t will be a very long day at the hospital but I’m unaware of it when I arrive at 8 a.m. under bright sunny skies. I am there for a cortisone shot in my right eye, a 15-minute exercise the squeamish would be best not know about. I am ushered into a room where I change into my hospital costume. I am told to wait. It’s Rome. Patience is advisable.
Thirty-minutes into that wait a young man is wheeled in on a gurney by paramedics. He, too, is told to wait. He’s in his 30s and eager to talk. He had a severe headache, his vision doubled, and he fainted. He has had glaucoma since he was 20. He’s been operated on six times. His eyes contain a heap of scar tissue — his word, ammucchiamento. He’s cheerful and upbeat and wonders if after this latest operation he’ll ever be able to drive again. I am skeptical but say nothing. He’s a salesman, he says, and times are tough. How will he be able to get around if he can’t drive?
We exchange the mean details of ocular surgery before he’s wheeled off, waving. Be strong, I tell him. By then I’ve been in the room two hours.
The next occupant is a spry man who looks to be in his mid-70s. He is 87, he tells me. Hearing my accent, he asks where I’m from. He’s pleased by the reply and begins a long and lovely story of watching America troops enter the port of Fiumicino as boy in 1944. “There was a corporal,” he says, “and this corporal picked me up and gave me his beret, with insignia. I still have it. Say what you want, but I love America. Grande.” He asks me about Donald Trump. I demur. “It doesn’t matter. America is a great country because it includes so many sides. It is open. Italy is closed.”
He explains he worked as a commercial aircraft mechanic for decades after World War II. “I remember the days of Pan American and TWA, because we’d maintain their planes. In those days all the ground personnel was also American and they’d tell stories. Even the captains talked to us sometimes.” I point out that both airlines no longer exist. “I know. I come from another time. I am glad I have my memories,” and he points to his head, smiling, “because they are good ones, and I still have the corporal’s hat.”
Three hours in, the man is wheeled into the operating room. I continue waiting. Three hours become four, which turn into five. I begin asking questions. I am among the few patients left.
A doctor comes and explains the holdup. A patient has suffered complications. There’s no telling when the team will finish with him. I know immediately this is the young salesman.
At 5:50 p.m., six hours in, the salesman is wheeled back into the room. His father has arrived. So has his mother. They talk less to him than into their phones to friends and relatives. How are you? I ask him. Tired, he replies. He falls asleep.
At 6:30, the paramedics return and wheel him out. He’s headed home. He gives me thumbs up. Remember to check in the rearview mirror, I quip, and he smiles.
One hour later, nearly eight hours into my hospital odyssey, the retired mechanic is brought back. “Well,” he says, “it looks like I will live another few days. But you! You have been here forever. This would not happen in America. See, this is Italy. Poor Italy. Poor you.”
At 7:45 p.m. I’m placed in a wheelchair to receive my shot, which in fact does take only 15 minutes. “Long day,” I say to the weary-looking surgeon.
“Yes, very long, very unusual,” he replies. “A difficult day…”
An assistant interrupts him, “But we’re all here. It’s like Christmas. We’ll get it done, and then tomorrow we’ll start again.”
“Thank God,” says the doctor, “for patience and good cheer. Now then, Mr. Christopher of America, lets get started so we can go to dinner.”
And we do.