Ambulance: Italy 2013

The revelation that Jay really had fallen from the window dispersed the dreamlike atmosphere of the night. Scarlett scurried inside to call emergency services. It would be a challenge, given our remote location, the fact that practically no one in this area of Italy spoke English and the lack of street number for the house.

Jay lay under the sleeping bag, shivering, saying little. Michael and I hovered, our voices low. It seemed like forever before we heard Scarlett on the phone. Later we learned she had gone on her computer (for which she had, fortunately, purchased a wifi USB dongle), and used Google Translate to formulate her message. Now she was saying over and over again in Italian, “My friend has fallen and he cannot move.”

I started to panic as the truth sank in: Jay might be very badly hurt and we were far from home or help. Scarlett could not make our location clear to the emergency responder. They thought we were in Ospedalicchio, near Citta di Castello, 40 minutes away. Over and over, her voice rising, Scarlett repeated that we were near Umbertide, that it was Spedaliccho not Ospedalicchio.

With a jerk, I remembered our medical insurance. I had to notify the company BEFORE any medical intervention or they might not cover the cost. I dug out the insurance company card and called the 24/7 emergency number on my cell phone while Scarlett used the landline. I explained the situation to a woman who assured me she would open a file and details could be filled in later. She told me to keep in touch.

Scarlett erupted from the house. The ambulance was on its way, she’d drive down to the village to meet it and show them the way to Casa Lauro.

Jay chatted with Michael, still apologizing for the inconvenience. Michael joked that this was his first experience of defenestration. Jay responded “Auto-defenestration.” They laughed. I sat on the mattress and stroked Jay’s shoulder. I could tell he was in pain now, though he said nothing. I took deep breaths, to keep from crying or panicking. He was incapacitated; I could not be. This would become my mantra.

Gravel crunched on the road. Headlights lit up the parking area below us. Loud Italian voices shattered the still night. Four attendants spilled out of the ambulance and rushed to Jay, demanding light. We had only a tiny squeeze flashlight that cast barely a glimmer. They were all action, demanding to know what had happened, chiding us for moving Jay onto the mattress. We felt like idiots. We all had first aid training, we’d done life rescue together a million years ago at school. We knew you never move someone who might have a spinal injury – but he’d been moving on his own! As they swarmed around Jay, shouting at each other in Italian, Scarlett, Michael and I muttered to each other. What were we thinking to move him? Why hadn’t we called the ambulance right away?

Jay, now in a neck brace, yelled in pain as they shifted him onto a board and strapped him down. On the attendants’ order, we all helped carry the stretcher down the rough grassy slope to the ambulance. Every jolt made Jay cry out.

There was no room for me in the ambulance. Scarlett said she’d follow in the car; I’d ride with her and Michael would stay at the house. God knows how long this would take, what would happen.

“Are you taking him to the hospital in Umbertide?” Scarlett asked.

The ambulance people shouted at each other, then announced, “Citta di Castello.”

“No,” said another, “Perugia. Trauma unit. Perugia.” They agreed.

Scarlett nodded and we clambered into her car. We followed the tail lights of the ambulance along deserted country roads, then onto the highway. There was no need for sirens or flashing lights, it was 3:00am.

Scarlett’s cell phone rang, for me. A man speaking perfect English wanted to ask some questions. I had no idea who I was talking to, but obviously some kind of authority. He asked about our nationalities, how long we had been in Italy, our full names, passport numbers. It was a relief to speak in English.

“How did he fall?” he asked.

“I don’t know. He can’t remember anything. He must have been sleepwalking.” This sounded farfetched, but what other explanation was there?

“Had he been drinking?”

“Yes, at dinner. But not a great deal.” I tried to recall. Perhaps he had drunk too much. How much was too much? He had not seemed drunk when we went to bed, just terribly tired.

“I am sorry to ask you this, but is it possible your husband was thinking of suicide?”

I suppress a hysterical giggle. “No, not at all.”

An hour later, we reached the hospital. By the time we parked and found our way inside, Jay had disappeared. The ER was deserted. An attendant shrugged and shook her head when we asked what had happened. “X-ray” was all she could manage.

We sat numbly on hard plastic chairs, waiting.

As the sky started to lighten, a young woman in white approached, a doctor or resident. She spoke only a few words of English. After an interminable confused exchange we finally understood: he had a broken pelvis. He’d been admitted.

“What happens next?” I asked.

She shook her head. Did that mean she did not understand? Or she didn’t know?

Somehow she indicated we should come back later, when the doctor would be there.


She shrugged unhelpfully. “Later.”

I glanced at Scarlett, whose face was grey. No doubt mine was too. I couldn’t think.

“We should go back to the house, get some sleep,” I said. She nodded.

I barely saw the gentle countryside as we drove back in the early morning light. I knew nothing about broken pelvises. Nothing. We were marooned in a foreign country, unable to communicate – and Jay was … not with me.

We arrived at Casa Lauro around 7:00 am. Michael woke to let us in. After we’d left, the police had descended on the house and grilled him – mostly in Italian – about what happened. He showed them the room, gave them his passport information. I was puzzled by all this police attention.

“They’re worried,” said Scarlett. “A foreign national has a weird accident in Italy, they want to do due diligence, make sure it really was an accident.”

I nodded. I supposed it could be an international incident … if he were to die.

“I’m going to bed,” murmured Scarlett, “the others will be arriving by midday.”

I made my way up to the large bedroom with its offending windows. Light streamed in; the day would be hot. I took a sleeping pill, knowing I’d never sleep without it, despite my utter exhaustion.

If he were to die…


  • always call your medical insurance company before getting any medical treatment abroad
  • never move anyone who might have a spinal injury

6 thoughts on “Ambulance: Italy 2013

  1. I am sitting on a sidewalk in gore bay with tears streaming down my face. Waiting for my mom inside a store, I took the time to read the latest entry; I’ve been following since Greg passed your blog email on to me.

    “He was incapacitated; I could not be. This would become my mantra.”

    This hit me like an all too familiar ton of bricks. Thank you.

    Much love to you both,


    Sent from my iPhone


  2. It’s even freakier to read about it a year later than it was to live through it.
    I’m overcome with emotions I didn’t experience at the time because of my lack of awareness.
    Thank you, Meg, for seeing me through it.

  3. Thank you for sharing this, Meg. It is really a remarkable story…how life can change in the blink of an eye…and how strong one can be.

  4. If it had not been tor ” Lives Lived” in today’s Globe an Mail, I would have never known about Meg and Jay and their lives in spite of living only an hour away from them and attending many Stratfrord events for the past 50 years.
    My feelings on this gloriouly sunny morning? Sadness over Jay’s untimely death and Meg’s loss. Gratitude to Meg for her having shared her experiences after the accident. In my many travels I have often wondered how the insurance expects us to notify them before medical help is obtained.
    Often I travel alone. How will helpers In a serious know they should phone the insurance company first? Would they not first want to look after that groaning, perhaps unconscious human bundle first before even trying to find out his name and other details? Perhaps I’ll get some answers from Meg’s blogs.
    In the meantime, thank you and my heartfelt condolences.
    H.John Albers

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