An Alternative Tour of Paris

Yvette Pyne is an academic GP Registrar in Bristol with an interest in technology in medicine and women’s health. She is on Twitter: @yvettepyne

A three day tour of the beautiful city of Paris just before Christmas? Maybe take the lift up the magnificent Eiffel Tower or do some last-minute shopping in the sumptuous Galeries Lafayette Haussmann?

I have instead chosen an alternative tour of Paris going to refugee squats as a medic for a charity providing medical assistance to asylum seekers in France.

Over my short stay, I see people at makeshift camps, by park benches, and in disused office buildings with no heating or electricity. At times, I feel I’m barely helping, and my efforts are like holding back the tide of global social inequality with a broom made of over-the-counter medications. What good is paracetamol for pain, when the person I’ve diagnosed can’t access warm clothes or running water? My affluent-UK-based management plan for tension headaches or insomnia of fresh air, good hydration and relaxation exercises seems sickeningly ridiculous as soon it enters my mind.

What good is paracetamol for pain, when the person I’ve diagnosed can’t access warm clothes or running water?

On my second day, a young man anxiously approaches our makeshift table outside a squat. He is from Sudan and presents a Google Translate message; there is an old man on the top floor of the building who is too breathless to come down. Can I go up? I follow him with some basic kit up the dimly lit and damp concrete steps past battered tents and stained mattresses.

On the top floor, there’s a bitter chill and some natural light soaking through broken grimy windows. I’m introduced to a lovely man from Afghanistan – Ghulam*. He is a physiotherapist in his 60s. He tells me in halting English that he used to have inhalers for his asthma but now he’s coughing yellow phlegm and has been feeling breathless for several weeks. His oxygen saturation is 85% and his pulse is 110. The unhelpful ear thermometer has been consistently measuring people’s temperatures as around 35.5° all day (although tellingly gives normal results for the well-insulated medics). He can talk in full sentences when he’s seated, his chest is clear and his respiratory rate is normal.

Is this chronic COPD? Is it a viral exacerbation? Is it Covid? In the UK, he might get a hospital admission or at least an inhaler prescription with a few mouse-clicks but here, the options are limited and all sub-standard. He has no insurance (something in theory all asylum seekers get automatically) and his reticence to give his name and date of birth makes us wonder if he is now here illegally. We consider the hospital emergency department but he will struggle to walk between the public transport links. An ambulance is out of the question. We don’t want him to wait for hours in the cold outside the free clinic. We eventually locate a clinic that is further away but that has closer public transport. He assures us he’ll visit it as soon as his friend returns to accompany him. Perhaps he’ll go, but perhaps he’ll be too scared of deportation to attend.

I am starkly aware of my wonderful life and all the tiny benefits and fundamental rights I take for granted.

The destruction of the Calais “Jungle” in 2016 displaced its thousands of people from conflict-torn countries to squats around Paris and elsewhere. Every one of them is a human with their own story, a rich life of experiences and skills, and families and friends that they have watched die or otherwise had to leave behind. The enormity of it is too great to be expressed in words.

So now I sit in a delightful Parisienne café writing this with a heater above me and a coffee and croissant in front of me. The school parents’ WhatsApp group is buzzing with messages about where to buy the best Christmas trees. I am starkly aware of my wonderful life and all the tiny benefits and fundamental rights I take for granted. As a doctor, and especially as a GP, I am given these glimpses into other people’s lives for infinitely brief moments. I try to stretch my mind and heart across the gulf of experiences and privilege that often divide us and simply be one human connecting with another on equal terms. Perhaps this is both the least and all I can do and it’s more relevant than ever during this season of blessings and good cheer.


*Name, demographic details and medical details changed.


Featured image by Geoffroy Hauwen at Unsplash

The BJGP is the world-leading primary care journal. At BJGP Life we add multi-media comment and opinion for the primary care community.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Yvette Pyne
Yvette Pyne
2 years ago

If you would like to donate to a worthy cause that helped link me to my placement in Paris, please go to

Patti nicholson
Patti nicholson
2 years ago

Hallo Yvonne,
I really enjoyed your piece.
I’m a gp, and
Am in Paris too at the moment; and would like to make contact with this organisation while I’m here with view to possibly working with them in future. Do
You think I should go via choose love , or do you have another contact? Thanks

Previous Story

‘Never try to rush your last patient on a Friday afternoon’: why we need wisdom literature in medicine.

Next Story

Storytime as a vehicle for reflective practice

Latest from Opinion

Yonder: Farewell

"I remain fascinated by, and grateful for, the excellent research that sheds light on all aspects

Live and learn

Lavina Sakhrani-Clarke learns how to be ill and the importance of recovery.

Wherefore Art Thou?

‘Wherefore’, meaning ‘For what reason’, is one of the most fundamental questions we must ask in

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
Skip to toolbar