I’ve been living in Italy for going on two years now. I still go back to America once a year to get my teeth cleaned and go to my yearly primary doctor’s appointment. I guess you could say that I’ve always been a bit *timid* about trusting my wellbeing to the doctors here in Italy where a socialized medical system is in place. It’s not that I didn’t trust them, it’s just that I was used to being taken care of medically in a certain way; it was comfortable. Then life handed me a lemon and dear god was it sour!
During one of my visits back home, I had the first of many mind-blowingly painful stomachaches.
I figured I was being a wimp and maybe it was gas or really bad indigestion. I told my doctor, she gave me heartburn medicine, gave me a couple tests (which came back negative), and then I made my way back to Italy with this issue unresolved. Over the next year, I would have five more of these “attacks”.
They were the kind that made me feel like my body was actually trying to kill me. They felt hot and explosive inside. It felt like someone was squeezing my insides and reveling in my agony as I tried to rock away the pain. No certain position helped, and it always happened between 8pm and 11pm and didn’t completely go away for about a week.
I was terrified of going to the emergency room here, just like I was if I were in the United States.
Even with my insurance in the United States, emergency room bills are insanely expensive. A visit to the emergency room meant six months of saying “no” to just about everything because every dollar went to paying off that bill.
I knew Italy has a socialized medical system, but I figured that it wouldn’t apply to me as well, right? I’m not a citizen, there’s no way they would let me benefit from their medical system without paying!
One night, the pain was too much. I was scared, and I knew I needed help. There was no way this could have been gas or indigestion. There was something wrong, and I needed help. With that, my boyfriend and I rushed to the emergency room.
The nurses were beyond kind and comforting. The took some blood, gave me a pregnancy test, and gave me an IV with I have no idea what in it. The doctor felt around my tummy a bit and asked what I had eaten that day; tuna, tomatoes, beans, pizza, and spaghetti with a tomato based sauce. She said it was gastritis, and that I just had to watch what I ate. With that, I walked out of the hospital with a bill of $0.00.
The next day was my birthday, and the next day the pain was still there.
I made sure not to eat anything they told me not to eat, and yet the pain was still there. Come 9pm, I was back in the ER. They told me I just wasn’t being careful enough with what I ate and said it was still gastritis. With that, I walked out of the hospital with a bill of $0.00.
I would have accepted that diagnosis, but the pain wasn’t really originating from where my stomach was. It was more the right side, and I made sure to tell the doctor that. She told me again, that it was just gastritis. I felt a bit blown off, but I figured they were the doctors and had studied this much more than google could ever teach me.
I was sad. It was the holiday season and I wanted to eat all my favorite foods that suddenly I found myself not being able to eat. I dealt with it though, all while searching for what else it could be. Gastritis just didn’t sound right; I knew my body and this was more that gastritis. This was much bigger than that.
Three months later, it hit again. This time with a much more debilitating force. It hurt more than it ever had before.
On the way to the emergency room, I remember thinking counting the seconds. Every second meant a second sooner that it would be over.
Once we reached the emergency room, my body began shaking profusely and began to go into shock from the pain.
I was ready to do anything and everything to stop the pain. They didn’t have a doctor on staff that night, but rather a paramedic. For this I will be eternally grateful. I believe he was perhaps less sure of himself and wanted to make sure he ruled everything out, just in case. He could tell this wasn’t normal.
He ordered an x-ray for me and I was told to come back the next morning for an ultrasound. The ultrasound finally confirmed exactly what I had been hoping for; a problem that had a potential solution. If there was a confirmed, identifiable problem, there could be a solution. And with a solution would come a much less painful life.
I had a 2cm gallstone.
It had been trying to make its way from the gallbladder past the bile duct which it just couldn’t fit through. This was the cause of all my pain.
The doctor explained to me that the best option for most people my age is just to have the gallbladder removed. I was young, and there could be problems in the future if this wasn’t dealt with.
The question became: what country should I have it removed in?
