Ninety Days Naked

Relatively speaking, the three months following our return to Canada were a picnic compared to the three weeks immediately after the accident, though not a picnic I’d want to repeat.

Jay stayed in the Stratford hospital for two and a half months – prone for the first month, then raised to a sitting position and soon thereafter making rounds of the ward in a wheelchair.IMG_0045

He had a steady stream of visitors, bearing flowers and gifts. A number of people brought him food on a regular basis, some from local restaurants, some homemade, some accompanied by wine. He became the envy of his roommates once he moved to the rehab floor.

His physio took a long time, but we all cheered the day he first sat up, stood, took a step. He came home, in a mobility bus and wheelchair, for a few hours at Thanksgiving. Mike, Hannah and I prepared a table in the garage as there was no way to get him up the front steps into the house. The weather was chilly but our spirits very warm.

Thanksgiving in the garage

Thanksgiving in the garage

A week or so later, he took the same mobility bus to the Avon Theatre (where normally he’d have been working) and sat in the wheelchair booth to watch a show.

The next day, he complained of numbness and pins and needles in his arms. The doctors became alarmed and raced him down for various upper body scans. When he’d first arrived back in Canada, they’d done lots of scans of his pelvis. There had been some concern that Dr. Panti had not put sufficient screws in the Titanium plate. I spent a sleepless night imagining another surgery. They sent Jay to London to a specialist, who proclaimed the plate looked perfectly secure.

But the Santa Maria della Misericordia hospital had NEVER sent any medical records or test results and no one had suggested there might be anything wrong except the broken pelvis. Now, the medical staff became frenzied with anxiety that they might have ignored a damaged upper vertebra.

I remembered talk of a fractured vertebra in the early days in Italy. I had understood very little but got the impression they had decided the vertebra was not a problem (at least they had stopped mentioning it.) The Canadian doctors seemed to have a very different opinion. They had been planning to discharge Jay at the end of the next week. Instead they slapped him into a neck brace, immobilized him and raced him off to London in an ambulance. He was admitted to the neurological ward and subjected to a whole battery of tests. We all held our breaths. Surely there would not be MORE complications…IMG_0116

In the end, they decided that although there was a tiny fracture to one vertebra, it seemed to be healing fine – which is, I believe, what the Italian doctors thought would happen.

And rather than readmitting him to Stratford General, they discharged him from London. This came with its own challenges, as it meant dealing with all the social services and supports from London rather than Stratford. But Jay was so fiercely determined to get home that he arranged the ambulance and delivery of a hospital bed to our house from his bed in London.

Jamie and I moved furniture so we could fit the hospital bed into the living room, as Jay still couldn’t do stairs. A couple of carpenter friends had redesigned our stereo cabinet to accommodate our flat screen TV so he’d be able to watch it from his bed. The living room was cramped to say the least, but before Hallowe’en Jay arrived, on a stretcher, carried in by yet more ambulance attendants – and finally took up residence at home.

He had literally been 90 days naked (well except during physio and at the theatre!) – and if he writes his own memoir of these events, that’s what he’ll call it. Now he slowly, slowly began the journey back to full mobility and a clothed state. A couple of weeks before Christmas we had the hospital bed removed, as he could climb stairs to the second floor – and take showers again!

He did not get out often at all. It was a brutal winter, with deep snow and too much ice for comfortable perambulation, but he continued to do physio at home and by early spring was out and about, driving, walking with a walker, then a cane (with a set of spikes on the end) and finally without assistance.

And the Italian nightmare faded, as nightmares do.

In fact what I now remember best are the positive moments: the cool breeze in the trees of my children’s park, the view of Perugia from my balcony, the wonderful warm evening meals at La Collina – and above all the extraordinary kindness of friends, family and complete strangers – who lifted our spirits when they were at rock bottom.

When I began this blog, I promised to provide readers with helpful tips gleaned from the experience. I have not done a very good job of that, so will attempt to remedy the situation in closing:

Tips For Dealing with Emergencies in Foreign Countries

  • Take out travel insurance, especially medical. Although we had horrendous problems with GE, without insurance we would be out of pocket close to $100,000 now. And that was with very reasonable Italian medical services. A fellow diner at La Collina told me in Italy they NEVER deny essential medical services to anyone. Had we been somewhere like the States…
  • Call your medical insurance company before getting ANY medical attention, otherwise they may refuse to cover the costs.
  • Do NOT let them bully you into doing their work. You’ve paid them, all of us have paid them, hundreds of thousands of dollars over our lifetimes. Now it is their responsibility to help – to obtain the requisite reports and test results, even ‘fit to fly’ orders. Of course it is easier and more economical for them if you do this work, but you do not have to!
  • DO call your Embassy right away – whenever you are in trouble abroad! If Sandy del Castello at the Canadian Embassy in Rome is anything to go by, you will get immediate and invaluable assistance.
  • Don’t expect people to speak English if it is not the official language of the country. In today’s world, we tend to assume this will be the norm…as you can tell from this cautionary tale, it ain’t always so.
  • Did I mention not to buy expensive SIM cards at the airport, no matter how convenient it may seem?
  • Whenever you travel, take the contact information for all the people you know…because you never know when you will need to contact that old family friend or doctor or work colleague … you just never know.
  • Use the technology available to you (translation programs, skype, etc.)
  • This one is admittedly easier said than done, but try to follow that excellent piece of advice from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t Panic!

