The story of patient Philippe Lançon, after the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo
Marc Le Pape
Philippe Lançon works as a journalist for the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and Libération newspaper. His book, Le lambeau was published in April. As the author and subject of his narrative, he relates his experience as a hospital patient after surviving the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo during its editorial meeting on 7 January 2015. Although a “novice" when it comes to hospitals and operating theatres, he is a seasoned journalist. He is currently writing for Libération’s culture page, but previously reported on armed conflicts (Iraq and Somalia). So he’s no novice when it comes to casualties of war. In 2015, he became a reporter reporting on himself and on hospital surgery.
On 7 January 2015, he was admitted to the Maxillofacial Surgery Unit at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital where he underwent treatment until 9 March before being transferred to the Les Invalides Hospital ("a military hospital for soldiers wounded in combat, and now for victims of terrorist attacks”), and stayed there for seven months until the autumn.
Paris, 2015. His first operation was on 7 January, the day of the attack. It was performed by stomatologists and orthopaedic surgeons. The bottom of his face had been shattered and there was a gaping hole in his jaw (166-167). And as he later discovered: he could no longer speak "because of the non-fenestrated tracheostomy tube stuck in my throat". On 18 February, his fibula was grafted onto what was left of his jaw ((247, 249-252, 303, 331) – a surgical procedure for which Salpatrière has something of a reputation (242). One of the surgeons who had performed the surgery came to see him the next day and said: “The wound’s looking great" (334). But when Lançon looked in the mirror, he discovered what looked like a "bloody escalope” where his chin should have been. « A great-looking wound: the surgeons see what the wound will become, not what it is”. January 2017: Lançon is preparing for his 17th operation.
My reading matter. Patients’ experiences have become a literary genre, but I haven’t compared this story with others. So there’s no systematic sociology (situating the book in a series and an historical context); no literary criticism either (comments on the composition, the writing, the characters, the descriptions of places, literary references…). Lançon’s friends at Charlie have been massacred, he’s alive, he’s being cared for and he considers his survival to be “miraculous”.
Patient Lançon is now dependent on the people caring for him: he describes how this feels. He describes the medical procedures and the people who take part in them. He talks about the day-to-day treatment and assistance he receives, but also about the care-providers, parents, friends, women (many), all the people who spent time with him, especially during his first two months in hospital, some of them even spending the night in his room.
He portrays the variety of human beings on whom he depends. He doesn’t impersonalise them, unlike Ruwen Ogien, for example, who, being treated for cancer in a Parisian hospital refers to his care-providers by their function only: my surgeon, my oncologist, my pain-management doctor… (My Thousand and One Nights, 2017). Lançon calls the people looking after him at Salpêtrière by their first name. He doesn’t just describe and name their functions; he portrays them as people (at least those he sees a few times). They exist through their treatment of him. Lançon recognises the differences between them (p. 421), and in his narrative he stresses this: "At Salpêtrière, I reverted to an old habit of seduction, not to beguile the nurses, but to maintain the best possible relations with the whole department”.
What makes this book attractive. The author doesn’t mock the rules (protocols) or the carers who apply them. He steers clear of deriding doctors, of that sceptical derision that he knows well. It can be seen in Proust’s portrayals of doctors when describing the illness and death throes of his grandmother – a book that patient Lançon reads repeatedly, along with two other books, La montagne magique by Thomas Mann and Lettres à Milena by Kafka. He keeps these three books with him throughout his time in hospital. The experience of reading Proust stays with him as he writes his own book.
Self-narrative. The author links what he is experiencing to what he experienced before the attack (he talks about the beaches where he spent his holidays, his grandparents, his reading of Balzac and Gérard de Villiers, Vautrin and SAS). In doing so, he establishes a form of continuity between the person after the accident and the person before it, with “the me I used to be” (393). Hence his regular interlacing of past events and present experience. While living in the present, he reproduces the flow of thought of the patient he had once been, combining self-narrative and reporting. Reporting: he notes down everything that his care-givers (all categories) do for him: family and the women he is close to, friends, colleagues, and others (the armed police in charge of his protection, some of the patients at the Les Invalides hospital, especially Simon, another Charlie survivor). Among these numerous characters, two people played a permanently active role. He doesn’t introduce us to them straight away, but gradually tells us about what they do for him and how he perceives them. There is Chloé, “my surgeon”. He acknowledges and relates his dependence on her as a patient, notes down their conversations about the treatment, life, events, books… He devotes a whole chapter to her. The other main character, his brother, Arnaud, was there when he woke up after his first operation and, as time went by, remains active, affectionate, and organised, anticipating needs. He deals with all the necessary procedures with friends, colleagues, the authorities and administrations. He takes part in (and helps make possible) Lançon’s first ventures out and brings news in.
Patient Lançon receives a lot of support. He is dependent on others (many others) and, out of necessity, becomes “a tactical hero”, an active patient, adept at “maintaining the best possible relations with the whole department” (421). This combination of dependence and tactics is commonplace in hospitalised patients. What is less commonplace is this concrete account, over 9 months, of the skills needed by the patient and the dynamics involved in switching between the pressures exerted on him (especially by the medical world) and the journalism he imposes on himself and others (those on whom he depends): “By what miracle did I adjust so well to the difficulties of the situation?” (395). The "miracle” is mainly due to the qualities of the hospital teams (stretcher bearers, surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses, nursing auxiliaries, physiotherapists and psychologists): the reporter describes their behaviour, the patient is grateful for it.
After reading my first draft of this blog, some MSF colleagues asked me why I was writing an article like this for the CRASH website. As if it was strange to talk about a literary work on a humanitarian blog. This type of question surprised me at first. In response : it’s because I thought the subject of Lançon’s book deserved a blog; and because its author offers a reading experience of rare intensity. No, I haven’t attempted to establish any illuminating parallels between what I've experienced and know of MSF’s surgical services in Amman and Lançon's accounts of Salpêtrière’s stomatology department. And yes, it’s true that some of MSF’s reconstructive surgery activities in Amman, especially the treatment of casualties of the civil war, are similar to those of the Stomatolgy and Maxillofacial Department at Pitié-Salpatrière Teaching Hospital. But I haven’t attempted to draw this parallel because I chose instead to talk about the book: that of patient “like any other” (with “the additional status of mascot”The words in brackets are Philippe Lançon’s, recorded by Chloé Bertolus on 27 June 2018 (France Inter, Le téléphone sonne) ), of a "miraculous survivor" of the attack on Charlie Hebdo who tells the tale of his surgical pathway, his « mending ».
To cite this content :
Marc Le Pape, “The story of patient Philippe Lançon, after the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo”, 2 juillet 2018, URL : https://msf-crash.org/en/blog/medicine-and-public-health/story-patient-philippe-lancon-after-terrorist-attack-against
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