When Death (Almost) Takes a Roman Holiday - OZY | A Modern Media Company

When Death (Almost) Takes a Roman Holiday

When Death (Almost) Takes a Roman Holiday

By Susan Bryan

A romantic holiday in Rome takes an unexpected turn when a couple faces the twin perils of monolingualism and a medical emergency.


Rosetta Stone is probably not such a bad idea after all.

By Susan Bryan

The number 118 is for emergency services in Italy. It’s a good number to remember. Even better to have a phone that will work in Italy, just in case you need to call 118. I didn’t. And then I did — have a phone that worked and needed to use it, I mean.

We arrived in Rome around 10 pm and had a little trouble finding the bed-and-breakfast where we were staying. It was an apartment where a couple rented out their bedrooms. We checked the phone in their kitchen where several racks of drying towels were set up. They didn’t speak English, we didn’t speak Italian, but they had someone on the phone as an interpreter. It was hot as fuck, and I was covered in sweat and annoyance.

We got up early the next morning, and it was still hot as fuck. But as we were walking I noticed my companion was stopping a lot. He said his leg was cramping, but it looked like he was catching his breath. He seemed fine once we got on the big hop-on, hop-off tour bus. And we skipped anything that involved walking. I’d sometimes leave him to walk around and look at ruins.

Shutterstock 1005726007

The Coliseum in Rome.

Source Shutterstock

I knew there was a chance of things going awry this trip, but I didn’t dwell on it. My companion had spent most of 2018 recovering from a heart attack. But he’d had a full release and approval from his doctor to travel, so, yeah, I didn’t dwell on it. I just figured if something happened we would deal with it.

It’d been close to an hour since we decided he needed to go to the hospital. He could barely stand up. 

Our second day? Also hot as fuck. We went for breakfast, but my companion said it was just too hot: He was going to stay in the room. Relax.

I got back late that afternoon, and the temperature was hovering at 105 degrees, so when he came down to meet me wearing a sweater, I knew something was wrong.

“You don’t look so good. I think I should call an ambulance.”

“Yes, I think so,” he said. I panicked. He didn’t try to argue or dissuade me, which meant he really was not well. I got him back up to the room where it was cool. He said he was cold.


I needed to call an ambulance and realized that I had no idea how. I opened my laptop and searched for “emergency medical services in Italy”: 118. That was the number. I picked up my phone and dialed 118. Nothing. I picked up his phone and dialed 118. Nothing.

“Can you call an ambulance?” I asked our host. He smiled and nodded and said, “OK, OK.” But he just kept looking at me.

Google Translate. I typed in “I need an ambulance” and hit the tab to translate to Italian. He looked at the screen, he looked back at me — nothing. In desperation, I said to our host, “Ambulance,” and then used sign language. Finally, he understood me. He didn’t call 118. He called someone who spoke English. I told this person I needed an ambulance, and she said, “OK, I’m calling now.”

Finally, help was coming. I went back to our room. Help is coming. Are you OK? I’m going down to wait for them.

I went down to the street to meet the ambulance. But I didn’t hear sirens. I waited. And waited. Where the fuck was it? He’s gonna die. And there was nothing I can do.

Then: sirens.

“Do you speak English?” A little. He speaks a little English. OK. It’s going to be OK.

They rolled him straight in at the emergency room. No waiting at all. Yes, there was waiting. Me. I had to wait.

It’d been close to an hour since we decided he needed to go to the hospital. He could barely stand up. Something bad was happening, but at least he was getting medical attention. They had him on oxygen. He looked better. He was talking and responsive. He looked relieved. I was relieved. They rolled him straight in at the emergency room. No waiting at all. Yes, there was waiting. Me. I had to wait. For a long, long time. In a waiting room that was small and packed and hot.

At least the sun was starting to go down. I sat, walked outside, smoked, got water and crackers, sat, walked outside, smoked, ate crackers, sat, paced, walked outside, smoked, sat and paced for about three hours. I tried asking how he was, but no one spoke English. Finally, I just started saying his last name anytime someone wearing Crocs walked by.

A nurse leaned around the corner and said his last name. I jumped up and followed her into the emergency room.

He was sitting up and talking to his daughter on the phone. He was laughing. The doctor’s diagnosis? Pneumonia. No deathbed that day. The bad news was they were probably going to keep him a few days, maybe even a week. 

It was 9:30 pm when I left the hospital, and I had no idea where I was. Not even a clue which way to turn once I was out the door. I saw two guys who were in the waiting room earlier and I’d heard speaking English, so I asked if they knew where I could get a cab. They were as lost as I was and had given up on a taxi and were waiting for an Uber. An Italian Uber was not something I felt capable of taking on, so they pointed me in the direction of a security guard post.

Now I was getting somewhere: I got directions to the main street where I could get a taxi. Down the hill, I saw lights and tables and people sitting. Sweet Jesus, it was a restaurant. Hunger and tension. I needed food and a drink. Pasta and prosecco never tasted so good.

The cab ride back took all of two minutes. Again, a relief since I could find my way back to the hospital easily enough. And then, on top of that, we had to check out of the B&B/spare bedroom the following morning. So I had to find a place to stay. I found one two blocks away and learned that the hospital was only about eight blocks away.

So I went to sleep. Drained and exhausted but not so completely overwhelmed.

The next morning was hot but bearable, but that wasn’t going to last. I found my way back to the hospital and my companion. I told him he looked good. He rolled his eyes and growled, “Barbaric. Everything here is barbaric.” He was feeling well enough to be pissed off. They were keeping him for five days. He seemed OK with that. I guess he needed to rest, and this was his chance to do that. Or maybe he wasn’t thrilled about spending all day running around in 105-degree heat otherwise.

Santa maria maggiore roma

Hotel Santa Maggiore in Rome.

Source Jensens

“Don’t let this ruin your vacation. Enjoy your time here,” he told me. For me, the thought of being alone in a foreign country was cause for panic. I’d never traveled alone. But how hard could it be? It’s a little scary, but I’m a grown-ass woman and I could follow a map. Yeah. I got this.

So I left the hospital right into the hottest heat of the day. I got a little lost looking for the Hotel Santamaggorie, but I was close. Finally, I found it and was buzzed in. The first thing I saw was a reception desk. The woman behind it smiled at me and said, “Hello, welcome, come in, how are you?”

It was an actual hotel, or close enough that I almost cried. She opened the door, and it was beautiful. It was the most beautiful hotel room I’d ever seen. I set the air conditioner to “chilly” and took a shower. All the stickiness and all the sweat, all the stress and every bit of tension washed away. I laid on the bed naked and wet, feeling almost cold, eating snacks out of little bags and drinking cold water and loving life and loving the moment.

And then it hit me: I was all by myself, in Rome. For five days. With someone else’s credit card.

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