Pills Of Italian Daily Life: The Doctor

In Italy, the doctor is almost a mythological figure, the only one who studied in a village where most people didn't know how to read and write.

The Doctor
Jan Steen [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In Italy, the doctor is almost a mythological figure

By Lina Pizzi

Italians have a fascination with the figure of the doctor. Every Italian parent would do whatever sacrifice just to see their offspring become a doctor, or something very similar. It is difficult to say why, but I guess that it is mostly a matter of prestige.

To better explain this concept, I’ll tell you a story. In a small village on the Apennines there was a simple man living a quite modest life made of hard work in the field and little money. His only source of amusement was to go every evening to the local osteria, and play cards with his peers while drinking, smoking, shouting, and of course swearing — more often than once and then — many saints and God himself. Well, one day his two daughters married respectively the doctor and the lawyer of the small village. The poor guy had to stop going to the osteria. After a while, under the physiological pressure of boredom, he decided that, after all, he could still enjoy a glass of wine. He walked into the osteria and his friends started to shout, urging him to take back his seat, sit with them, laugh, drink and play cards. He looked at his shoes and, without looking them in the eye, he regretfully said: “my daughters have married the doctor and the lawyer… I can’t play with you anymore.”

This is just to make you understand why the so-called “complex of the doctor” for many people is still very strong. Before Google and globalization, each one of us lived in a world where the doctor, the mayor and the priest were the main figures around which public life happened. Therefore, the doctor was almost a mythological figure, the only one, together with the priest, who studied in a village where most people didn’t even know how to read and write. The doctor had the power of restoring the health and (always together with the priest) they used to make miracles happen for many people.

A miracle of such kind happened in my family. My grandad was the son of a rich-but-socialist landowner, who was naturally generous and did not care much about money. My grandad — in the early ’30s — was a privileged child. One of his privileges was to carry liters of milk with his bike for 12 kilometers to reach the seaside and sell it to ice-cream makers. Even now he is still quite greedy, let alone as a child. One day he came to the conclusion that he should have been finally paid for his service. However, he didn’t accept the money from the ice-cream makers, rather he preferred to be rewarded with a kilo of ice-cream. He ate it all on the spot. He went back home and, with a silly excuse like “oh, I have lost the money”, he managed not to be punished. His father was not after petty cash, after all.

At night, grandad started to feel a terrible stomachache, and it wasn’t exactly due to the repentment for the horrible action. His father, worried for the life of his favourite son, immediately sent someone on horseback to call the doctor. While the most trusted collaborator left in the middle of the darkest night to wake up the only doctor in the village, my grand-grandfather ordered everyone to pray for the life of his most beloved son. The doctor arrived and did not say much, fostering his aura of mystery. He walked into my grandpa’s room and closed the door. After a while, he asked him: “What have you eaten today?” with the tone of someone who have understood the turbid affair that had taken place in the afternoon. Grandpa confessed: he had eaten a whole kilo of ice-cream with toasted almonds in it. The doctor gave him something for his upset stomach and fever, leaving the room with his grave dignity. The father of my grandpa was worried: “Tell me, doctor. Is he going to die?.” The doctor smiled behind his mustache “No, he just ate a kilo of ice-cream. Tomorrow he will be better.” My grand-grandpa took out his wallet and paid the doctor. Then, he told everyone to stop praying and went to my grandpa’s room. He was not that angry, but he still told him “If I knew, I would have called the doctor tomorrow” — implying that he wished his son could have learned the lesson, if he suffered until the next day. Nobody got punished, and after all, ice-cream was delicious.

Nowadays, the role of the doctor has drastically changed. From someone being able to magically give back life and health, the doctor has become the guy who signs your papers to prescribe heavy drugs such as paracetamol, and exams with another doctor — exams that you will only take 6 or 8 months later. Therefore, the average Italian, after unsuccesfully trying to book the public service, calls private clinics and doctors working as self-employed to have their exams done within a week. I must say though, that the Italian NHS is the best thing we have in Italy, and that every Italian should be proud of having proper healthcare virtually for free. Indeed, queues are to allow people with medical urgencies to have their exams taken first. I have been through a lot of hospitals myself, and my sick relatives were always treated with care, professionality and sympathy.

