June 4, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Sister Marta

By |2018-03-21T19:02:26+01:00September 21st, 2014|Area 51|
One shot a day in a universe far, far away.

ittle things tell you when nostalgia wants out of cliché’s clutches. But those same little things, when you don’t see them coming, can leave you dumfounded.

In 1977, I suffered a breakdown, a predictable event after working 100 straight days starting and nurturing a new Rome English-language daily newspaper.

I was sent to a tiny clinic where an appropriately diminutive nun hand-picked the doctor’s next patient based on her own sense of who needed to speak to him most. I was last.

When I finally saw him, the yawning doctor prescribed a regime of daily vitamin shots. Each day, I shuffled morning and evening to the nearby clinic where a second nun as tiny and antique as the first, blended thickly exotic liquids from beaked vials and administered a shot to my buttocks. She used the same long syringe daily. This went on for a month, during which time I learned that pinpricking Sister Marta was devoutly fond of Pope Pious XII and believed I needed to add carrots to my diet.

In all, I saw no more than two-dozen or so patients come and go through the clinic. I lived in Rome, but medically speaking it felt like a village on the distant outskirts of American modernity. I assumed the gap would last forever.

Earlier this month my 21st-century Rome doctor, a young and handsome man in his 30s (who uses slick hair products), instructed me to get a certain kind of blood test. He recommended I go to a local private clinic.

I immediately thought back to the two tiny nuns, in particular Sister Marta, the Needle Nun, as I called her. Though 35 years had passed, I went to the new clinic with my old vision intact.

I decided, unwisely as it turns out, to go on a Saturday morning, assuming I’d find it deserted. On the second floor of a 1970s building I found a vast waiting room packed with several hundred people. Numbers glowed on a digital board (there were categories for blood tests, breath testing, orthopedic examinations). Men, women, and children sat patiently through this controlled chaos, most of them in agitated conversation on their phones.

The scene resembled the outside of a stadium box office, ticket holders blending in with scalpers with sundry comings and goings in between.

I presented my prescription, got my number, and sat for a half-hour until I was called into a modern corridor lined with meticulously arranged cubicles. The white-frocked technician who drew my blood, Marco, was in his mid-20s. This was not Sister Marta.

I asked Marco about how things had evolved, mentioning my 1977 experience. He grinned. “I wasn’t even born then, but what I can tell you is that Italians have fallen in love with testing. I started three years ago and the numbers have just gone up and up. We Italians have the kind of mentality in which it’s interesting to compare results. It becomes something else to talk about, so you can imagine how well the industry is doing as a whole.”

Marco finished drawing my blood and told me the results would be ready in an hour. The lab could them to me by email or I could wait in the lobby for printouts. Sister Marta was dealt yet another blow. I didn’t get a single lab test in 1977.

“Checking your health based on tests can become a habit,” said Marco before leaving the cubicle. “Once you start looking at the numbers you feel can’t do without them. It’s like soccer game results.”

I shook his hand, which surprised him, and walked home a little stunned. My results arrived by email within the hour.

Later in the day I took a walk to the old clinic, located just beneath the convent where Sister Marta and the others once contemplated. Its windows were dirty and the door boarded over. The convent still existed, said the custodian, but the clinic had closed in the 1990s. “The sisters stopped their medical work and then the doctor died,” he told me. “For a while we expected a replacement, but then, you know, all the modern clinics took over.”

And canceled cliché.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.