L’Ambulanza italiana

It was maybe the first spring-ish day we have had thus far.

Lucky for me I got to spend  it in an ambulanza per la prima volta — an ambulance…for the first time in my life and then, on a gurney in the green hallway of the Ospedale Policlinico di Milano.

I was considered “Code Green”…Codice Verde.

It was not my fault…nor might it have been the fault of the verbi pronominali that I was learning when I realized I was starting to faint. All’improvviso, I am now sul pavimento — on the floor.

But alas, I don’t think it was the verbs.

The school office calls the ambulanza.
And then the Italian equivalent of EMT’s arrive.

The guys who wheel me to the doors of the ambulance (everyone craning their head to see who is being taken away) are actually super nice.  B, a school friend, rides with me to the hospital.  “I can’t wait to see what you write about this”, she says.

Nothing says “you are fluent” as much as successively describing your situation to triage after having also described it to the super cool EMTs who came to evaluate you…and later, in the successive adventure which will follow.

I mean, you have not really lived until you have said, si‘, si’, urinavo normalmente…yes, yes, I have been urinating normally.

In no time at all I am on my gurney, my lettino, in the green hallway, lined up for nine hours behind a man calling for Mamma, a man with a packed suitcase and a wife feeding him…and a growing line of lettinos behind me.

If you take your standard emergency room situation and multiply it by la burocrazia italiana…you get…an adventure.

Nine hours in the green hallway behind the guy whose wife was feeding him sandwiches, behind the guy actually growling, screaming for Mamma (and yes, vomiting). Behind my lettino, there was a guy with a head injury, blood everywhere, a woman who had an accident/incidente (la polizia arrived to take her statement) and onwards down the hall.

Family members arrived with bags of food. And suitcases. Obviously they knew what we didn’t know…that it would be a really long time and that there would be no food or water…or help.

Let me take this opportunity, while we are waiting for me to be seen…to share with you a packing list for an Italian hospital, lest you ever accidentally find yourself at Pronto Soccorso — emergency:

– Bottles of water, wine, grappa, sambuca, whatever you wish to drink or will need to drink for the next number of days…enough for you and for any and all family and friends waiting for you.  It will be forever.

– Food.   Anything at all, really.  Pizza, sauces, pasta, panini, fruit, vegetables, dolci, tiramisù….once again, enough for you and your whole family and for the patient…and maybe a little something extra for the idiot American couple that had no idea that they would end up at the Italian hospital for the first time and would be totally unprepared.

– Camp stove, sleeping bag, towel.   Never go anywhere without your towel.

– Phlebotomy Butterfly Needle — apparently they don’t have them in Pronto Soccorso…as in “no, mi dispiace, non abbiamo le farfalle…quest’e’ Pronto Soccorso.”

– Raincoat.  This will be helpful if they spill your blood all over you…to protect your new camel coat.  After all, this is Italia.

– Phone charger…never mind, on second thought, just bring an electric generator.   A phone charger just isn’t enough.

– Sense of humor.  Bring it.  You will need it.


After nine hours they wheeled my gurney into a room with fourteen other beds…all filled with very ill older italiani, some screaming in italian, moaning…one man as he relieved himself into a bloody bag “brucie, brucie”…it burns. It burns.

They took my vitals. Finalmente.  One nurse came to take my blood.  Devo avvisarti, I tell him…I must warn you…i miei veni sono molto difficile. My veins are very difficult. Don’t worry, he assured me…sono un esperto. I am an expert. After three punctures and quite a bit of digging he went to get another nurse.

When she arrives, I ask her, “E tu?”  And then she stabs me.

But to no avail.

And then another nurse.

It took three nurses and multiple punctures to get my blood…and then they spilled some of it on the floor. The one thing that I can say is…my blood is red.

I was trying to make light of the situation…I told the first nurse…Ahh…il mio sangue e’ rosso. My blood is red. But ah, he answered,…not blue? Oh, solo Donald Trump ha sangue blu, he says, smiling.

Not funny, I told him.

Two hours later they came back to tell me that I was normal. That I was probably dehydrated and that is why I fainted. That my blood pressure was low. My blood pressure is always low, I told them.

And now I am receiving a pint of IV saline. Still no food or water.

And now I am excused. They remove the port from my hand and my blood begins squirting all over the floor…again. I suppose I have had enough fluids, I tell them.

They hand me a bill which I have to go pay within the next two weeks…at the Poste Italiane:  25 euros. (Read here about the Poste Italiane.)

R walks me out the door into the night.  It is 2.30.   Streets are empty.   Miraculously, a taxi passes.  We hail it and get in.

I wake up five hours later with a fever.   I am too ill to think, but I am mad at Italia.

Feeling a bit traumatized, I can now tell my tale…but from the couch.


Photo credit:  R. Coff.  I was the idiot on the gurney.   Cover photo at top taken by B.  Actually me in ambulanza.  Good times.




  1. And I thought the UW ER was bad!. How is your fever? Hope you didn’t catch anything at the pronto succorso. What an adventura.
    You should feel really proud of your language skills. Miss you. Feel better soon.

    • Fever still. Blessing of ibuprofen helped me to write today. Yeah, I was wondering if I fainted because of the oncoming virus or if I caught it there…no idea. Yes, avventura. Miss you back! Xox

  2. Oh, my…. I was feeling homesick for Milano, wondering what it was like in the spring. Thank you for the reminder that there are some things that I do not miss…

    • We have the window open. I actually heard birds today and I was wondering which birds they were…since I had not heard these songs before. I will keep you posted…but this was the warmest day so far.

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