Winning Over Italy

An Accidental Story


It has seemed to me in recent years that almost everywhere you go, everyone takes a perverse pleasure in telling you how bad their national health service has become.   That’s if you’re lucky enough to be in a country where they have one….not like Somalia or some might say even America.  The Italians are no different in this respect, if perhaps a little more jaundiced than outraged they will solemnly tell you disaster tales when the subject comes up.  Are they exaggerating?  Is it all true?

I got the chance to find out for myself this week, quite by accident!  I’m still not sure what really happened, but one minute I was on the balcony cheerfully collecting my jacket and next I was aware of making a mental note that it would be better if I could change direction mid-air to avoid the pile of bricks that were looming towards me.  I must have managed somehow because I came to a few seconds later with a mouthful of earth and a searing pain across, well everywhere.  Maria tells me that the sound of my cry was so scary she was convinced I’d broken a guitar.  Slowly I was helped up and into the spare room while a call was placed (thankfully) to the ambulance service…and it is here that my experience with the Italian health system begins.

The ambulance can’t have taken more than ten minutes to arrive – because it only seemed like a couple of minutes and time usually slows to a crawl when you’re suffering agonies.  The three crew, two men and a women, took turns in checking me over and asking questions, prodding gently and carefully and succeeding quite cleverly to distract me from the pain by making me talk in Italian while they tried their little English with a pleasant chat about music and football.  It was quickly established that I would probably live and that I should get a friend to drive me to the hospital for a proper examination immediately.  “No, you’re not going in the big white ambulance with flashing lights because that’s for people who need it more than you do.”  They kindly waited to help me into Cristina’s car, using the time to mildly scold the family for having moved me from my landfall, and bade farewell.  So far, I was feeling in good hands.

We arrived at the accident and emergency entrance of Riuniti Hospital as the late afternoon darkness began to fall.  I was helped out by Maria and an attendant while Cristina parked the car and was led into the sort-of-reception area.  It was more like a large corridor than anything I’d experienced before and was occupied only by a small number of patients lying on trolleys or hunched in wheelchairs as they watched the football injury hobble up and down the passageway with his girlfriend.  So quiet I thought, so small and almost temporary…as if the main area was somewhere else being redecorated.  However I began to appreciate that although Reggio is a large city, it’s never had to design itself to cope with pub-turn-out-times, muggings and gang warfare on a Saturday night….and this was only late Sunday afternoon.  Within a few minutes my own wheelchair arrived and I was made as comfortable as possible by a dark-haired nurse who seemed to speak a few words of English.  “Make comfortable please.  We wait a moment.”  “Thanks.” I managed through the short gasps my lungs would allow in the increasing pain.  Almost immediately however my name was called and we were ushered quickly towards a side room.  Maria tried gamely with the wheelchair which must have come from the same factory as supermarket trolleys, causing everyone to raise their feet rather smartly to avoid being run over on our erratic route to our first port of call.  Swiftly, another pretty dark-haired nurse had me over on my side, onto a table and was puncturing my backside with a needle in one hand while simultaneously taking my blood pressure with the other, well almost…it was that slick.  Within a few seconds the pain had dropped from yell alert to yellow discomfort.  I love this approach, deal with the main cause of anger, upset and complaint before it arises and you find yourself with a patient who’s far more rational and malleable.  The registration doctor checked over the ambulance crew’s notes and took a few further details for the computer.  He handed his updated documents back to the first nurse and indicated our next stop was X-ray.  As I could talk a little more easily I made the effort to thank the nurse for her help so far.  She had taken over the ‘reins’ as it were from Maria to speed along our progress.  “I told them I wanted to be with you.”  She said in my ear.  “Really?”  I replied trying not to take this as a complement and keeping a wary eye on Maria. “Yes, I can practice my English.”  My ego deflated.  “How long you are staying in Calabria?”  “Well I live here now, with my wife.”  I said, nodding in Maria’s direction.  “She’s your wife?  She’s so young, for you.”  My ego collapsed.

Outside the X-ray room we were asked if we minded waiting a little while as a little boy had had an accident and was due to arrive for an emergency scan.  Of course we wouldn’t mind, but again I was struck by how politely we were asked.  The poor lad duly arrived and was rushed in straight away so I continued my conversation with the nurse…

“Your English is very good.” I commented.  “Where did you learn?  Have you been to England?”

“No, I’m from Romania and I studied a bit at school, but I pick up English good when I was in Kosovo….with the doctors during the war.  I went to volunteer and never got the chance to go back to my country and finish my training.”

“Why not?” I asked.  “Did you come to Italy to finish?”

“No, here I am only volunteer also, so is the other nurse you met, we’re both from Romania.  After the war we stay in Kosovo to help the women for sex.”


“There was plenty human traffic after the war, poor girls speak no language and don’t understand what happens to them so we stay to help them escape….stop sex slaves.”

By now the little boy had been scanned and whisked off to another ward and it was my turn, so our conversation came to an abrupt close, just when there were so many questions I wanted to ask.  I was skilfully lifted onto an ultra modern table at the end of which was one of those tunnels that scan you inside and out, top to toe.  Everyone retreated to a safe distance and the table entered….I was impressed, they were taking no chances.  Before long we were back down in the first office going through the results and waiting for the final report.  My nurse unfortunately had to leave for another patient and I was disappointed that I didn’t get the chance to learn more about her adventures, I’m sure they’d have made a great story.  But I was left with the impression that if Italy’s hospitals were relying on Sunday volunteers, they’d found a rich source of talent and interpreters to boot.  Few of the other staff spoke any English and if I hadn’t had Maria or my nurse then I could well have been in some difficulty.  I was told it would take a full month to recover from my cracked ribs and the broken vertebrae in my neck, which would require me to wear a protective collar till I returned for the all-clear.  So that was Christmas sorted and my recording plans somewhat put on pause.  However I was more than grateful for the care and attention that I got and said so as we left.  As we left the department I just overheard someone saying, “That was a nice man.”  I couldn’t help thinking that more people should know just how good their health-care workers and volunteers really are.  Now I have my own story to tell next time the subject crops up….a positive one I will gladly repeat (the story, not the accident)

As we waited outside for our lift home our ambulance crew turned up.  “How did it go?” they asked.  It transpired that the female part of the team was the aunt of one of my students.   “Remember, when you play your first gig in Reggio we want to come.”  ….it’s a small city it’s true, but it’s got a big heart!

A very Merry Christmas from Calabria.