I knew I’d have to pay more in the United States because I’d have to pay my premium while in Italy it would be totally and 100% cost free. I’d also have to buy a plane ticket home and miss a solid two (or more) weeks of university here in Italy if I were to get it done in the United States.
I was scared to trust this socialized medical system. I was scared to go under anesthesia and have them cut holes into my body and remove one of my organs, but I knew this was my best option. Thousands of people had had this surgery before me, and thousands of people would have this surgery after me. These were competent doctors, and I had to trust that I was in good hands.
Once the decision was made to have the operation done in Italy, I had about three more appointments for various testing and (what seemed to be) an obscene amount of blood withdrawals before they put me on “the list”. All of these doctors visits I walked away from with a bill of $0.00. They said they would call me a week before the surgery to notify me that it was happening, and that was it.
I assumed this list was just about miles long and wondered how many months I’d have to wait in anxious anticipation before we got that magic call. To my surprise, we got the call about ten days later; I was to have my surgery and I’d stay in the hospital for the two nights following.
The day finally arrived where I had to trust doctors of a foreign education system and have a whole damn organ removed, just like that.
It was 7:30AM as I walked into the hospital, surprisingly calm. They prepared my IV, drew some more blood, and I waited about three hours before they wheeled me off for surgery.
As I entered the room where the surgery would take place, a tear rolled down the side of my face and a surgical assistant wiped it away and assured me that I’d be okay. I was shocked when I got on the surgical table and found myself laughing with the staff as they joked about Donald Trump and “the wall”. By the time the anesthesia hit me, I was beyond relaxed and ready to fade into my profoundly deep sleep.
I woke up two hours later acutely aware of my pain radiating upwards towards my spine. As the anesthesia continued doing its job, I dozed in and out of sleep for the following 12+ hours. It hurt, but it was manageable. The nurses came to check in on me a couple times throughout the night before the sun rose and the activity of the hospital began.
One of my favorite nurses started his shift, and that made me happy. A few female nurses helped me out of bed to slip on some actual clothing other than the hospital slip that I had been wearing. Even though getting out of bed felt a lot like all my organs falling out of my body, I couldn’t help but to think at that very moment how fortunate I felt to have these people with me. They were all so kind, so understanding, and so damn good at their jobs.
After another night at the hospital, I was cleared to go home (with a bill of $0.00) and I said goodbye to my nurses and doctor.
Recovery the next few days were a little piece of hell, but every day I got a little bit better. I began eating more and walking more and getting out of bed with more ease.
I am now about two weeks post operation and I feel great. I’ve been slowly integrating heavier foods back into my diet and am headed back to my normal responsibilities this week. The nurses and doctors made sure to explain every little thing to me, and I’m beyond impressed with the entire process.
Whenever I previously thought of socialized medical systems, I thought of long waits at the emergency room, doctors that just want you in and out, and perhaps less sterile conditions than those which I was accustomed to in the United States. I’m happy to say that not only was a wrong, but I was super, unbelievably, 100%, and completely wrong.
The paint might not always be matching, and the tile cracked here and there, but Italy’s socialized medical system provided me with something much more important; my health.
Thanks to such a qualified group of medical professionals I received optimal care with fantastic results. I was taken care of like a mom would their child; and I got all this for $0.00.
I currently pay a small amount of taxes as a part-time English teacher at a local school here in Italy. These taxes go towards many things, the medical system being one of these. While it’s not always pleasant having a high income tax, I was so happy to have this system in place when I needed it most.
Coming from America, I had always been paranoid of receiving medical care because medical care means high bills there. While I am fortunate to have health insurance in the United States, the copays that I have to cover are still far too high for a person just starting out, but no longer financially dependent on their parents.
I was scared to get this surgery done in a foreign country with a medical system so radically different than the system I was used to, but I’m so glad I did. I was so pleasantly surprised by the results and the immense of care these medical professionals have for their patients. After all of that care, I still didn’t have to pay even one penny. For that I will be eternally grateful.