Francesca with her head in the clouds in Ischia. © Photo by Antonio Gerenini
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Chapter Eleven – I’m a Survivor
The day after I drifted off to sleep dreaming about the gardens at La Mortella, I woke up with some new and disturbing symptoms. Now, I still could not walk, the swelling had not gone down, and my leg was cold and turning black from the knee down. I felt exhausted even after hours of sleep. I kept involuntarily shutting my eyes. I stayed put for most of the day. My leg was also cold as ice, and no amount of blankets seem to get it warm. In the evening, Gabriele and my other cousin the doctor spoke on the phone and hatched a plan to get me to the hospital despite my refusal.
The doctor’s kids came to “visit” me, and then they told me to get in their car with Gabriele. The family carried me out, and I had nothing more than my cell phone and wallet with me. When we got to the ambulatory care center, there was a circulation specialist from Naples there to see me. They propped me up on a table, and he inspected my whole leg, paying particular attention to my foot.
“Signorina, you have no pulse on your foot,” he said to me. “You have the foot of a dead person, and we might have to amputate.” Gabriele and I began crying at the same time. How could this be happening? The first doctor said I had a bad bruise and three days later I might be going back to the States minus a foot? He asked if I’d be willing to get in a helicopter to a hospital in Naples. I refused, so they brought me to the hospital in Lacco Ameno, the only hospital in Ischia.
Going to the hospital in Italy – or at least Ischia – is like stepping into a sitcom, only you don’t find it so funny because you’re the star. For starters, when you get in the ambulance, the siren sounds like an old lady whaling for her children. You later learn that this is purposeful because you will be rooming with four to six old ladies whaling for their children. Some of them are naked at the time, which makes you want to cry. Did I mention there will be no curtains? That’s right, everyone in their all together, getting shots, vomiting, and all the rest, out in the open.
During the ambulance ride, one of the EMTs – I think his name was Marcello – actually asked for my phone number. The Italian man will stop at nothing. When we arrived, he carefully carried me out of the ambulance and into the hospital, while whispering in my ear that I was beautiful even in this condition. I nearly laughed out loud. Then, I thought, papa’ and Zia Maria would never go for this guy with his eyebrow ring and smooth talking. But it would make for a great story – as long as I didn’t really end up losing my foot.
While they were rushing me into the X-ray room – there is no MRI machine on Ischia – another patient who was near death was being rolled into the hospital. He was drunk and had driven his motorino into a wall. It was as if we could see his brains. And his blood was flying everywhere. Some of it landed on me as they quickly wheeled me out of X-rays and wheeled him in. Gabriele, who has no tolerance for blood, was woozy. A few minutes later, I started to feel a little funny. I turned white, and blood began dripping down my arm. In the confusion, the nurse failed to put in my IV correctly. That put Gabriele over the edge. He ran out the door into the parking lot and threw his head between his legs. Roberto, who had just arrived with Lisa, caught him just as he was about to pass out.
Franca called Roberto, who was on a date with Lisa, to tell him what happened to me. He forced Lisa to leave the restaurant and come to the hospital. She was not pleased. Moments after they arrived, she began loudly whispering her anger at Roberto. “We were on a date,” she said. “There are so many people here for your cousin. You did not have to come, too. This is ridiculous.” Then she crossed her arms over her chest and turned away from Roberto. Her icy stare was too much for me in that moment. After the nurse fixed my IV – in the middle of the hallway where I was kept until the guy with his brains dangling was in a more stable condition – I called Roberto over to me. I whispered less loudly that he should take Lisa home and not worry about me. I was fine with Gabriele, and the doctor’s kids, who are also my cousins, were able to stay with me the entire night. Soon after that, the other patient, who was in dire condition, was wheeled into the operating room, which I could see from the hallway. In fact, the door remained ajar, and the blood kept flying.
