My Brilliant Hiking Accident

Injured at the top of a mountain in the Basilicata

Don’t be such a drama queen, I thought.

I was sitting a narrow waiting room. With me were Massimo, manager of our hotel in Castelluccio Superiore, Martina, our young tour manager from Palermo, and Tom, my husband and primo hiking companion.

I sank back into the soft cushions and squinted at  the framed certificates and testimonials, but they were too far away, and it still hurt to stand. I had been applying ice to my leg for the past two days, but  a large hematoma wasn’t  shrinking.

It looked as though my hiking trip in southern Italy was over almost as soon as it had begun. As luck would have it, this  dottore, on staff at the hospital in Potenza,  also saw patients in his home office in Castelluccio Inferiore, about 2 miles from out modest hotel.

I stared at a photo of a middle-aged woman on the breakfront. By the looks of her hair style and dress, I guessed the picture dated from the 1940’s. His mother, or an aunt?  I heard the voices of two women in another room of the house, then a man’s voice, then laughter. Were they having afternoon tea?

Then the  door to the room across the hallway opened and two older ladies emerged, smiling and bidding arriverderci to the dottore. He popped his head into the waiting room, and said something I only caught the end of—lavarmi.

“He’s going to wash his hands, “ Martina said.   He soon reappeared, and ushered three of us—Martina, my husband and me—into the examining room. Massimo went to wait in his car.

I thought back to the previous day, when I fell while our escorted tour was walking at the bottom of a gorge between two 3,000 meter high  mountains. We crossed back and forth over a stream, walking on  wet stones. It had rained hard the day before, and a thick carpet of fallen beech leaves on the trail was spongy in some places, slick in others. Our hiking poles slid down through several inches of wet brown leaves. Suddenly I slipped, and hit my shin hard. I  rolled up my pants but saw only a faint scratch and figured it was nothing. Or it was nothing until three hours later, after we had ascended the steep path up the mountain, past a plain where wild horses grazed, then up and up, until we reached the perfect place for lunch at the top of the mountain. There was no road access. That morning as we set out, Martina handed each of us a panino and a chocolate bar. She couldn’t drive the van up to meet us for our usual picnic lunch. Now, atop the mountain, we looked out from the promontory to the Pollino valley,  south to the Ionian Sea, its cerulean blue waters laced with foam, lapping the sand.

Only then did I notice the throbbing  in my  leg. I rolled up my pant leg. My husband watched, and on his face  I read surprise, or maybe  alarm. Near my shin, slightly to the right and a few inches above the ankle was a protrusion the size of a tennis ball. There was no ice–no emergency ice packs like the ones soccer coaches carry with them for every practice, every game. No  way to get down the mountain except to walk down. I tied my bandana around the lump and knotted  it as tight as I could.

While our fellow hikers continued on their walk, a loop that would return them to our mountaintop lookout spot, I sat with my husband and Greta, who wanted a rest. While I propped up the injured leg on my backpack and tried not to think about the throbbing sensation, the three of us talked about books, King Leopold’s Ghost,  My Brilliant Friend,  The Hunger Games. When the group returned, my husband helped me to my feet and I hobbled down the mountain. Three fellow hikers waited for us, standing at their posts a half mile apart. As we met up with each one in turn, the comrade would chat as I limped along,  distracting me from my predicament.

Now, a day after my fall, the dottore tore off a sheet  of paper from the long roll  at  the head of the examining table, smoothed it, and gestured for me to climb up.  I slid onto the table and rolled up the keg of my hiking pants, revealing a bruise  from knee to instep.

Martina translated. I said I’d fallen, at the time, I didn’t think I’d hurt myself, only a scratch, then I discovered this big lump on my leg three hours later after we had scaled the mountain.

Dottore Sproviero put his hand on my ankle gently. He palpated the leg. He was a sturdy, athletic looking man, quite bald, with wire-rimmed spectacles and blue-gray eyes. His manner was very serious.  With his hand still on my ankle lightly, he looked directly into my eyes.

 “Signora, you do not have to go to ospedal,” he said quietly. “It is only a hematoma. I will give you some medicine. You must stay off the leg, no more hiking this trip, and you must wrap the leg in an elastic band.”

The dottore went to his imposing wooden desk next to the examining table. With an elegant fountain pen, he wrote out the diagnosis on cream colored stationery imprinted with an image of Leonardo da Vinci’s L’Uomo Vitruviano.

Then, he used  a ballpoint pen to write out two prescriptions. I asked what these were for, as any good American consumer would do.

“Something to help the leg heal,” he said. The dottore had spoken. I did not press him for details. 

He wrote out the bill, affixed an official looking holographic seal  on it, and handed the paper to my husband. Ninety-two Euros.

My husband  and Martina rushed off to an ATM down the street.

Massimo and I waited in his car while my husband paid  the dottore.  Tom emerged from the  dottore’s house with eight Euros,  the first time he’d ever gotten change from a doctor.

“How’s the leg?” asked the retired Royal Navy pilot, every single day and right up until we boarded the plane at Naples  bound for the UK, at the end of our hiking trip.

“I had to be helicoptered off a mountain in Switzerland once, skiing accident,” said the former Royal Marine, now landscape architect. “Broke four ribs. Awfully inconvenient.”

“Did you ask the doctor about clotting?” asked the retired nurse who had worked in New Guinea and Australia for many years. “Did he heparinize you?”

“Rather bad luck!” mused the tall, shy Brit who liked to photograph every flower on every trail.

I rested in our next very fancy  hotel, or rode with Martina when she expertly drove the van on switchback  roads. I hobbled through the small Naples airport for our flight to Gatwick.  At Heathrow and at Logan airport, I had Special Assistance–express trips by wheelchair, through security, immigration and customs.

My stateside internist examined the leg,  saw  no complications, and advised me to  wear a compression sock. He told me to discard the heparin gel that cost 28 Euros, and opined that the vitamin C-bromelain-MSM cocktail wouldn’t do a thing for me, but I could take it if I felt like it.  I kept  drinking the magic pineapple potion twice a day until I used up the last packet. 

I saved the elegantly scribed, poetic  diagnosis on the ivory stationery:

Trauma to the lower third of the left leg. with abundant collection of venatic blood. Temporarily stop the use of cardio aspirin of 100 milligrams . Make lightweight compression with an elastic bandage. Antigravity elevation of the limb.

Sounds much more elegant in Italian: Trauma del 1/3 medio di gamba con abbondate raccolta da venamente ematico…

Four weeks later,  I danced at my nephew Nico’s wedding. I resumed yoga and swimming. I missed out on the last four days of my  Basilicata hike, but  came home with a good story.