So ends this chapter of travel twists… with my heartfelt thanks to the many many people who provided lifelines to us:

SCARLETT. Michael and all my old school friends. Becky and Sandy for their amazing availability and translation skills. Dr. Panti. The nurses on the orthopaedic trauma ward at Ospedale Santa Maria della Misericordia. GIORGIO. My sister Frances, old friend Dr. David Goldbloom and family doctor Mark Wilkinson for advice medical and otherwise. Neil Dennison for listening, flowers and pressure. Sons MIKE and AARON for wrangling with GE – and being there for me in my hysterics. David Lester for early morning translation. Marion and Eleanor for visiting in Perugia, bearing gifts from home. Everyone for the gifts. Terry and Janet Manzo – Terry for photographs of Charlie and support, Janet for Giorgio! Keith Handegord for organizing and loading the iPod. The power people for taking it to GE. Friends and family who emailed and kept me sane. Stephen and Doug for adapting our stereo cabinet. Susan Dunfield for bringing Jay a birthday steak from Down the Street two days after we got home. Marcia and Roger for the gift of a hospital parking pass. Kim for bringing dinner to our house every week for 2 months once Jay got home. Everyone who visited Jay in hospital and brought food and books and videos and love. Everyone who called and offered their support. Pretty much everyone we know!

Despite that one moment of really super bad luck, we’ve been pretty lucky.

Merry Christmas!


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There’s No Place Like Home

Day 17 After the Fall

Okay I’ll admit I was a bit anxious about the journey home. Thrilled that we were finally getting out of Italy, but now suddenly conscious of the possible dangers of flying a very long distance with a man who’d had major surgery 10 days earlier and might still be at risk of a blood clot. By the time I reached the hospital at 7:30 am, dragging my small bag behind me, my stomach was in knots.

We waited. Ashley and Keith did not arrive on time. Ashley had suggested the day before that Jay might want to wear something, like a shirt. He did not…the effort of trying to get something over his head was too much. Blankets would suffice to keep him warm, as we understood it could get pretty chilly in the Lear jet.

Half an hour late, our medical team arrived, Ashley apologizing profusely. Her phone had run out of charge in the night so her alarm had not gone off. She took the helm at once, hustling us all down to the ER entrance where both ambulance and taxi awaited. She and I took the taxi. Keith went in the ambulance with Jay.

“What if something goes wrong while we’re in the air?” I asked.

“Like what?” said Ashley.

“A blood clot?”

“We’ll monitor him constantly, but if there should be signs of distress, there isn’t much we can do. We’d land.”

“Land?’ This was largely a trans Atlantic flight, I thought.

“We’d have to get him to a hospital, so yes, we’d land as soon as we could.”

I was not reassured, although I guess I appreciated her honestly.

Arriving at the airport, we began a most fascinating journey into a world which largely belongs to the very wealthy: the world of private jets and airports.

The passport police, for example, came to us at every point, not vice-versa. Ashley collected all our passports and flashed them. The officials peered into the ambulance at Jay, checking his face against the passport photo (to make sure we were not smuggling out a criminal or something I guess!) We were waved through and out onto the tarmac.

We met the two pilots. Clearly our four travelling companions knew each other very well. They worked not for GE but for a company specializing in emergency repatriation. The four of them had flown all over the world together, rescuing people.  DSCN1029

The plane was frightening small. “Lear jet” conjured images of, I don’t know, the presidential plane from West Wing? This plane had exactly enough space to squeeze in 2 pilots, three seated passengers and one patient on stretcher, with not an inch to spare. Getting Jay’s stretcher in was a four-person job. I don’t quite know how they managed it, but they did. I sat in the furthest back of the three single seats on the left of the plane, my knees nuzzled against the back of the seat in front. Jay’s stretcher filled the right hand side. The “aisle” was less than 18” wide, and Jay’s toes were at my elbow. There was no moving whatsoever once we were in.

Looking into the jet from the door

Looking into the jet from the door

View from my seat at the back of the plane

View from my seat at the back of the plane

It was very loud and initially very cold but warmed up soon enough, and I have never experiences smoother take-offs and landings. No one spoke. Keith and Ashley checked all the monitors attached to Jay fairly regularly and fell fast asleep between-times. I gazed out the tiny window and read. Jay looked horribly uncomfortable as the stretcher was so narrow he could not even rest his arms at his sides.

5 hours passed, then Ashley nudged me and indicated via sign language that we were about to land. “Iceland,” she mouthed. I’d made it without a single bathroom break!

We landed at a tiny airport, with no one else around. Ashley led me into the “terminal” which was more like a private rest stop. There were free snacks, tea and coffee, water, a lounge with TV, even showers. We all raced to the washrooms, then strolled about for the half hour it took to refuel. Ashley and Keith took turns, one of them staying with Jay in the plane. Ashley returned with lunches for us all, which we ate on the next leg, as we flew over Greenland, which was a spectacularly beautiful…much more white than green!DSCN1015




Jay was clearly uncomfortable, but he endured.

Next stop, our home and native land! I’d never been to Newfoundland, and I can’t say I learned much more about it than I had about Iceland. The day was grey, blessedly cool compared to Italy. The customs officials came to greet us, glanced at the passports and waved us on. We refuelled, drank and ate cookies, used the facilities and clambered back on board for the final 3 hours to Toronto.

