n a recent Caribbean cruise, I developed a rash. I didn’t remember being stung by a jellyfish; it wasn’t from sunburn. When I ignored it for a couple of days, it worsened.
As far as issues on a cruise go — and yes, I was on my boat at the same time that the now-infamous Concordia foundered off the coast of Tuscany — this was minor. Still, having nightmares of what could have been swirling in that hot tub water I’d dipped into while onboard, I wanted to know what it was. And fix it. Preferably before I got to Italy.
That’s because, although I’ve now lived in Italy for more than two years, I have, shamefully, not yet attempted to navigate the public health system. At first, it was because I worried over my limited language skills. Then I fretted over registering with a doctor and taking the other requisite steps to be in the system. So I used other, easier means of attaining healthcare — going to a private English clinic and paying for a dual U.S.-Italy policy that would cover me in either country.
None of this, it should be noted, stemmed from concern over the quality of Italian health care. Even expats have opinions of Italian doctors that would shock the average American. “Let me tell you, I would way rather be seriously ill in Italy than in the U.S.,” an American woman friend told me, and she’s lived in Italy for a decade and had several hospital. She swears the doctors aren’t just cheaper than in the U.S., but better.
Still, I was daunted by the idea of dealing with the system just when I thought I was done with figuring out all things Italian.
So I decided to go down to the ship’s medic. It was 5 p.m. Two nurses chatted away at the desk. When they stopped their conversation enough to notice me, I explained what was wrong. Well, they told me, the doctor’s not in now. He’ll be back tomorrow morning.
“Okay…” I said. “But it’s getting worse. Is there anything I can do in the meantime?”
One of the nurses looked at the patch of skin I pointed to. “It might be something from the ship’s gym or locker room, but I’m not sure what it is exactly,” she said, and looked at me as if I should be the one to tell her. “But,” she said suddenly, “this cream should help.” She disappeared into a back room, then emerged a few minutes later, a tube in hand. “So this one might make it better,” she said. “But it’s kind of expensive.”
“Well, how much?” I asked.
“But you’re not sure what the rash is from, so you’re not sure if this will help?”
“Well, should I just come back to see the doctor tomorrow to double-check?”
“And… how much would that cost?”
“Even though you think it might have come from the ship itself?”
“Yes, it’s $90 for a consultation no matter what.”
Right. I left empty-handed, telling myself that it was probably just irritation from the sea. If it worsened more, I’d come back the next day.
Since it looked okay the next day, I put off thinking about it. Until I got back to Italy.
A week later, I was in the Valle d’Aosta, a tiny, snow-covered region in Italy’s Alps. But the problem persisted.
I went to the pharmacist, describing the problem. As a pharmacist, he, like the nurse, wasn’t entirely sure. But unlike the nurse, his solution cost much less. “If it’s a bacterial infection, antibiotics should take care of it,” he told me. “Take this for three days, once a day, and if it hasn’t cleared up, then see a doctor.” He handed over the regimen of pills. The cost? Six euro. Five times less than the cost of the ship cream.
But other parts of my skin became irritated. Now, it was a Friday — and, it being a small village in Italy, any doctors’ offices would be closed over the weekend. I decided to try the doctor now. Just in case.
The medic had a small, one-room office that opened for the afternoon at 1 p.m. By the time I got there, 15 minutes later, there were three other people in front of me in line. I kicked the snow off my shoes and waited.
Some 40 minutes later, it was my turn. After asking a few questions and examining my skin, the doctor sat back. “It looks like you got stung by a microscopic jellyfish,” he said. “You can see the sting here. The reason why you’re seeing other areas of irritation is because your tan is fading — so even though they were there from the beginning, they’re only noticeable now. Since you’re already taking antibiotics, I’ll write you a prescription for a couple of creams that will make it better.” It made more sense than anything I’d heard. Grateful, I got out my wallet, prepared to hand over-what? The equivalent of $90 in euros?
He handed me the prescription, then shook my hand.
“Buona giornata,” he said.
The cost of the visit? Nothing. The feeling that someone actually cared about my health, and wasn’t ripping me off just to talk about it for 10 minutes? Priceless.