I’m not feeling so good
A couple Sundays ago we spent the afternoon in the emergency room in Santarcangelo di Romagna. We went to Santarcangelo because it was a sunny day in April. We went because it’s the beginning of pea season. We went because we thought we might shop around a little and then have lunch.
We were in this store and my wife was looking at sweaters and I was trying on a pair of pants in a changing room in the back when I heard her say, Oh.
I peeked out from behind the curtain. Huh?
Do these look good on me?
I was going to wonder out loud, just for fun, Do they make my ass look big? when she steadied herself on a pile of sweaters and said, OH.
I feel dizzy.
I asked her, Do you want to sit down? Of course there was no place anywhere to sit down, not even where I was, leaning against the wall in the changing room, struggling in and out of tight Italian pants. I asked her if she ate anything that morning
You know I didn’t.
You don’t drink enough water.
You’re probably dehydrated. Let’s get you something to drink.
The Pascucci bar.
I bought the pants, fast. She leaned and shook her head.
The store guy said, Is signora okay?
We just need to get something to drink, I said. Not, Oh she’ll be all right, which would have been disrespectful of her plight.
She’ll be all right, I thought.
She should be all right, I thought.
Last October I was out strolling one evening with a group I took to Florence, twelve of us total, and I noticed myself listing to the right as I walked. One minute I was perfectly level, the next minute it felt like the edge of the sidewalk had suddenly dropped six inches and I was about to keel over into the street. I didn’t say anything. I just kept walking. Oops, lean left. Oops, lean hard left. It went on like this for 10-15 minutes. I remember thinking, What should I do? I’ll be all right. It was the second day of an eight-day excursion. Next day I was taking people to Lucca. A few days later I was taking people to Venice. Was I going to be seasick on the sidewalk in Venice? Then it passed. Next morning I got out of bed and sat right back down. What the hell. Then that passed. It used to be I took people to Italy and worried about one of them getting sick. When my wife and I started staying longer, I thought about one of us getting sick. I called Blue Cross one day before we left and asked about medical attention, hospitalization, the coverage. Oh, you just put everything on your credit card, they said, and bring the paperwork home with you.
Outside the store that Sunday, to the right, fifty feet or so, in the main piazza was our favorite place in town to sit, next to the Tonino Guerra fountain, the Pascucci bar, where just now the Santarcangelini were turned out in their finest duds, having their coffees and their pastries and their cigarettes. My wife suggested we take a seat in the sun. I understood. Fresh air. But smoky fresh.
Some orange juice, please, she told the server.
That’ll fix you up, I said.
I sure hope so.
I deliberated. It was almost noon. White wine, I guess. I glanced at my wife, borderline optimistic; borderline terrible husband.
She closed her eyes, faced the sun, and assumed her tanning pose. When it arrived she drank down her orange juice, ordered another, with a ham sandwich, which she scarfed, saying oh damn a couple times between bites. She drank the second juice down and looked at me.
Maybe we should be into the shade, I said. Aren’t you hot?
She shook her head.
I thought it would pass.
Me too. I picked up my glass and took a sip. My wine was half gone, still cold.
It should have passed by now, she said.
That’s what I thought.
Excuse me, signorina, she said to the server. Can you tell me where the pronto soccorso is?
Funny. A few weeks before we left for Italy I talked to a couple pals who get around. They take out insurance when they get around so they can get back in case of an emergency. Yeah, Rick, with this policy if you’re admitted to a hospital, you just call them. Wherever you are they pick you up and fly you home. They don’t just get you home. They deliver you to the hospital of your choice. Well that sounds good, I thought. Then a couple unnerving tales: A business associate vacationing somewhere in the Caribbean with chest pains and no insurance who paid $30,000 to get home fast. A business associate on safari with his family in Africa whose eight-year-old fell down and broke a femur. Righto, stuff happens. Acute brain tumor attack in Florence, for example. Or not. We’re at that age, we don’t want to stay home. We just need to go away more carefully.
Did I take out insurance?
We drove three blocks to the Santarcangelo hospital. She got a gurney in a hallway. She lay back and got her temperature and blood pressure taken, described her symptoms and relevant history (hypoglycemia). It was a busy Sunday in the small emergency room. Forty year old male, messed up shoulder. Seventy year old male, broken rib. Eighty year old female, red rash on her neck and arm. A skinny, coughing teenager, coughing. After an hour she was rolled in to have a chat with a doctor. I was not invited.
At the end of the hall was a coffee bar, leave it to the Italians, where I could have an espresso and fizzy water. And wait.