We hit our first hitch in Toronto. Traffic on the 401 had delayed our medical transfer vehicle which was coming from Exeter to take us to Stratford. We waited, none too patiently, Jay still in the jet as they had nowhere to put the stretcher, for about half an hour.

Then we bid goodbye to the pilots and Keith who had been called to set off to somewhere in Europe the next day. Ashley would travel with us to Stratford. We were super impressed by all members of this operation: so capable, experienced, helpful and proficient at speaking English! Real pros working for a first rate organization called Foxflight. We learned a lot about their tiny specialized world. Pilots could only work quite limited hours without a break but the medical attendants (both of ours had been ER nurses prior to taking on this work) sometimes worked long hours…flying from South America to Europe and back to Canada on a single job.

The ambulance was roomy but very bare bones and lacking in the shock absorber department. Shortly after we began our bumpy trip along the 401 Jay asked for painkillers for the first time that day. Ashley obligingly injected him with morphine and soon the pain eased. I’d texted Mike the moment we landed; he and Hannah would come pick me up at the hospital as soon as we had Jay safely ensconced. I couldn’t wait.

And then, finally, our long ordeal ended. We arrived at Stratford General at 4:30 on a Sunday. No fuss at admission, Jay was wheeled straight to his waiting bed, in a large very quiet room – without roommates, creepy or otherwise. Our family doctor was away that week-end, but he’d arranged to have a colleague check in on Jay. Fifteen minutes after we arrived, the doctor was there.

And so were Mike and Hannah, cheering and hugging us and presenting Jay with a good old homemade sandwich. For the first time since that fateful fall, I relaxed. As it happens that day, August 18th, was our anniversary… and one I doubt either of us will ever forget!


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Final Hurdles

Day 16 After the Fall

The next morning I had to figure out how to ship our two enormous suitcases back to Canada in less than 24 hours: another Herculean task cheerfully plopped onto my plate by good old GE.

First I whipped over to the ospedale to deliver the good news about our departure to Jay. I left him smiling and returned to my room to research courier services on my iPad.

Late in our stay (when my brain began to work again), it had dawned on me that I had a number of useful resources at my fingertips, as long as I was at La Collina and attached to the internet. For instance, I could translate English to Italian… in written form at least. This was no use at the hospital but it did allow me to communicate with my hosts. Similarly, rather than worrying about SIM cards and phone bills (I’d had to recharge my new SIM card once already) I could use Skype to call anywhere in the world for a pittance.

That hot Saturday morning in Perugia, I Skype-called FedEx in Canada to discuss the business of luggage pickup and delivery. We talked for about half an hour and it all seemed delightfully simple until the woman on the phone realized that in Italy all offices were closed Saturdays and Sundays. Had I been in Canada, she said, no problem, they could arrange pick up that day. But of course had I been in Canada I would not have needed this service.

“Well what can I do?” I asked.

“Well I don’t know,” she said.

For the umpteenth time since landing in Italy I felt on the edge of hysteria. I had two huge suitcases that I could not abandon. Who could I turn to?

There really was only one person: Giorgio.

I hated to do it. He’d been back to visit a few days ago. We’d had fond farewells; he gave us a book on Perugia, “So you come back and see next time!”

We’d given him a box of chocolates from Stratford. There had been lots of nodding and grinning and hugs where possible. I’d been so pleased he’d given up chasing down the police report… and now…

I texted Janet. With exceptional alacrity, she contacted Giorgio and explained our dilemma. It was now noon. He promised to come by La Collina at 6:00 to collect the suitcases. FedEx could pick up the suitcases from him on Monday. Whew.

Using my newfound translation program I explained to my hosts that I really would be checking out the next morning, quite early (I had been threatening to leave ever since I cancelled Mike’s reservation.) I settled my bill, then headed back to the hospital for lunch.

When I explained the latest developments, Jay rolled his eyes in a “what can you expect from GE?” manner. We discussed what exactly we would take in our two small bags on the plane. And we began to say good-bye to the nurses.

We had become quite fond of them. Jay particularly liked pretty young blonde Marcella, I can’t imagine why. But all of them had warmed to us over time, and we to them. They were clearly delighted, for our sakes, that we’d soon be home. We were effusive in our thanks…and I gave them the remaining bouquet of flowers from my room.




Shortly after lunch a man and a woman walked into the room and said “Hello. Are you James Klassen?” in perfect, really quite Canadian English.

We stared at them gobsmacked. “Yes.”

They introduced themselves as Ashley and Keith, the medical personnel who would accompany us home. They’d arrived! It was real!

“Are we going right now?” I asked in alarm. What about Giorgio and the luggage? I wasn’t even packed.

“No, no,” said Ashley. ”Tomorrow morning. We just flew in from Canada – but we wanted to meet you and explain how tomorrow will unfold, answer any questions, make sure James is all ready and we have the paperwork from the hospital. Then we will go sleep and see you in the morning.”

Jay and grinned like kids. English-speaking people here to take control, sort out details, explain things to us. It was better than Christmas!

Despite her lack of Italian, Ashley took charge, questioning the nurses, noting all the medications Jay needed and somehow arranging the discharge papers.

