Friday, May 06, 2011

Thermopylae V: Flight

What a great week: all kinds of interesting things happened, talked to all sorts of interesting people, made new friends and had a lovely time.

So it's obviously time for another medical crisis.

I appear to be having another occurrence of unmentionable symptoms, so I may have to spend the next day or so in the hospital. This means things will be suspended here maybe for the weekend.

Don't panic. The last time this happened, the actual symptom was easily dealt with and this time I expect they probably won't be complicating my life with a diagnosis of cancer.

While I'm waiting for the laundry to finish doing, (it always seems to happen that I have to go in when I'm completely out of clean underthings and PJs) I'll leave you with the long-promised, second-to-last installment of our exciting first trip to the Pronto Soccorso.

We left our heroes, on March 9th, in the little Columbus Hospital Ginecologia/Oncologia ward...

5. Flight

Early on Thursday morning, following my flight the afternoon before, we came back to the hospital, me feeling terribly sheepish. We got on the 7:06 train and got back to the Columbus at about 8:30 am, and one of the first people we saw was the nice lady doctor we’d seen the dreadful day before. I had been mostly fearing the sort of scowls of disapproval and contempt one might expect at such a shocking display of weakness in an Anglo hospital...people are busy, don't I know, and they haven't got time for all sorts of nonsense...

But this is Italy, as I keep forgetting.

When she saw us, Nice Lady Doctor broke into an obviously relieved smile and said, “You really must not leave the hospital without telling anyone.” She wasn’t mad. She just seemed concerned in a very nice, motherly way.

“You really mustn’t. It’s very important.”

I said I knew.

“I had a panic attack.”

“Ah,” she said, “Ok. I understand.”

“Don’t worry about things. Everything is OK.”

And that really was it.

Italians never will cease surprising me with their kindness.

In my room, all was as I had left it, except that two friends had come, as it turns out probably only a few minutes after I had left, and brought me a bunch of tulips in a glass pitcher. I don't remember when such a simple gift had ever meant so much.

~ * ~ * ~

But on Wednesday afternoon, my brain was having none of it.

At about 2 pm, I was working with all my might to appear not-crazy and shooed Christopher away to go talk on Vatican Radio about the pope's Ash Wednesday Mass.

After he had gone, I sat for a few minutes and the same nice doctor came back. I was to go down one floor for a cardiogram. She gave me instructions where to go, walked me to the end of the hall and pointed to the stairs. Down one floor, turn right, go through the doors that say “Radiologica”. I got to the door to the stairwell and looked back, and the nice doctor smiled and nodded.

In radiology, I found a long corridor with closed doors, all numbered. Only one was open and a small clutch of people, the public, not hospital staff, were standing and all talking at once, as Italians invariably do. I pushed past the knot and stood by the window of the little office where a bleach-blonde receptionist was talking to them.

When they had left, I said my name and said, “EKG?”. I tried to make my brain come up with the Italian for “electro-cardiogram”. Bleachblonde gave me the patented Italian indifferent blank stare that is calculated to send Anglos into an instant rage. “They sent me down here…” I said my name again.

Blank stare, followed by head shake. Then the closer: “No capito”.

I walked out into the hall again and looked up and down. No other doors were open, no other staff in view. It echoed slightly. Then Bleachblonde came out of her office door and beckoned me to a door across the hall. She went in and I heard her say in Italian, “She doesn’t speak Italian.”

A man came out of the office, obviously not a doctor, and said in impatient English, “What can I do for you?”

Did no one here have any idea? I was sent down for an EKG. It was supposed to have been arranged…

Blank look again.

I realised I didn’t remember the name of the doctor, or even the name of the ward I had been on. My mind was growing more and more blank as its speed of playback seemed to increase.

“What is the problem?” he asked, impatience obviously growing.

At that moment, a door in my mind slammed shut.

This was not going to happen. None of this was going to happen. I hereby withdraw all my consent.

“There’s no problem at all,” I said and turned smartly on my heel and marched away, back upstairs, back into the ward. There was no one there. The nurses’ station was empty and the doors locked. No nurses in any of the rooms. No doctor. It had been ten minutes since the place had been bustling.

A small but intense voice in my head started whispering, “hurry up, hurry up, hurryup hurryup hurryup…”

I walked up and down the hall. No one. Everything was quiet. A patient came out of her room looking mildly confused and knocked hopefully on the nurses’ station door. No answer. After a few minutes wait, she went back to her room. A minute later, a nurse in purple scrubs opened the door.


“I was supposed to go have an EKG, but no one there knew anything about it. I don’t know what’s going on.”

“OK. Go back to your room.”