Once that was all over – and the patient was alive and stable – I was brought upstairs to a room with five other women. By now, it was the middle of the night. But the nurses had to tend to me. We couldn’t turn on the lights because of my roomies who were sleeping. First, I asked to use the bathroom. The nurse, Francesco, told me I’d have to use a bedpan. He also told me to pull down my shirt and bra – in front of everyone. He used old-fashioned suction cups to attach the heart monitor to me. The cups kept popping off my chest, and he kept pushing them back on. “Nice, so nice to get to touch a young woman,” Francesco said.
“In America, you’d get sued for sexual harassment,” I replied.
“Thankfully, we’re in Italy, not America,” he said.
Next, he raised my leg above my heart and instructed me not to move it. And he piled blankets – lots of blankets on top of it. The hope was that we could raise the temperature of my leg and get at least a little bit of circulation, so a pulse would return. I said a prayer before I tried to get some sleep.
I felt a draft the entire time I was in the room. When I looked up toward God, I realized there was a hole in the ceiling. I could see the stars, and I added a thank you to God for not sending rain. I asked my cousin why there was a hole above me, and she replied, “The hospital is under construction right now.” Was this place for real?
In the morning, I felt less exhausted. My leg seemed less black and warmer, but I was no doctor. The nurse came in and gave me a shot, which was rather painful, to thin my blood for better circulation. An hour later, my cousin the doctor appeared by my bedside. She and her colleagues were wheeling me to another room to drain my knee. That was the last step to getting a pulse back, she explained. If that didn’t work, I would be in trouble.
This little room was in the middle of the largest construction zone. Lots of patients were stuffed inside – men and women. I was introduced to another doctor, who quickly yelled at Dr. Hair, who originally saw me and said it was a bruise. Dr. Hair didn’t move or say a word the entire time I was there. This new doctor told me he knew few words in English, but he’d use them now, and I had to listen. “Take-a you pants down-a now!” With all sorts of strange men around, I wasn’t keen on getting undressed. But he told me I had no choice. So, I did as I was told.
Wearing Victoria’s Secret panties that had a bow in the front to make my special parts look like a gift, I was red with embarrassment. The doctor giggled and then commented on the fact that my legs were smooth and had been shaved despite my injury. Then, he pulled out a needle that looked as long as a football field. My cousin the doctor, who has an ample bosom, quickly grabbed my entire head and stuffed it in her cleavage. In that moment, the doctor shoved the needle in my knee without so much as swiping rubbing alcohol first. Had my face not been between those two melons, my screams would have caused a riot.
“There’s blood, there’s blood,” the doctor said. This meant that I had broken something internally, such as ligament or cartilage, but without an MRI we couldn’t be sure what. Still, there was a pulse and with less fluid on the knee, I could get enough circulation going to return to the States for surgery to repair whatever I had broken.
Finally, the doctor put a cast on me from my ankle to my thigh. Then, he had a man, who looked to be nearly 90 with glasses as thick as Los Angeles fog in the summer, take a saw and cut the cast down the center. This has to be done when the patient is going to travel on a plane because the airlines require that you can remove the cast in case of an emergency without much difficulty. As the saw came toward my leg, I shut my eyes. Everything was fine until he reached my shin. I yelped, and he said, “Scusa signorina, I cut you.” I replied with an English obscenity. He didn’t have to tell me. I knew he cut me, and the blood that dripped down to my foot and onto my new white cast was a clear sign, too.
When this was all over, I could finally go home to Gabriele and Franca’s house, where my grandparents were waiting for me. But first I had to navigate the construction site with my crutches and cast, without putting any pressure whatsoever on my foot – while my cousin the doctor brought the car around. No wheelchairs for patients in Ischia when they leave the hospital.
Getting up the stairs to Gabriele and Franca’s house seemed impossible. Roberto and one of his friends from down the street came running and carried me to the door of the house. There, Gabriele was jumping up and down and threw his arms in the air as if I had just won the World Cup. “You are a miracle,” he said. “You might be the first person to ever go into that hospital and come out alive.”
Some names and identifying characteristics of the real people involved have been changed.
Tune into this Web site, Two Worlds, every Monday for the latest installment in my blog about my experiences in Ischia, and every other Monday to ItaliansRus.com for the latest Our Paesani column about all things Italian. Di Meglio is also the Guide to Newlyweds for About.com.