Then she walked us through the plan. I was to be in Jay’s room by 7:30 with our two small bags. She would arrange for a taxi to take two of us to the airport, while the other one would ride with Jay in the medical transport. We’d depart at 9:00, land to refuel in Iceland and then Newfoundland, get into Toronto circa 3:30, where another medical transport would be waiting to take us to Stratford General Hospital. I was to avoid fluid intake prior to the flight; Jay had a catheter.

While I felt uneasy about not having access to a toilet (I am known for my tiny bladder), mostly I was floating on air. We would be home so soon! Both Jay and I had to restrain ourselves from hugging Keith and Ashley.

She laughed. “It’s definitely one of the perks of this job. People are always happy to see us!”

Happy didn’t begin to describe it.

When they left, everything in place, I dashed home to pack and prepare. I called Sandy at the Embassy and Becky, to tell them the good news and thank them again. I’d been in frequent contact with both over the past two weeks and really they’d been saviours. I emailed everyone in Canada, so they would wake up to good news at last! I placed another Skype call to FedEx, wanting to be sure the bill would be charged to my (recently opened) account, so Giorgio would at least not have to pay anything. In the course of the conversation I learned, to my horror, that in Italy FedEx does not do home pickup. You have to drop off the parcel (or in this case suitcases) at their office. And you have to fill in many complicated forms, obtainable on the website.

I texted Janet again with this horrible news. Would Giorgio be willing to drop the suitcases off? She got back to me in mere minutes: no problem, Giorgio was up to the task.

I ran downstairs, iPad in hand, and via translation asked if my hosts could print some forms. They graciously agreed to do so. I took the long forms back upstairs and tried to fill in all the details, but had to get back on the Skype hotline to North American FedEx to finally get it all filled in. Even then I was not sure I had it right

Janet texted to say Giorgio was at La Collina but couldn’t find me! I’d asked the hosts to tell him where I was, but…I raced downstairs and there he was, waiting. The two of us wrestled the absurdly large suitcases down into his very small car.

He then told me there was no FedEx office in Perugia. My heart sank. How many more hurdles could there be?

“No problem,” he said. “I take them to (incomprehensible name). It is only 25 kilometers.”

What? No office in the city of Perugia but one is some tiny town 25 kilometers away? I felt terrible. “I am so sorry, Giorgio. I did not realize.”

He waved me off. “No problem. I do this. You go home. No problem.”

I fell all over myself thanking him. He smiled, hugged me again and left, likely feeling quite relieved to be seeing the last of me.

Could it possibly be that all was in place and this would be my last night at La Collina? As I choked down another sandwich from the hospital cafeteria for supper, sorely missing my little ristorante, I earnestly hoped so.

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Bombs and Grenades

Day 15 After the Fall

Friday morning I checked my email to find nothing from GE (the insurance company). I marched off to the hospital, glowering.

Jay took one look at me and groaned. “No news?”

I told him about my ridiculous conversation with Samantha the night before. “I don’t think they will ever get us out of here.”

We fumed for a while, then sank into depressed silence.

“Well, there’s nothing we can do,” said Jay. “You got them the fit to fly order. Now it is in their hands. And it doesn’t feel like they give a damn.”


I nodded glumly. What had happened to me in the past two weeks? I was never one to sit around bemoaning my fate, but now I seemed to have slipped quietly into the role of helpless victim. This would not do! I felt something rising inside me: anger. “Surely there is something we can do.”

Jay sighed.

It came to me. We could go to war with GE. We did not have to take this lying down. We’d paid for the bloody insurance. It was time they stepped up. “What if we got people back home to apply pressure, barrage GE with calls? Maybe if enough people harassed them, they’d get a move on.”

“I don’t know,” said Jay. He hated asking anyone for anything.

I was on the warpath. “I could send an email, to the people we know who are good at applying pressure, or who have influence. Everyone wants to help. They keep offering – and they could do this. Pick up the phone and bug them. They could post online, get reporters to write about it.” I was seized by a vision: an army of ferocious angels (our friends and family) hammering away at GE, online posts going viral, our story on the front page of the Globe and Mail. Okay, maybe a bit over the top, but the idea of actually being able to do something – anything – made me feel positively empowered.

“I guess it’s worth a shot,” said Jay.

I raced back to La Collina and wrote a long email to a handful of friends and family who I thought would not be daunted by my request, who might even enjoy taking it to GE, people who would not take no for an answer. I summarized our situation, provided GE’s phone number and asked them to call. I also suggested if anyone had media contacts, they could mobilize them. I drafted a media release and sent it along.

I closed the email saying, “I honestly think if I had the money I could have organized emergency transport in the time they have been dithering. Maybe we will fly out tomorrow, maybe they will forget about it… I am even getting concerned about what they think an air ambulance is – and what kind of nurses they might put on it. It feels for all the world like they have never handled a situation like this before.”

I thanked them again for all their support and promised to let them know the minute we had a flight plan. I felt much better.

Hours passed before Canada woke up. Mid-afternoon in Italy, people started to respond.

Our friend Sidney wrote that she ‘d called and badgered the receptionist until she reached our case manager (now Demitria, Samantha was off for the weekend): “I told Demitria there are hundreds of concerned friends in Canada who are shocked at GE’s lack of traction in getting an air ambulance home to Canada.

