just over an hour from Lyon Airport, and it's one of the most lively towns in France, with a vibrant, high-tech, industrial scene and surrounded by stunning Alpine peaks.
I had first visited the city as a student 30 years ago, and had promised myself that I'd come back some day and spend more time here. You really do have to be careful what you wish for!
Do not travel in Europe without your free EHIC card. For full details, see hse.ie