A trip (or two) to Italy’s Hospitals

Trevi Fountain: a more typical tourist site in Rome

The interesting thing about travel is you never know what places you might discover: a delicious hole-in-the-wall restaurant, a unique little artisan’s shop, or even, the local hospitals.

My mother met me in Rome for a week of sightseeing. Unfortunately, she did not do such a hot job of packing and left all of her medicines at home. She was fine without most of them for a week except for her pain medications that she was taking for a nerve problem until she could get in with a specialist. Without these pain meds, the nerve problem is debilitating, making it difficult to walk, and obviously, difficult to sightsee. If she was going to make it through the week, we had to make a trip to the doctor. Our hotel owner let us know that the hospital was only about five blocks down the road. We walked there and entered into the ER. The check-in desk was empty, and some people sitting in the waiting room pointed through the automatic doors to triage. We went through and sat down at one of the two desks. The first nurse did not speak English so we were moved to the other desk. The next nurse spoke very basic English. Our first question was, ‘How much will this cost?’ He didn’t know the word cost. I wrote down the Euros symbol, and he looked puzzled. Luckily an EMT walked by that understood and said, “It’s free in Italy.” Excellent. I explained my mom’s situation. Although he didn’t exactly understand which medicine she needed, through a series of dramatic gestures and miming, he got the gist of the problem.

We were put in a secondary waiting room where there were only two other people waiting. ‘This shouldn’t take too long,’ we thought. No one was called back for an hour. I don’t know why but my mom was the first called back after that. The doctor didn’t speak any English, so we were sent next door, where a warm and friendly doctor greeted us. She claimed to not speak much English but we were able to communicate, which was the important thing. She wanted to give my mom an IV of medicine and a shot. In the meantime, people are milling in and out, standing around, and there is obviously no one in charge and no organization in this hospital whatsoever. The two nurses start to administer the IV and give her a shot. I was shocked when neither of them put gloves on to give her these meds or even to remove the IV. I saw the box of gloves sitting beside the bed and yet they didn’t use them. The only medical history question they asked my mom was if she was a diabetic. They have no idea what my mom does or does not have. The doctor wrote my mom a prescription for four medicines. We go to the pharmacy and get them, then Google them when we get back to the hotel. None of them are pain medicines; they’re anti-inflammatory meds, which my mom has on her.

Fast forward two days later. My mom is in severe pain. We were leaving for Sorrento the next day, and we had no choice but to go back to the hospital. She had to get pain medicines. The hospital is a lot busier this time, so we have to sit in triage to be checked in. This is when my mom and I saw perhaps the most horrifying sight I’ve seen in a modern-day hospital. A woman is on a gurney in triage looking half-conscious. A nurse walks by, tries to talk to her, and the woman doesn’t respond. She casually walks to find a doctor (in no hurry). The doctor comes over shakes the woman, lifts her eyelid, and when she moans, the doctor indicates she’s fine. What?! They haven’t checked this woman’s heart rate, pulse, nothing. The woman lies there for another 5 to 10 minutes. My mom and I seriously looked at each other wide-eyed. When they decide to do something with this woman, she is not responsive. They slowly take her pulse, and since she has one, they don’t look concerned. The nurse checks her blood pressure and then just drops the woman’s limp arm. Appalling. My mom gets through triage, and I leave her in the waiting room while I go to the train station to get tickets. I couldn’t handle sitting there so I told her I’d come back for her shortly. When I get back they had called my mom back already, so I sat in the outer waiting room. Besides all of the other family and friends waiting, there is a dog tied up to a pole near the ER automatic doors. Yes, inside! He’s a scrappy little dog, yapping his head off when someone walks by and doesn’t pet him. A doctor come out to tell him to be quiet, but as soon as the doctor walks away, he’s back to barking. A dog in a hospital?

My mom came out, and the doctor wouldn’t give her pain meds, just stronger anti-inflammatory meds. The hospital staff was nice, but if you’re ever in a real emergency in Italy, go to a private hospital. They might just let you die in the ER, and only discover your decaying body when someone recalls that they’re actually on duty and should be working. After Italy I went to Jordan, where they are known throughout the Middle East as having the best medical care, and yet a country like Italy can’t seem to wear gloves or check on a woman going in and out of consciousness.

So, just remember, you never know what side of a place you’ll get to see when you’re traveling. It may not be your typical tourist spot, but two trips to an Italian hospital was definitely interesting, and my mom and I had quite a few laughs over that scrappy dog in the ER.

11 thoughts on “A trip (or two) to Italy’s Hospitals

  • You never know what meds you’re going to need in a foreign country! And if there’s a foreign language in the way too, it can really lead to unknown circumstances. That’s why I try and take a plethora of different things to cover all situations, but inevitably there’s always something new.