“Demetria said they are working on it but they had to make sure there was a receiving bed as they are concerned about Mr. Klassen’s medical needs.

“I advised her the bed was secured, all paperwork, forms, approvals, it was up to GE to get transport secured and bring them home immediately and it is disgraceful that GE is still deliberating… finally I advised that GE should be prepared for hundreds of calls, internet blogs and journalists.”

My sister called to say she had a lawyer friend who was going to call and pressure GE, pro bono.

Another friend reported that, “Demitria will be in touch with Mike within a hour with an update.”

A journalist friend sent the media release to papers across Canada. The local Stratford paper picked it up and a reporter called me in Italy for details prior to taking on GE.

Mike reported that Hannah had called, insisted on speaking to Demitria’s supervisor and raked her over the coals. “We’re throwing bombs and grenades!” he wrote.

Terry asked me to make a video and send it so she could edit and use it online. The video was truly dreadful, poor Jay in his bed looking wan and talking about how deserted he felt. But I sent it.

A neighbour wrote that he’d call as “president of the Mowat Street home owners association… to inform Demitria of our concern. Also informed her that there are a growing number of concerned parties here in Stratford who hope that GE moves with all expedience such that the outcome of this situation doesn’t reflect badly on anyone’s involvement.”

Early evening, Mike sent an email to everyone:

“Hey folks, We’ve clearly gotten through to the supervisor, who is playing ball but concerned about the number of calls they are being barraged by. She has given me her personal cell number and continues to update me every hour. She was frazzled earlier by the combo of media, lawyer and friends calling, and has promised an itinerary by tomorrow morning, so maybe we hold off on the calls until then.”

I danced a jig around the hospital room. We’d done it! We’d got to them! Of course we were not actually on a plane or anything, but still – they were paying attention.

As it was now 8:00PM, I scurried off to dinner… and was stunned to see no lights on at my little restaurant. The owner of La Collina informed me the restaurant was closed, permanently. I recalled a conversation with Danieli the night before…he’d mentioned an imminent layoff of chefs, but I had not understood it was so very imminent. It really WAS time to get out of here.

I raced back to the hospital cafeteria in time to secure a stale sandwich before they closed. I washed it down with wine supplied by my host. My euphoria ebbed.

At 10:00 my phone rang. I grabbed it.

“Mrs. Westley?”


The caller introduced herself as someone working in logistics at GE. “I just want you to know we are very close to locking down your flight.”

“Uh huh?”

“It will be by air ambulance –“

“With attendants?”

“Yes, a medical team. We’ll call with details as soon as we have them, but you should be home by Monday.”

“Monday? Why not tomorrow?” I wasn’t even trying to be nice anymore.

“Well, it could be sooner, if we can arrange it, but by Monday for sure. These things take time–”

“No kidding.”

“But we will be in touch just as soon as we have your flight information. And if it is in the middle of the night your time, we’ll email so as not to disturb you. Okay?”

“Yes, fine. Thank you.”

I finished my wine and lay back, exhausted.

At 1:30AM my phone rang. And rang and rang. I dragged myself up out of deep sleep and fumbled around until I found the phone. “Hello?”

It was another logistics person who proceeded to rattle off times and details. We’d leave Perugia airport at 9:00 on Sunday (it was now early Saturday) by Leer jet. The jet was small, would land to refuel twice. There was no toilet onboard so I shouldn’t drink anything that morning. Oh, and there was no room for our luggage, I’d have to arrange to ship it home via courier. The company would pay.

I was so groggy I could barely follow. She promised me she would send the details in an email.

I wondered why she couldn’t have just sent the goddamn email like they’d promised and let me sleep. But I hung up smiling.

The phone rang again; it was Mike and Hannah, hooting and hollering. We were coming home!!!






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Hurry Up and Wait

More Days After the Fall

In the end, Mike did get a partial refund on the flight, about two-thirds of the cost. For a little while, Jay and I revelled in the notion that we’d be out of there in no time. I continued my mad dashes back and forth from La Collina to the hospital.

My schedule was pretty consistent. Up early to grab cappuccino and whatever bits of breakfast I could stomach downstairs at La Collina, arrive at the hospital in time to buy Jay a coffee and get onto the ward before 9:00 shutdown. Help Jay wash, brush his teeth, shampoo (this latter a tricky business. With Jay immobilized, I’d slide a plastic bag under his head then try to pour water onto his hair without drenching the whole bed, lather, rinse and dry…fortunately he didn’t have a lot of hair.) Now I could also apply the Bucagel to his mouth. Not sure it ever did much, but gradually the sores healed.

Then I would read to him or we’d attempt a crossword. After fetching lunch, which we’d often eat together, I would take a break back to my room, returning for an hour or so midafternoon, then go for a walk in the park and catch up on emails. Around 6:00 I’d get him supper from the cafeteria and hang out a while longer before the best part of my day: dinner at La Collina, where I was steadily working my way through the excellent menu.

No sooner had panic abated than the situation became profoundly boring. Jay and I were utterly fed up with life at the ospedale and getting on each other’s nerves.

I hovered, waiting for Dr. Panti. On Tuesday he told me he thought he’d sign the fit to fly order the next day. I emailed our family doctor (and likely everyone else we knew in the world) to tell him we could be home by Thursday. He emailed back to say he had a bed on hold for Jay at the Stratford General Hospital, starting Thursday.