“No, I said I don’t know what’s going on. Where is everyone?”

“Everything’s ok. Go back to your room.”

I went and sat down on the edge of the bed and waited. That was when the monsters, who had been hiding behind that slammed door, came for me. Crowding into my mind were a thousand violent images all moving too fast to see, and a kind of sound like a hundred people screaming. Then another rhythmic sound like a recording of waves on the beach, only speeded up so it sounded like a tray full of dishes being dropped every few seconds. It must have been my heart beat.

I waited, but after fifteen minutes, no one had come. There were no curtains so I turned my back and faced the wall while the sobbing and shaking got going. After a minute, I got up and went into the bathroom and locked the door and leaned on it sitting on the floor. After a while, I got up and washed my face. I went out and tried to find someone. Still completely quiet. No sign of life in the nurses’ office.

I went back out into the hall and walked up and down again, one hand pressed into my face over my mouth to keep from screaming the other arm wrapped around my waist to keep everything from falling out. I found an alcove where there were a few chairs against a wall, a couple of wheelchairs folded up, some medical looking things on shelves and a row of windows looking out toward Big Gemelli.

The thought popped in through the racket in my head, clear as a whisper in a silent room: “I could just jump out.”

As though I were watching someone else, I reached up and gripped the brass handle of the window. It turned and the window levered out of its frame, the top coming down towards me and stopping. I tried the other one. It was the same. It opened about four inches. Not enough room. I looked around. I could throw one of the wheelchairs through it, I thought mildly.

At that moment, a big burly voice came into my head and said, very loudly and clearly, “Go home.”

I was now breathing only sporadically, in short gasps and sobs and the things I was seeing seemed to make no impression. I found I was back in my room and moving fast.

I keyed open the closet door, grabbed my coat and put it on, everything out of the bedside table drawer and into the bags. Books, computer, handbag, consent forms, relic of St. Thomas, scarf. Forget anything and you will have to come back.

I walked fast, gasping, straight down the empty hall, into the stairwell and nearly fell down the stairs, my fingers turning white on the rail. Out into the lobby without looking at the woman at the desk, out the door and across the little park and down the drive. Heading for the train station. Heading away from All That. No plans. Just Away. From. All. That.

Then the Sensible Voice in my head started: “You can’t just go home. You have to tell someone.”

“I don’t have to tell anyone. I can do whatever I damn well please. I can just turn my phone off, I don’t have to talk to anyone.” I didn’t turn my phone off.

I had all the luggage, my handbag, my overnight bag, Chris’s computer, and walked fast without looking up from the sidewalk to the train station. I found a bench on the platform and looked at the time. 3:05 pm. Three hours before, I had been told I had cancer.

One train back to St. Peter’s station, then a fifteen minute wait for the train back to Santa Marinella. I had become blank, stopped shaking, stopped crying. I sat on the blue wire platform bench and stared down at the soft green grass growing between the tracks, thinking nothing at all. The train came and it was still early enough in the day to get a seat. I sat down opposite a semi-somnolent young man with a set of plugs in his ears. Some older men across the aisle talked animatedly about politics.

The sun was low and hot and staring in my face when I got off the train in Santa Marinella, and I worried for a moment that I would see someone I knew, but there were only strangers. I walked home without seeing the sun in my eyes.

My apartment was dark and cool. I dropped the blinds on all the windows and pulled the big iron deadbolt closed on the front door. I went into the bathroom and removed the yards of whatever they’d used to stop the bleeding, screaming, “It’s OK… it’s going to be ok…”

I washed and lay down in my room, closing the door and pulling the covers over my ears and waited for all the noise and horror to stop. For three hours the apartment was silent except for me, and I was grateful to have escaped All That. For a while, the door stayed closed and no other thoughts got in. Eventually, even I was quiet and the cat came and curled up in the crook of my knee and went to sleep for both of us.



berenike said...


I know what you mean about the laundry, though can't say anything of the sort about the rest of it. Brave you.

df said...

You've got a lot going on there. Golly!

Pity ducks are so hard to come by in that part of the world.

Banshee said...

It seems to me that you need somebody to sit with you when you go to the hospital, doctor office, etc. Which is really a very reasonable thing for people to do, especially taken in shifts. When you're sick, you already have enough to deal with, without looking for doctors or dictionaries, and without added complications of panic attacks.

I realize you may not have somebody handy to sit with you all the time and play gofer or doctor-finder, but you might be able to get people in shifts.

Will pray for you.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...


we figured that out later.

BTW: you should take a look at the commbox rules regarding real or plausible-sounding names. The link is posted to the sidebar.