I’d only been studying abroad in Bologna for two weeks when I hurt my knee.
The director of our program organized a group climb up to the top of the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. While there was a road that led up to the sanctuary, it was also possible to reach it along a 3.5 kilometer roofed portico consisting of 666 arches and maybe a million shallow steps (rough guess). The views from the top were spectacular; the atmosphere was positively peaceful. Little did I know at the time, the portico took more than 100 years to build, many hours to climb, and weeks from which to recover.
It was the walk down that killed me.
At 20 years old, I had dislocated the joint no less than six times, and in the long descent down all those old stone steps something aggravated the dormant injury. A few days later, I found myself sitting in an ornate doctor’s office with the slightly intimidating assistant director of the study abroad program, MariaTeresa. The room felt more like a library than the doctor’s examination rooms to which I was accustomed, which was somewhat soothing to my frayed nerves.
After a few moments, a handsome, sinewy man — presumably the doctor — entered the library and quietly nodded at us in greeting. He was dressed in a beautifully tailored blue suit; his hair was graying at the temples, but instead of aging him, he looks sophisticated. He was well on his way to becoming a silver fox.
He took a seat behind his desk and before he could say anything, MariaTeresa launched into what I had been referring to as my “San Luca step saga.” She spoke quickly, and I only managed to catch every fourth or fifth word. With nothing to do or say, I just leaned in, continually nodding my head and smiling. I tried to follow the ebb and flow of MariaTeresa’s soliloquy and every time I heard her say “ginocchio” (knee) my smile contorted into a pained, dramatic grimace. I hunched my shoulders a bit for good measure. I’m certain the doctor thought I had Tourette’s syndrome, his eyes continually moving back and forth between my bipolar face and that of my translator. After a few minutes, MariaTeresa finished her explanation and looked expectantly at the doctor. To his credit, he didn’t miss a beat. He immediately smiled and spoke — leveling his eyes on me.Wow. His smile was breathtaking … were those dimples? And his voice was really much different than I was expecting; deep and rough and velvety — reminiscent of Toto Cutugno. He was very Doctor Ross from ER — before George Clooney got the weird Caesar haircut. The Doctor’s Ss all slurred and slushed — a trait of the Bolognese tongue. Quite suddenly, I was infatuated.
MariaTeresa cleared her throat — snapping me out of my dreamy state. I have no idea what he’s said to me and I’ve been sitting there like a lost puppy for several moments. I turned to MariaTeresa for help. She smiled, “He says to take off your pants.”
What? Here? In front of George Clooney?
“Ahhh … is there like … a johnny or something I can use?” My voice cracks.
“Yea, you know, like a paper robe or a hospital gown.”
MariaTeresa motioned around with her arms, “Do you see any gowns?”
“No …” I mimicked her hand gesture, “I see books. Can I get a robe?”
“Can you get a robe?!?” She is horrified.
“May I have a robe?”
She slapped her hand on her knee. “Daniela! This is not an English grammar lesson. We are not asking for a robe. Don’t be shy! Just take off your pants.”
“What are my other options?”
“There are no other options! He needs to examine your leg, Daniela. That’s why we are here.”
Honestly, I don’t know why I was being so stubborn. I had been prepared for an examination of course, but I was expecting it would take place on a table in a more … medicinal setting, with an old, ugly doctor that didn’t look anything like George Clooney. In a last ditch effort, I reached down and pulled the leg of my sweatpants up over the knee and flashed some jazz hands.
MariaTeresa rolled her eyes, and said something apologetically to the doctor. He smiled again; I swooned. He quietly left the room and a moment later re-entered not with a robe, but with an exam table on wheels.
I hopped up onto the table and once I stretched out, Dr. Clooney put both hands on my exposed knee and started moving it all around. The patella was dancing, up and down, side to side. A part of me was afraid the knee would dislocate in his hands, but another part of me trusted Dr. Clooney completely. After a few moments of this tactile exam, he returned to his desk, scribbled something down and handed it to MariaTeresa — sending us on our way.
As we walked the busy streets of Bologna, MariaTeresa informed me that I had to fill two different prescriptions. She explained, “One is a strong anti-inflammatory, and the other will help the muscles around your knee … sounds like a muscle relaxer. You should take them both with food, twice a day. Keep in mind that they are strong and you may feel … drowsy or confused after taking them.”
“Yes. They are strong medicines, so be careful, huh?”
That afternoon, I ate a well-rounded lunch of nutella and cookies before opening up the box of pills.
Except there were no pills, only little pouches of powder. What was I supposed to do with this?
I immediately called my mother. I told her all about the appointment, the doctor’s Toto Cutugno voice and George Clooney face, my petulant refusal to strip, and the little bags of powder.
“What do I do? Snort the stuff?”
“Ahhhh! Le bustine! They are better than pills!”
“Better than pills? How?” I was skeptical.
“This way the medicine goes straight to the problem! You don’t have to wait for the pill to dissolve. You mix it with juice or water and drink it.”
The explanation didn’t make much sense to me, but when in Rome (and when in pain) you do what Dr. Clooney tells you to do. And so or the next two weeks, I faithfully choked down a lumpy concoction of peach juice and le bustine. I found myself in a constant fog and I hated the taste of the chalky drink. I was on the phone complaining for the 100th time about the inconvenience of le bustine when my mother had an epiphany.
“Tell me the names of the medicines and I’ll ask your cousin Luigi to look them up in English. He’s working as a pharmacist now. Or maybe I can ask Jeeves. And then I can call your PCP and get him to write you a prescription for pills and I can send them to you?”
My mother was a genius. I hung up the phone and did a happy dance — careful not to re-injure the knee.
About an hour later, my mother phoned me back.
“Danielle … you are not going to believe this … the medicines you are taking are both over-the-counter.”
“The anti-inflammatory is simply ibuprofen. And what you thought was a muscle relaxer? That is simply glucosamine chondroitin … a supplement people take for joint support.”
“That can’t be right! What about the fog?! The confusion?!”
“Doctor George Clooney warned me I might be fuzzy and out of it! And he was right! How can Advil and some glorified vitamins have caused such a loopy reaction?”
My mother couldn’t stop chuckling. “Danielle … have you heard of the placebo effect?”
“This can’t be the placebo effect. Dr. George Clooney wouldn’t lie!”
“Maybe something was just lost in translation? What kinds of questions did he ask you?”
“Uh … none.”
“What kind of tests did he do?”
“Did he do an x-ray?”
“No … he just touched my knee.”
“That’s it?” she asked, still laughing as she speaks.
“Well … he moved it around a bit too. To and fro.”
“To and fro? Hahaha, Daniela, I think your Dr. was less of a Clooney and more of a Quack.”
“I refuse to believe that! He was very sophisticated! A silver fox! Besides, the swelling is down and the pain is gone.”
“Ah … well that is because of le bustine! I told you they were more effective than pills!”