Wednesday I hardly dared leave the hospital for my breaks. As evening rolled around, I began to despair that we’d ever get the damned document to Canada. I wanted the hospital to send it that day, so it would arrive in Canada during their business hours, but I kept getting the run around about Panti. Finally I cornered Lorraine and poured out all my concerns in bad French. She became very business-like and rushed off. I waited. By now it was almost 8:00pm – it seemed impossible that we’d get the document out of Panti at that late hour…but it was only 2:00pm in Canada, and if we could fax it to the insurance company before end of day, maybe that air ambulance would whisk us away the next day!

Lorraine returned with a non-Panti doctor and a piece of paper. It was not the official-looking sort of document I had expected, but there was Panti’s signature and even I could see that it seemed to indicate Jay was now fit to fly.

“Lorraine,” I said in French, “Does it say that he must have nurses with him?”

“It says he must lie flat.”

“But Dr. Panti promised he would order medical accompaniment!” I felt panicky, imagining travelling alone with Jay strapped to a bulkhead.

Lorraine consulted vigorously with the doctor. He shrugged and added a line to the document. Clearly he had written it in the first place, as the writing was the same. Panti had just affixed his signature.

I wanted to hug Lorraine. Instead I asked, “Can you fax it tonight, right now?” I explained about the time changes and the delays. She nodded and reached for the document.

“Wait!” I grabbed my iPad and took a photograph. I did not entirely trust the hospital to fax anything to anyone, but I could email a photo of the document.


“Thank you so much, Madame,” I said.

Je vous en prie,” she said with a smile, and bustled off with the paper.

I thought she was just about the finest human being I’d ever met.

Jay and I rejoiced, then I hurried off to dinner.

I called Mike and told him the ‘fit to fly’ was on its way. I even emailed my copy to the insurance company – and heard back that they had, after all, received it from the hospital. A miracle!

I went to bed brimming with hope that in the morning I would hear we were leaving.

I heard no such thing.

In fact I heard nothing at all. Mike and I emailed back and forth. He contacted the insurance company and was assured they were meeting at that very moment to determine the best course of action.

“What do they mean?” I asked. “The best course of action is to do as they promised and fly us home right away. What about that air ambulance on standby?”

Poor Mike. It wasn’t as though he could do anything. “I think we’ll hear soon,” he said.

Thursday passed with no further news. Jay and I grew increasingly angry and depressed, marooned in a place where no one wanted us, unable to leave.

That night I received a call from Samantha at the insurance company. My heart leapt! Surely she was calling to tell me we’d be picked up the next day.

“Um, I just have a few questions for you,” she said, “to help us determine the best way to get you and James home.

I was bewildered. What about the air ambulance? “Okay,” I said.

“Now, can James sit up?”

I just about choked. It had taken them 24 hours to ask this stupid question?

“No,” I almost shouted. “No, of course he can’t sit up. He broke his pelvis. He’s just had surgery. He isn’t going to be able to sit up for 40 days.”

“I see,” she said. “Well we are just trying to figure out whether he could travel on a commercial flight.”

“I thought you had agreed to an air ambulance. He has to be prone and the doctor has indicated he must have medical attendants.”

“Oh. All right. Thank you. We will get back to you then.”

“WHEN? They want to kick us out of the hospital.”

“Well, we have to make sure everything is in place at this end, that there is a hospital willing to receive him–”

“His family doctor has a hospital bed waiting for him in Stratford right now. He could have been admitted tonight.”

“Oh, that’s great! Well, the medical team will be meeting this afternoon. They’ll come up with a plan soon. I’ll be in touch.” She rang off.

I wanted to scream.





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Air Ambulance Standing By!

Day 11 After the Fall (cont’d)

 With music to lull him, Jay seemed much happier. I slipped away to walk in my lovely park, then fired off some emails, thanking everyone for the wonderful gifts. I also emailed Mike about my conversation with Dr. Panti and Sandy, my concern that they would kick Jay out of the hospital.

Around 7:00pm, my phone rang.

“Hey, Mom,” said Mike, “how are things?”

I answered briefly, sensing some urgency in his voice. He’d be leaving for the airport in a couple of hours to catch his overnight flight to Rome. We’d already sorted out all the details. He would take a train from Rome to Perugia, arriving here mid-afternoon tomorrow.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Good news,” he said. “I spoke to Samantha at the insurance company after getting your email and all of sudden they seem to be springing into action. She says they have an air ambulance on stand-by, just waiting for the doctor to give the ‘fit to fly’ order.”

I felt a bit stunned. After all these delays, suddenly they were poised to fly us home?

“Really? Do they think it’s safe?”

“Well they seem to feel if Dr. Panti approves it, that’s good enough for them.”

“How soon?”

“That’s the thing. Sounds like it could be really soon. She said the plane could be there within 12-24 hours of them getting a copy of the ‘fit to fly’ order.”

Blood pounded in my ears. We would get home. It was going to happen!

“So,” Mike continued, “Any idea how soon Panti might give that order?”

“Well, I guess it could be pretty soon, like tomorrow or the next day. They do seem to want him out of there. But I’m still anxious about him flying so soon.”