You should go eat, my wife said when she resumed her place in the hall.
Yes, you should go eat. Peas, remember.
Oh yes I remembered. Peas. But no. No, I said.
I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, she said. They took some blood. We have to wait for blood work. Maybe more tests. A heart thingie.
A heart thingie. Just put everything on your credit card. Bring the paperwork home with you.
She said, Then I’ll have to see the doctor again. It’s a gorgeous day and you’re just sitting here and I’ve ruined everything. I’ve ruined the whole day.
Don’t be silly.
She was right, though, at least about the gorgeous day, and I was just sitting, well, standing there.
It feels good to lie back, she said.
We waited, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. I walked over to a front office, which I knew damn well was check-in or triage, where an older man all in hospital whites appeared to be amusing himself on the computer. It took a couple minutes of intensive standing to wrest his attention away from the computer.
What? he said.
Just wondering what’s happening, I said. Signora Canducci?
He looked at me like I was a moron. I probably talked like one, I could give him that. He told he didn’t know, he just got people in the building. Did I want him to get the doctor? The way he asked, it was like, did I want him to jump off the roof.
No, I said. Just checking.
Ravioli with fresh peas in a light tomato sauce. Stewed rabbit. Swishchard. A few oven-roasted potatoes. Out of habit, I asked for the half liter of red wine. It’s part of the enjoy agenda. Life is short? Still, I was determined to drink only some of it. When Adriana, the proprietor, came by my table, I was mopping up cacciatore sauce with a chunk of bread.
You’re by yourself today?
Well, I said, Tiziana is over at the hospital right now, in the emergency room. She was feeling light-headed.
I poured water and drank some, filled in details. She was feeling way better, I said, when I left.
I considered trying to say “dehydrated” in Italian. Or Hypoglycemia. Both terms, with all those syllables and treacherous stresses, seemed way out of reach. She needs to drink more water, I said. But she was feeling better when I left. (That’s right, I left.) They’re checking to make sure nothing’s wrong.
How long has she been there?
Oh, a quite while. We’re waiting for results. Blood work. She insisted I come for lunch.
There was still some wine in the carafe.
Insisted, I said.
No, I couldn’t possibly. At a time like this?
When I got back she’d been moved out of the hall and into a room in emergency, with coughing teenager and the old broken rib, who was now coughing a gooey cough all his own. The nurse came to take her blood again. What is this, I thought, before and after? The blood sample would get driven to a lab in Rimini (5-7 miles away). The results came back by email.
My wife said, They wanted to give me a thing called a TAC. I think it’s an MRI.
I refused, she said.
That’s probably fine.
This bed came with chair. With my feet propped up on the rail of her bed, I was almost comfortable. On both her wrists and a foot I saw the blue sticky EKG contacts. The kid and broken rib coughed and coughed.
I feel better, she said.
How was lunch?
Adriana asked about you.
What’d you say?
That you made me go for lunch.
We get out of there around six that night. The diagnosis is somewhere between inconclusive and nonexistent. In her exit interview they said maybe, just maybe they saw something in her EKG. They verify our addresses–the one in the US, the one in San Marino, and print copies of all the test results and a summary of the services: six hours in emergency, blood work, EKG, doctor and a couple nurses, technicians, Mr. Personality up front in triage. What’ll it cost, I wonder. They say se’ll have to come back on a weekday to pay the bill. Billing is down there by the coffee bar.
We have relatives in Canada who go to Florida in the winter. They buy health insurance. The US is notorious. Who can afford to get sick in the US? Over the years when friends and relatives from Italy have visited us, no one ever has needed medical attention. If there was a toothache or a fever, around home we could call a dentist friend, a doctor friend. But away from home, if someone had to go to the emergency room for six hours, for blood work, EKG, doctor and a couple nurses, technicians, and our own version of Mr. Personality? I shudder to think what it would cost. Hundreds, more likely thousands of dollars.
We wait two weeks before we go back to Santarcangelo. We joke a little with the guy at the pay-your-bill sportello window. He could teach Mr. Personality a thing or two. I slide our papers through the slot, along with my credit card.
Okay, he says. And rings up a 60 euro charge on my card.
I look at my wife. She smiles and shrugs. She’s feeling good these days. Six hours and all the rest of it, for 60 euros. I feel dizzy, and giddy, and lucky. The cashier staples the credit card receipt to the rest of the papers and slides them over. Paperwork to bring home.
It’s a sunny day and the peas are still in season. Adriana will be open for lunch.
Lunch? I ask my wife.
She says that sounds great.
I’m a pretty good husband, and the enjoy agenda is still in force.