Long before the pain, the crutches and the wheelchair, we should have realized that our latest trip to Italy was going to be different. There was a distinct foreshadowing of trouble when all four pieces of our luggage were lost in the flight from New York to Rome. The carousel stopped and the crowd bustled off with their belongings; only a few other forlorn passengers waited at the airline claims counter with us.
A slow perusal of our tickets by the weary official brought a deep sigh. “There must have been a hitch in the transfer in London,” he said. “Probably at least 24 hours until we can trace them. What we need now is as close a description of your bags as possible.” With that he produced a chart that pictured every shape, size and style of suitcases except the ones you own. We did the best we could and left the airport feeling strangely light and unencumbered.
Maybe, the reception clerk at the hotel would assume we had flown in for a romantic tryst, sans clothing and other necessities. More likely, our bedraggled appearance would result in a small room overlooking an inside court.
As it turned out, the concierge was most sympathetic. Our room was comfortable and we embarked immediately in search of necessary items to tide us over until our bags were found and returned. Most of the day was spent walking as was the next, until our errant set of matched luggage finally arrived at dinner time. Walking was always at the heart of our travels, and looking back we couldn’t remember any extra miles or particular incidents along the way.
The next morning, my husband did not suit up for his usual four or five mile jog. In fact, he could barely hop to the bathroom. His left foot, ominously red and puffy looked awful and apparently felt worse. We decided, foolishly or courageously that his foot might improve and arranged for the rental car to be brought to the hotel after breakfast. He insisted his right foot was fine for a car with automatic transmission. Our plan was to drive to Siena and we were determined to push on.
After a picturesque drive through the hill towns of Umbria, we reached the hotel in Siena in the late afternoon. By then, we realized the swollen, throbbing foot needed medical attention as soon as possible. Our first objective was to find a pair of crutches so he could be mobile. It was late Sunday, not the best time to rent medical equipment even at home in the States. We were not optimistic when we approached the concierge with our problem. He, on the other hand, smiled and assured us he could be of immediate assistance.
He made several phone calls and then summoned a taxi that whizzed us from the verdant hills of Siena into the inner old city through a labyrinth of twisting narrow streets. At our destination, we were met by a man who greeted us warmly in Italian and led me into a dark courtyard across slippery cobble stones. We reached a locked wooden door which he opened to reveal stacks of wheelchairs, canes and crutches. I pointed to the crutches and he waved magnanimously to take whatever we needed. There was no request for money or identification. Just a smile and a hand shake. Our first foray was a success.
Early next morning, we embarked again with our trusty taxi driver who turned out to be a cousin of the concierge. We were bound for Nuevo Ospedale ( New Hospital ) a 1,500 bed facility with nuclear medicine! I clutched a piece of paper with the word “Radiologica” printed in bold letters. We had decided the first step was to have an x-ray. Our driver dropped us at the “Pronto Soccorso” sign and we entered a large and crowded waiting room. It was unlike any hospital emergency room we had ever seen. Chairs lined the walls but most people stood around in clusters. There did not appear to be a formal registration desk or orderly system. It was very noisy since every one was speaking Italian — rapidly and loudly.
An elegant woman had fashioned a sling for her arm from a silk Hermes scarf. She wielded a long ivory cigarette holder in her free hand which she used for emphasis in her conversation with an equally sleek companion. Other patients crisscrossed back and forth. Voices were raised and excitement was palpable. There was much arm waving and gesticulation. A gnarled woman of about 80 years rose from her chair and motioned for my husband to sit. She insisted he do this. I went in search of an official.
Branching off from the main room were small cubicles with patients on narrow beds. Doctors moved in and out of the rooms. A set of double doors were on the left. I observed that certain patients entered these doors as if in response to a secret signal. I headed for the doors. It seemed like a good idea. Suddenly, a mature woman in a white uniform pushed through the doors. “Scusa signora,” I began and waved my magic “Radiologica” paper. As I pointed to my husband, she stopped and gave us both a long once-over. Then she signaled that we should wait right there. I guess she knew tourists when she saw them.
Within two minutes, she reappeared with a wheelchair and propelled my husband right through the mob scene and the double doors. I waited and trusted I would see him again. About ten minutes later, an orderly emerged pushing the wheelchair rapidly down an adjacent hall. I brought up the rear carrying the crutches and asking questions as we proceeded. He had been examined by a doctor who had spent three years in Chicago and spoke English far better than we spoke Italian. We were on our way to Radiologica.
After the x-rays were taken, we were given a sheaf of papers and directed to the next station for analysis and prescription. The diagnostician spoke no English, but someone was found to tell us there were no broken bones. “Molto bene,” I said. And what next? We were to go back to the pronto soccorso. By now, it was eleven a.m. and the number of people and the decibel level had swelled. We guessed that he needed to go back into the inner sanctum for further diagnosis. Our luck was holding as I spied the woman in white across the room. I pushed my way through the throng and waved the papers in her direction.
Once more, the wheelchair was moved through the double doors. This time, the Chicago internist brought him out himself, and they went in search of a free cubicle. No such luck. Would the men’s lavatory be acceptable for the injection he was prepared to administer? Of course. Thus, the shot was completed and the patient also received pills to last a week. The final diagnosis was a stress fracture which the x-ray had not revealed. Treatment was to stay off the foot as much as possible, take the medication as directed, imbibe no alcohol (visions of Orvieto Classico faded) and continue on your trip.
We thanked the doctor profusely for the swift and skilled attention, and he was very gracious. We asked where we should go next to pay our bill, and he delivered the most amazing conclusion to our entire experience there. He said, “There is no charge for medical service at the pronto soccorso.” No charge for the x-ray, the diagnosis by a doctor, the injection and the pills. Such were the wonders of socialized medicine at Nuova Ospedale in Siena.