I had been in touch with both our family doctor in Stratford and the family friend who had suggested contacting the Embassy, also a doctor. Neither had been willing to express an opinion without seeing the impossible-to-obtain medical reports and tests. Our family doctor had seemed a trifle hesitant about Jay flying soon after surgery, but…

“Mom, do you trust Panti?”

“Yes, I think so.” He had been so thoughtful and concerned about Jay. The surgery had gone so well (as far as I knew.) Surely he would not declare Jay fit to fly unless he really was. “Samantha said air ambulance? With attendants?”

“That’s the impression I got. She seems really eager to get Dad home. Sounded like, despite all their dithering, they want to do it right, spare no expense, get you home right away.”

“I can hardly believe it,” I said. I didn’t want to get my hopes up…but they were soaring. Oh, to be home with good old Canadian doctors and hospitals where I could actually talk to people!

“The thing is, Mom, should I still come? If they are going to fly you out in 2 or 3 days…?”

I saw his point. He would leave Hannah in Canada, come all that way, and possibly get stranded for a week in Italy by himself, after Jay and I flew home. “Uh, maybe not.” I so wanted him to come! But really, did it make sense? “Can you get a refund on the ticket?”

He’d bought the cheapest ticket he could find on short notice in the high season, no doubt one of those non-refundable tickets. It had not really been cheap.

“I don’t know. I doubt it.”

God, what a conundrum. Throw away over a thousand dollars? But what was the point of him coming if we weren’t going to be here? And it would cost more for him to stay the full week. I started to feel hysterical…again.

“Can you look into it? When is the airporter picking you up?”

“In an hour and a half.”

“Jeez. Okay, see what you can find out. It doesn’t really make sense for you to come if we are going to be leaving. See if you can get any refund and call me back.”

“Okay.” He hung up.

I paced my little room.

15 minutes later he called. “I can’t get a refund. It’s one of those tickets. Maybe I should just come.”

I sighed. What a bloody holiday this was, spend, spend, spend for nothing. “No, even if we can’t get a refund, there’s no point you coming all this way, leaving Hannah, potentially for nothing. I think you should cancel.”

Long pause. “Are you sure, Mom? I don’t want to leave you in the lurch.”

I didn’t want to be left in the lurch. I had so looked forward to… “It’s okay. If we really are going to get flown home in the next few days, I’ll be all right. Really.”

“I hate to waste all that money. If only we could get a refund.”

“When you called, did you push the emergency, family trauma bit?”

“Not really.”

“Try that. Sometimes airlines can be pretty sympathetic around medical crises.”

“Okay, I’ll call again.”

“And cancel, Mike. Even if you can’t get a refund. There’s no point. And I’m sure Hannah would be awfully happy not to be left alone in Canada.”

Pause. “Okay. I love you, Mom.”

“Love you too sweetheart. It’s gonna be okay. We’re coming home.”

I hung up and burst into tears.





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Gifts from Home

Day 11 After the Fall

I awoke smiling on Monday. Our dear friends the Prunes were coming to the Ospedale to visit! Eleanor Kane and Marion Isherwood owned and managed the Old Prune restaurant in Stratford for over 30 years and became affectionately know as the Prunes. In 2009, Jay and I rented a villa with them in Provence. Our plan this trip had been to meet them in Montisi, Tuscany for a two-week stay.

Although Jay and I obviously would not be able to join them, Eleanor and Marion were on track to enjoy their time in Tuscany. They had flown into Italy on Saturday and were driving to Perugia to see us today. I was positively buoyant, though I did have to laugh at Eleanor’s email, saying she’d email from the hospital lobby and I could come find them. “Sorry, no internet at the ospedale,” I responded and we made a different arrangement.

They arrived late morning and we all got a bit teary in the lobby. It was so reassuring to see friends from home; on some level I’d begun to believe I’d be stranded in my Italian limbo forever. But here they were, beaming and embracing me.

I hustled them up to see Jay. Then they were going to take me out for lunch, off the grounds. As I ushered them into the room, a nurse told me to go to the doctor’s office and speak to Dr. Panti. I shot off down the hall. One did not ignore a summons from the surgical god himself!

I speed-dialed Sandy at the Embassy, knowing the good Panti and I could not exchange a single word without a translator. She was as friendly and helpful as ever. I quickly learned that Panti was very pleased with his surgery, Jay ‘s pelvis was now stable, the incisions healing … and Panti felt Jay would be free to leave within the next few days.

I had trouble computing this. Good news certainly, that Jay was doing well, even if he complained daily about the nurses moving him to different rooms. And of course he’d never been moved at all. But the business about him leaving…

I asked if it would be safe for him to fly.

Panti nodded, but I detected something tentative about that nod.

“Sandy,” I said, “I read a bunch of stuff on the internet about flying and hematomas and blood clots. One of the articles said no one should fly for at least two weeks after major surgery, better to wait even longer. Is he sure about this?”

I handed the phone to Panti who listened thoughtfully and then said thoughtful-sounding things.

When he returned the phone, Sandy said, “Well, the thing is, they need the room. It’s a trauma ward.”

“Don’t they have a rehab ward where he could recover?”

“Apparently not.”

“Well, I don’t want him flying if it’s dangerous and I really don’t have anywhere else to go!”

“Let me speak to him again,” said Sandy.