    Hope your mum eventually got some pain killers!

    • She actually didn’t get any until she got home. The hospital just gave her more of the same thing! Luckily, she is in better care now :)

  • We lived in Italy with the military for three years. While we did have medical care on base, we found ourselves in the local Italian ER a couple of times, such as when my son broke his nose late on a Saturday evening. I also gave birth in an Italian hospital, though luckily it was with American care. We were always hearing horror stories from other Americans who had to be treated for something in an Italian hospital. Like a guy who was in an accident and had to have major surgery (which the military hospital couldn’t handle) and he was in so much pain the whole time he was checked in. Later, they find out his IV was simply dripping antibiotics and no pain medication like they thought. This was AFTER SURGERY. When he got home and took basic motrin he felt better than when he was in the hospital.

    When we’d ask Italians about their medical care they’d just shrug, like, what can you do? Astounding.

    • I’m glad it’s not just me that has heard or witnessed such things. You hear hospital horror stories, I just never expected to hear them about Italy!

  • Um, though I agree with most of what you wrote, it still seems to be a bit biased anyway; I mean, you had an experience in a bad hospital and so on, but there is no particular reason to take it as the example of how the average health service in Italy.
    You couldn’t know if the woman in the gurney had not been alread visited by a medic, or if her condition was serious or not;
    Nor do I, so I’m not saying that you’re wrong or not, I simply doubt that you can judge it just by what you saw.
    The dog tied up to a pole inside the hospital it’s just ridiculous, I never saw a thing like that, and I had worked in various hospitals since the last 8 years, so it didn’t seem to me to be that kind of average.
    As you wrote, that was a public hospital, so comparing the american standards, where you gotta have the health insurance or you’re done, with an hospital where the service is free doesn’t seem that fair to me, maybe a private hospital would have been more equal.
    THAT SAID, yes, a lot of things in the Italian health service don’t work, and you’re totally right about the fact that they don’t give you pain meds, they just give you anti-inflammatory meds, and it seems to be related to pharmaceutical interest, as far as I know.
    I had a minor surgery a couple of years ago, and when I said that I was starting to feel the wound, they made me an IV of a light anti-inflammatory.
    I just laughed at that point (well, I pictured myself laughing, actually), so you’re right about that, indeed.
    About the fact of nurses not wearing gloves, again it’s not a common thing, I never saw that at work, but I think it occasionaly happens in bad public hospitals anyway, and yes that sucks.
    Also I would like to add that the Italian nurses working in the public health service are often rude, whereas the foreign ones are usually nicer, and I am saying this both as a patient and as a worker; still not talking about everyone of them, but I saw it enough times to think that it could be a common habit for a lot of people.
    My two cents.

  • Oh wow!

    I’ve only been to the hospital once but I’m so accident prone I’m sure it will happen again lol. I would feel so helpless. Like, what do you do at that point?

  • that’s so weird. I’ve had similar things like that happen in France. It’s very disconcerting, this attitude. Lesson learned: load up on the meds before leaving the country :)

  • An interesting story Laura, yet I find that the evaluation you have abouth the health system in Italy system needs some insight. The World Health Organization last did a ranking of the world’s health systems in 2000. Guess what country was in number 2? Italy! On the other hand, the USA was in position 37, behind countries like Morocco, Costa Rica or the Domincan Republic. I am aware that this was 10 years ago, but I am quite sure that the US is not doing much better. You can see the full list here http://thepatientfactor.com/canadian-health-care-information/world-health-organizations-ranking-of-the-worlds-health-systems/. As a side note, when traveling in Malaysia I had a tooth infection and had to have my wisdom tooth extracted. What did I do? A video! You’ll find it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pA2a__qLAF8

    Good to know your mom did well at the end though! :)

    • Federico,
      I appreciate your comments and insight. I can only write about my experiences, neither of which were good from a hygiene perspective. In terms of treatment, language was obviously a bit of an issue and I lay no blame on them for that, as I don’t expect them to speak English. I agree that the US has a lot to improve upon. I’m curious if the link you sent me includes both public and private hospitals (I visited it but didn’t see a lot of details). We were at a public hospital which I’ve also heard makes a huge difference in Italy. I’m also wondering how the ranking is determined- ie does it refer to how many patients are covered. It’s free in Italy which means they can care for many more people than the US does. Thanks for the comment!

      • Hey Laura! From what I know ( I knew about that WHO list many years ago) the list is only for public health systems which is the one that everyone can use without having to pay. Money of course makes a difference as it does with everything, hence a private doctor would have resulted in a completely different experience. This link will take you to the official report http://www.who.int/healthinfo/paper30.pdf but from what I skimmed it considered several factors, including expenditure, population, years of schooling, and more. You’re welcome! :)

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