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Travel Horrors : What Bad Things Happen to Good People on Vacation : Our First Halloween Collection of Scary Stories About Misadventures on the Road : I've Fallen for Venice (and I Can't Get Up)

October 24, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Rosenberg is The Times' TV critic

Italy, land of beauty and antiquity.

Like most travelers, we'd always longed to find a spot where there were no other tourists, somewhere to soak up the local culture and mingle with indigenous folk without the intrusive presence of other Americans.

Late in the afternoon on June 16, 1991, we found one.

I still shudder at the memory. There on the ground lay my 78- year-old mother, Claire Magady, her face contorted in pain and drained of color after tripping and falling while walking across Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square) just two days before our scheduled return to the United States from Milan. No doddering oldie, my widowed Mom was youthful, healthy, active and fun. But she'd spend the next 14 days in a hospital, soaking up the local medical care, counting the days until she escaped.

Until we all escaped.

Besides Mom and me, the third member of our party was my daughter, Kirsten, 22, whose recent graduation from college we were celebrating with this holiday. Mom flew to Los Angeles from her home in Kansas City, and then the three of us jetted overseas together. We were having a grand time. After four days in Rome, we'd driven to Siena, then two days later to Florence, then four days after that to the city of canals that one tour book likened to a goddess "rising from the waves."

A great place to visit, but you wouldn't want to break a hip there.

Twenty minutes after Mom's fall, Venice's version of 911 arrived. As the orchestra at Piazza San Marco's famed Florian cafe continued to drone "Memories," two medical orderlies put my mother on a stretcher and carried her to a motorboat. Yes, a motorboat. There are no autos or other motorized land vehicles in Venice, a city of 117 islands whose picturesque, pencil-narrow streets and bridges are often thick with pedestrians. But it's also a city whose thoroughfares consist of 150 canals that are traveled by those famous gondolas, whose costumed gondoliers delight foreigners with their straw hats and sailors' jumpers.

Unlike traffic-clogged Los Angeles, a place where there are no cars? Yes, of course, how refreshing. How glorious. How romantic.

And how awful when there's a medical emergency. Having no alternative but to take the long way around Venice, our motorboat zoomed out into the Laguna Veneta, banging against the waves as my mother shrieked in agony with every movement. I had no idea where we were going, but I hoped that we'd get there fast.

After about 15 minutes, we arrived at Ospedale Civile Venezia, a sprawling hospital complex on the other side of Venice. It is operated by the National Health Service. Once a religious school, the Ospedale Civile's ornate Renaissance facade faces a spacious square and adjoins that Gothic Venetian pantheon, the Church of St. John and St. Paul.

Our boat slid down Rio dei Mendicanti (Beggar's Canal) and deposited us at a side entrance where the sign read Pronto Soccorso (First Aid). Inside, a male doctor examined my mother before sending her off to be X-rayed. After that, she was rolled on a gurney down a long dark corridor and into a tiny elevator which rocked perilously as it took us to the second floor. There, Mom was examined again, this time by a genial female doctor who spoke a few words of English.

She held up an X-ray and said, "Hip."

"Broken? She broke it?"

The doctor nodded. "We must must . . . uh . . . operate."

Operate. The word hit like a sledgehammer. Here we were in a hospital that we knew nothing about, where no one seemed to understand much English, and these people were going to operate on my mother. My terrified mother.

"Can't I go home?" she asked, weakly.

The doctor shook her head. "Danger. Too much danger."

Mom was installed in a large ward with seven Italian women, some of whom were very friendly, two of whom snored very loudly.

Kirsten and I returned the next morning in time to meet a surgeon whose English was very rudimentary but sufficient at least to inform us that Mom was to be operated on the next morning by the department's top guy, the professore .

The surgeon spread his fingers to demonstrate how the pins were to be put into her hip, and then he asked a nurse to draw blood from my mother in case she needed a . . . transfusion. A what? As in blood transfusion?

The "A" word--AIDS--instantly blazed in my mind like the marquee at Caesars Palace.

Mom looked at me. Kirsten looked at me. "What about AIDS," I said to the surgeon.

Appearing to understand, he cut me off, saying, "No, no, no," giving me one of those not-to-worry looks before rushing off. Sure, not to worry. Italy is no Third World country, and Venice is a sophisticated city. But still, if Mom should need a transfusion, whose blood would they be pumping through her veins?

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