I handed Dr. Panti the phone and waited. Eventually, after more thoughtful discussion, he returned it to me.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“Well, it does sounds as though he thinks in a couple of days Jay may be okay to fly. He seems like a careful man, Meg, and I think if he gives clearance, it should be safe. But I understand your concern. What is going on with your insurance company? Do they have a plan to get you home?”

“No. They have approved the claim – but you said it would be unlikely they’d air ambulance him out and he won’t be able to sit up for a long time. Can you ask Panti how long?”

Quick handover of phone and return.

“He says 40 days until he can sit up.”

“We can’t stay here for 40 days!”

“No, he seems to think you can go home.  Maybe the insurance company will come through with an air ambulance rather than pay for accommodation and private nursing for 40 days.”

“Can you ask him if he can insist that Jay be accompanied by medical personnel? The idea of him being strapped to the bulwark on a commercial flight makes me very nervous. What if something goes wrong?”

I once more handed the phone to Panti. I could see he was about to flit away. Indeed, after a short conversation, during which he nodded repeatedly, he handed me the phone, smiled, patted my arm and disappeared down the corridor.

“Well?” I asked.

“He says yes, he will say Jay must be accompanied. Now Meg, I know you are worried. Here’s what I suggest. Talk to the insurance company, tell them he has to leave soon. Let the hospital know you are taking action, and then stall for time. They won’t put him out on the sidewalk. Thursday is a national holiday, then it’s the weekend – and soon at least 10 days will have passed. Meanwhile, see if you can get a second opinion from the insurance company. They don’t want anything to happen to him in the air. Look on the bright side … you might be home in a week!”

She rang off. Home in a week sounded awfully appealing. And tomorrow Mike would arrive to help me through that week. And meanwhile, oh my god, the Prunes were here! I scurried back down the hall to Jay’s room.

Jay lay wreathed in smiles, little gifts spread out across the bed.

“Look what the Avon crew sent.” He held up … an iPod.

I almost burst out laughing. Jay has clung to his old-style audio equipment for years, wanting nothing to do with iTunes, proud of his vast CD collection, even his vinyl. And yet –  it was an inspired gift: Jay adores music and he had been entirely cut off for  the past ten days. Our good friend Keith had masterminded this gift and loaded it with an eclectic mix of music. He’d also included a set of very comfortable headphones.

There were photos of our brand new grandson Charlie – and chocolates and cards. It was like Christmas.CCA_109

I could see Jay was tiring, despite his delight. So much stimulation! And I knew Eleanor’s two sisters were waiting in the hospital lobby to go to lunch with us.

“Can we get you anything?” we asked Jay.

He shook his head, donning the headphones. We crept from the room.

I had one errand I hoped to accomplish while we were in town (not in Perugia proper, but the suburb of San Sisto, adjacent from the hospital.) Jay continued to suffer from horrible mouth sores, which were apparently beyond the capacity of the hospital to treat. I had repeatedly asked about these, requesting ointments or creams. The nurses shook their heads and told me I would need to go to a pharmacy and buy something called BUCAGEL. I couldn’t believe it. He’s in a hospital and they can’t treat a condition that developed while he was here? I shook my head but there was nothing for it but to find a pharmacy – and this was my chance.

The nurse gave us vague directions. We promptly got lost and narrowly avoided collisions with wild Italian drivers as Eleanor negotiated the ups and downs and one-way streets of San Sisto. Of course we also had our eyes out for a ristorante. But it was August in Italy and practically nothing was open. After touring the town we ended up back at the very first plaza we’d seen, where I obtained the requisite Bucagel and we had a very pleasant lunch on an outdoor terrace.

It was a delight to relax and catch up with friends, also to spend time with Eleanor’s two sisters. I tried very hard not to be envious of the fact that they were all on holiday, staying in Montisi as we has so looked forward to doing. It sounded as lovely as we’d been led to believe. I must admit I felt a little low when they dropped me back at the hospital and headed back to Tuscany, though it had been wonderful to see them.

I paused at the door to Jay’s room. He lay there beaming, headphones on, eyes closed.

His creepy roommate grinned at me. I hastened to Jay’s bedside, out of said roommate’s sight.

I took Jay’s hand; his eyes opened and he removed the headphones. “This is the best day I’ve had in August,” he said. “I’ve read and re-read the cards, gazed at the pictures of baby Charlie, and floated away on the music!”

I finally got a chance to read the cards myself. So many people had sent greetings and wishes for his recovery. Some of the cards were very funny, playing on the theme of falling from great heights. And the photographs of Charlie and his mothers … were spectacular. After gazing at them for a few minutes, a suspicion, nay a certainty, dawned in my mind.

Anna, Carla & Charlie, also Hannah and Mike (in lower right)

Anna, Carla & Charlie, also Hannah and Mike (in lower right)

“Did Terry take these pictures?” Terry Manzo, our professional photographer friend – and sister of Janet – lives in Stratford. Carla, Anna and Charlie live in Hamilton, so it seemed a stretch that she’d have taken the photos, but… they were too good to be amateur, and her style is distinctive.

“Yes, didn’t you hear?” said Jay.

Of course I had not heard much about the presents, as I’d been talking to Panti.

“Terry drove down to Hamilton to take these so the Prunes could bring them.”

I felt a lump in my throat, overwhelmed by the love and support of friends and family.




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