The Italian for “sugar” is pronounced DZOO-kair-oh, a word that Romans let roll like a ball bouncing down the stairs. It’s a word they deeply cherish, as do I. My problem with zucchero is that I am diabetico. Which is why I took a trip on Rome’s Metro the other day.
I was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes over twenty years ago. I had no symptoms, but a routine blood test had revealed that my blood sugar was through the roof. So I have worked to keep this silent, relentless condition under control first by diet and exercise; then with diet, exercise, and pills; and for the past ten years with diet, exercise, pills, and insulin. Guess which two of the preceding four requirements for good health I am lousy at.
Because Americans are becoming increasingly obese and because the incidence of Type II (or Adult onset) Diabetes is growing, people naturally enough assume that being overweight causes diabetes. But it doesn’t. This particular diabetic condition is inherited genetically and has to do with your particular body’s particular capacity to produce a sufficient amount of insulin, which is a hormone that permits your red blood cells to absorb sugar flowing in the blood stream and into the cells themselves. If your pancreas makes plenty of insulin, the sugar molecules enter the cells and are processed into energy that makes your organs work. If it does not make enough insulin, the sugar molecules stick to the surface of your red blood cells, and these sugar-encrusted cells cannot flow properly. They will then clog up your capillaries, and you go blind, or get infections in your toes and lose a leg, and so on. Apparently, my pancreas sort of pooped out around 1991 and continues to produce less insulin than I need. My weight has always gone up and down, but being more or less overweight did not cause my diabetes. You can be seriously overweight all your life and not become diabetic, and I know plenty of diabetics who are skinny as a rail. Controlling one’s diet is essential, of course, because being overweight is not good for a diabetic. Coming to Italy, for five months, posed this extra challenge for me: how do I manage my blood sugar levels in a land renowned for its truly irresistible cooking.
The upshot of my diabetic condition is that I also need my meds, and I need to have a special blood test (A1c) once every three months. On the plane, I was able to carry with me three months’ worth of my prescriptions to Italy. But since I will be in Rome for five months, I need an MD in Rome to write prescriptions for pills and for this special test, and to hold my hand. I found Dr. Vincenzo Bacci. And to get to Dr. Bacci I took the metro.
Now, before we get on the Metro B from Piazza Bologna, I must tell you that the only other time I have taken Rome’s Metro was back in 2003 when Ginny and I were in Rome for a conference on Emerson that I was attending. Why else would you fly to Rome but for Emerson (who hated travel)? Upon our arrival at Termini, Rome’s colossal train station, we found the line at the taxi stand stretching down Via Cavour and seemingly out of sight, so we elected to take the Metro subway instead. The Metro was equally crammed but at least moving somewhere. As we stood in our subway car pushed up against tourists, gentle Romans, but (apparently) two thieves, Ginny felt a man with his coat folded over his arm sidling up too close to her and saw a woman sidling up too close to me. She called out to me to beware, and made glaring eyes at the guy next to her while I held my wallet. Two stops later we emerged with luggage unmolested, pockets unpicked, and purse unsnatched. However, when we got to the Hotel Portoguese (a wonderful place north of Piazza Navona) and into our room, Ginny discovered that the bottom of her leather purse had been slit rather cleanly, but the cut purse had not had time to slice as well through the purse’s inner lining, so this ladro was not able to steal the contents of said purse, while we were crammed in the Metro. A close call.
And one well remembered as I headed down the stairs at the Metro station in Piazza Bologna in order to make my 11 am appuntamento with Dr. Bacci. You always carry yourself warily in a big city, but I also feel the need for contact: I like to look at faces, the contours of bodies, and imagine what a child might look like in ten or fifteen years, or what an old man or woman looked like as a youth. In short, my mind in a subway is more on faces than my wallet. Knowing my failings and the event of 2003, I was all the more wary and apprehensive as I stood in the crowded Metro B, heading south to my stop at the Circus Maximus, which Ben Hur and others in Rome call Circo Massimo. No apparent thieves (AT) in sight, just people heading for work and a couple tourists heading for the Coliseum, not yet weary but ready to start their days, but none, too, happened to meet my gaze. Was I a thief contemplating their pasts and futures?
