Saturday, March 05, 2011

Sociable medicine

Dear Readers,

Sundry winter ills have recently propelled me into the labyrinthine Italian healthcare system, or Servizio Sanitario Nazionale, which, I might add [insert oozing sarcasm] is always a pleasure. To me, partaking of this [insert oozing sarcasm again] service is often like being inside Waiting for Godot for all eternity.

But I'm not going to write about all the waiting, the telephoning, the accruing and distributing of certificates and papers, the take-a-number machines, the dingy offices, the vacant-faced medical personnel, etc. What I want to tell you about is the realization--or revelation?--I had that all the elaborate machinations of the system exist in order to give Italy's inordinately large population of old farts--or geriatric mafia--a social life. You see, the more you are forced to hang out in doctors' offices and clinics, the more chances you get to trade grisly anatomical chit-chat with your fellow snowy-domed sufferers.

For example, the doctor's waiting-room I was recently prisoner to was full of black-clad decrepits in shapeless parkas and sturdy shoes, all hacking ostentatiously as if they had tuberculosis, sighing heavily, and bemoaning their fate to those around them:

"Maria Santa, I haven't slept in days!"
"I have The Fever!" (La febbre is always intoned ominously as if one were invoking Satan)
"I can't have a bowel movement!"
"My liver hurts!"
"I've had the runs for a week!"
"My hemorrhoids are acting up!"
"O Dio, I'm unable to swallow!"

These proclamations always elicit sympathetic responses, followed by a curious one-upmanship:

"Well, I haven't had regular bowel movements for thirty years!"
"Well, my pee is purple!"
"Well, the ringing in my ears sounds like the intro to Porta a porta!"

This is a by-product of living in a Catholic country, of course. Suffering is expected, enjoyed even. Since you claim your Celestial Sweepstakes prize in the next, eternal life, you may as well wallow in your own misery in this more temporal existence. And be sure to tell everybody about it (no Anglo-American reticence here, thank you very much!)--indeed, why not compete with your neighbors to see who suffers most? I get the feeling these old folks believe that the size of their eternal reward shall be directly proportionate to the amount of physical suffering they have endured here on earth. Thus, according to geriatric logic, varicose veins equals a meagerly-appointed, single room in Heaven's hostel, while inflamed boils combined with gout and perhaps the insertion of a pacemaker garners a deluxe suite in God's five-star spa & resort, complete with cherubic-cheeked cabana boys serving drinks with paper umbrellas in them, poolside.

There's no shame whatsoever in the body's afflictions, in fact it's all part of polite conversation. When I see a neighbor on the street and volley a perfunctory "hello, how are you?" in passing, I am often stopped and served up a hair-raising tale of invasive surgical procedures, squamous skin conditions with frightening Latin names, harrowing infections of biblical perniciousness, and other torments of the damned. Once, when I went to a neighbor's apartment to return something I'd borrowed, I was met at the door by her harried elderly mother (she lives with her parents, of course) who said, "Oh! Please, wait only a moment--I was just giving my husband an enema. I'll be right back." I then spent an agonizing ten minutes on the threshold, trying not to imagine the goings-on down the corridor, desiring with every fiber of my being to creep back down the stairs, but forced by some perverse sense of etiquette to listen to an enema being administered to--from the sound of things--a most recalcitrant old man. Presently the barrel-shaped Signora returned, huffing and snapping her rubber gloves off crisply, and said, "Now, what is it you wanted?" I tossed her the parcel and fled.

If you listen closely, dear Readers, you will hear it. Like the constant drone of motorini, the never-ending raga of the ailments of the nation's elderly can be heard in every doctor's office, clinic, alimentari, beauty salon, bank, city street or piazza. Blood-pressure and white blood-cell counts, toe fungus, swollen ankles, inert thyroids, osteoporosis--the moribund music is pervasive. What's fit only for the ears of trained medical personnel in other parts of the world is, I repeat, fodder for everyday conversation in the Bel Paese.

I suppose one could view all this senile social interaction as part of the charm of Italy, indicative of a slower pace of life that allows lonely, chatty septuagenarians and their ilk the chance to feel connected to those around them, evidence of a fast-fading way of life that is bound to go the route of the brontosaurus. I suppose one could smile beneficently when a harpy-voiced old crone chirps out the state of her much-belabored intestinal tract in a dull, five-by-six-foot unheated room packed with germ-ridden supplicants. It's enchanting really.