Anyway, let’s go back to our hero, the small town doctor. He is a special surveilled man. Usually, when he is late in the office, at least 100 worried eyes are there looking on all sides. If I were him, I would be seriously scared, but instead the crowd parts for him. He can thus reach his room and prepare to see the first patient of the day. The doctor is attentive to those who have entrusted him their lives, so at the beginning of the day he gives out numbers, like at the post office. However, people go shopping or carry out other business instead of waiting there, assuming that their wait could reasonably last more time. The professional queuers rise up and complain, never letting someone with a number below theirs to use their right of seeing the doctor immediately. In their opinion, this is valid only when the number is called, and not 10 or 30 minutes afterwards.

So, the doctor has to return to the traditional system for the great satisfaction of the professional queuers. To make the waiting times bearable and visit as many people as possible, he starts to take recurring prescription bookings on the phone and leave them in a mailbox with the name of the patient on the envelope. After a while, he decides to stop also this practice. I don’t know exactly the reason, but I got the idea that a overly curious guy started to open the envelopes to see what illnesses were affecting his fellow citizens. Let’s remember that in Italian the word privacy does not exist. It is an entirely foreign concept. For this reason, we use the English word, but nobody really knows what it means. Only in exceptional cases, the doctor does also home visits for the elderly and for other people who cannot go to his office.

Now, you’ll have to forgive me if once again I leave the realm of impartial and serious analysis to talk again about my infamous grandpa. Grandpa — as you may have inferred from the above mentioned ice-creamgate — has no great sympathy for doctors, unless the doctor is a woman, comes from France and laughs when grandpa salutes her with “bonjour” and “au revoir”. You’ll have also to understand that, in my grandpa’s experience, doctors never cured anyone. Before and immediately after the war, in most cases doctors could only announce that someone was about to die and that he could not do anything about it, if not advising to call the priest. Moreover, the hospital was a place from which one could very rarely get back home. So, even if things have changed, grandpa is istinctively not really happy to see a doctor or to go to the hospital. Since I can remember, he only had two stays there: the first time, he managed to escape, while the second time, he tried to bribe my cousin, who was spending the night surveilling him to prevent another escape, promising him fantastic (but not credible) amounts of money. Needless to say, my cousin remained indifferent to the offer, amidst the growing frustration of grandpa (and of his neighbours, who did not sleep much that night).

However, grandpa is not that young anymore, therefore, although he doesn’t see the point, he has to see doctors a bit more often that we would like. His state of health is amazing, but to preserve it, we need to arrange regular checks. For the record, this story takes place in early October. Winter was coming, so we called the doctor to ask him to do a general check-up, prepare grandpa for the winter, make sure that he avoids to catch a cold or a flu, and monitor his heart and lungs. Of course, grandpa was kept in the dark about this plot. Without suspicion on his side, the day of the visit arrived.

At home, there were only my grandpa reading next to the fireplace, and my aunt preparing his food. Grandpa was caught in a moment of particular weakness: he had just taken a bath — which is something he likes as much as seeing the doctor — and that he does only once a week, because he wants to be clean when he goes to the mass. So, he considers it a personal favor that he grants only to the good Lord. The doctor rang the bell, my aunt opened the door and suddenly my grandpa ended up face to face with his natural enemy. Grandpa slowly shifted his gaze from the book to the doctor, and then to my aunt. It took him some seconds to realize that the doctor was in his house.

Finally, looking at the doctor directly in his eye, he said with the sweetest tone and most genuine curiosity: “Vige, who is this man?”. My aunt, with her usual tendersness and pedagogical attitude, and thinking that the poor old man was starting losing his mind, replied: “Dad, he is the doctor!”. My grandpa nodded. Then, full of renewed irony and fake surprise — which could clearly be seen from his exasperated facial expressions — exclaimed: “Ah, the doctor?? Ohhh, what a pleasure to see you! I really needed your services!” The doctor, who has seen many, many things in his life, replied in kind: “I don’t think so. Indeed, I find you very well!”

Grandpa was happy to have re-established his dominance. Normally, he would make a great fuss and refuse to be visited, but he felt generous and allowed the doctor to visit him. He was declared in splendid shape indeed, so he resumed reading his book. Once the doctor left and he was alone with my aunt, my grandpa asked for confirmation that the doctor said that he was in great shape. Once having been reassured, he said in a severe and reprimanding tone: “I think that there is absolutely no need to call the doctor to learn what everyone already knows.” Honestly, how can you blame him?

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