When Metro B reached Termini, the car emptied considerably, but no cut purse or pickpocket or in fact much of anyone got on board, and I took a seat and rode safely to Circo Massimo, my backpack (zaino) containing my medical records in my lap. Ascending to daylight, I found across the busy via San Gregorio the huge sunken field of the Circus, fenced all around. At the nearest end is a small tower and below it were what looked like archaeologists at a dig, or perhaps they were conservationist because they were shoveling Rome’s rich dark clayey soil into a machine with two rollers pressing the soil and making it ready for bricks; another worker was loading already made bricks onto a platform. I wanted to learn more but did not want to miss my appointment with Dr. Bacci, so I moved up the via, and then turned up the Aventine Hill and dropped in at the small Church of Santa Priscia, where a modest sign indicated that Pope Francis would be visiting on March 5, which might account for the fact that the interior was draped and worker-tape prevented closer inspection. Besides, my appointment.
Making my way to the top of the Aventine and to my new doctor’s office, I filled out the usual form (modulo; see Ginny’s new blog) for first-time (prima volta) patients, and revisited an irony I had been thinking about since I had first discovered Dr. Bacci’s name in a list of English speaking medici (yes, that’s the right word for doctors): “Baci” (which sounds the same as “Bacci”) means “kisses,” and “Baci” are also a famous Italian confection: a hazelnut wrapped in nocciolo wrapped in chocolate; I love Baci. And while Baci are bad for diabetics, Dr. Bacci turned out to be pretty good, for this diabetic.
He is a man just under my height (which is 5’8″), with a pleasant smile and friendly manner to match. He wore one of those Italian blue cardigans that zip up the front, and he set me at ease immediately. We established in our initial interview at his desk that we were the same age and that he had studied medicine in New York just about the time that Ginny and I were in Genova on my first Fulbright. I could see in the slight wrinkling around his eyes a younger man riding the subways of Manhattan. I had chosen sweet Dr. Baci, not for the irony of his name, but because—all the more ironic perhaps for the sweetness punningly implied in his name—he is an endocrinologist, which means he knows diabetes.
Then I removed my shirt and pants for the examination. I weighed in at a shockingly low 79, and I am always pleased to be weighed metrically because it seems lower than pounds, and happily this 79 converts to 174, which means I had, in fact, lost two pounds (almost a kilo) since leaving home. (My goal is to get back to 160—from 79 to 73—and to do it in Italia! Six should be easy.) Dr. Baci sat me on the examination table, checked my blood pressure (a little high on the upper number), thumped my back, and listened to my breathing and heart. We talked about my work on Melville, and he mentioned his time in New York. He then converted the prescriptions I had received from my medico at home, the venerable Dr. Marvin Lipman, and he told me how to arrange for an A1c blood test (which is sure to be another story).
On my return home, I had other errands to perform, including entering the belly of Italian bureaucracy at the Post Office in Piazza Bologna, and it was not until this posting that I realized that Dr. Baci had had his hands on my back and chest; I had been touched by this Roman, and not by a pickpocket or cut purse. Of course, it would be an insult to Dr. Bacci and the medical profession to suggest that I had any doubt about him, his skill and knowledge, his gentilezza and good humor, his gift for setting me at ease; or even to consider that I had had anything less than complete confidence in this new acquaintance. Nor during my time in his office did I ever feel that his touching might be the kind of violation I had experienced years ago on the Metro. You give your body willingly to a doctor—not at all to a thief—and it is understood that this physical intimacy of a unique kind is a positive and confidential sharing. But it never occurred to me until now that going to this Roman doctor for my diabetic prescriptions and a checkup involved an unexpected release. No more the fear of the Metro. And before me began my second chance at Rome.