To give yet another example--while standing in line at the pharmacy last week to fill a prescription, I had to wait fifteen minutes while the potato-faced geezer in front of me regaled the pharmacist with the excruciating details of his cataract surgery. And she didn't care one whit that I was waiting (perhaps even in dire need of life-saving medicines), but seemed to be really enthusiastically listening. I shuffled my feet, shifted my weight from one leg to the other, looked at my watch--to no avail. Cataract Man would have his say.
The chosen people

But who am I to criticize, to cast aspersions (and acerbic aspersions, at that)? I know that someday I, too, will be old. And then I, too, may gain great pleasure in recounting at length to the pharmacist (or anyone who will listen) the story of my recent hip-replacement surgery or my losing battle with incontinence--while a host of impatient souls in line behind me riddle my back with imaginary daggers as they wait fruitlessly to fill their prescriptions.

I do believe I shall relish it.




  1. I know you're a bike rider, but I can tell you from (thankfully not recent) experience that this sort of thing happens at the bus stop, too. NO PLACE IS SAFE. They will talk about this anywhere, especially if they have a captive audience.

    I always say there's a reason why Italian borrowed the word "privacy" from English.

    I also love having to discuss things with the pharmacist. Example:

    Me: Can I have some ibuprofen please?
    Pharmacist: What are your symptoms?
    Me: My symptoms are excruciating cramps (Everyone hear that? Good.) a pounding headache, and also a need for ibuprofen. Please.
    Pharmacist: You don't need ibuprofen. What you need is an aspirin and some creams and salves and this machine that creates steam.
    Me: Does the steam machine qualify as a blunt object?

    Hope you're feeling better!

  2. OMG Sarah, your comment is so hilarious and cogent it deserves its own post!!!! Laughed my behind off!

    God--the steam machine! It's true--they prescribe it for everything! Also those salt-water sprays for your nose that cost €12 a pop. Apparently the nostrils are the portal through which all sorts of grim, unsavory diseases enter the body. Who knew?

  3. Oh, my, did you nail that absolutely perfectly! While making me laugh, too, through most of it.

    I actually think that sitting in the doctor's office gives them something to do besides watch television.

    And how thrilling that we can look forward to talking about our incontinence!

  4. Oh, you mean "aerosol", that machine I had to pay about €60 for and have used once, as it is absolutely useless? I'd rather be walking around with a two foot cone around my nose to keep out Italian pathogens. And you are all so right, sitting in a doctor's office or a trip to the pharmacy is viusal evidence of Italy's (meno) zero crescita.

  5. Patti, won't it be such fun to be old and crotchety and dilapidated in Italy?? There's no better place for it. And dear papaya, the aerosol contraption is such a hoax--your nose-cone idea sounds much more sane.

  6. Actually, dear Campobello, were you, Papaya, and I to be together in a pharmacy: all hell would certainly break loose/out. We could swagger in with cones, demand ibuprofen (thanks, Sarah!) as an aphrodisiac and then talk about herpes/leprosy/eczema, and how they have interfered with our attempts to have that blessed second child (or, in some cases, first or third).

  7. Patti, you're positively demented--I love it!!!!!

  8. Where to begin?!? Giacomo's pediatrician recently proposed the "steam machine" for him, which I shot down in about two seconds. The child is a year and a half old. Cut to an hour after the appointment when I go down to find Giacomo's babbbo trying to get the poor kid to breath in some eucalyptus steam from a boiling pot of water.

    As for the pharmacy...the most recent doozy was when, after a 30 minute conversation about the relative merits and downfalls of the Tachipirina suppository vs. the syrup for said year and a half old child, I asked about the dosage and the pharmacist looked straight at me and said, "Beh, it's better if you don't give it to him at all. You know the best cure for fevers is cuddles."

    Viva la medicina italiana!

  9. Alexandra,

    Cuddles??!!! Non ho parole...

    As for the strange Italian predilection for suppositories, all I can say is that it must be because we are dealing here with a culture that's used to taking it up the you-know-what.


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