In her first book, Levenstein recounts how a one-year assignment in Rome became 40 years of practicing medicine in Italy.
In 1978, the author and her husband moved to his home city of Rome and quickly faced the difficult task of navigating Italy’s infamous bureaucracy. One of the first words to learn, she writes, was “pazienza,” or “patience squared,” which is “often invoked as a gentle reprimand for a foreigner’s loss of cool” and “extends beyond the prosaic ‘keep waiting’ to the philosophical.” She also learned ways around the system; someone always knows someone who can grease the wheels. After finally gaining the official title of Dottoressa, waiting for the sole calligrapher to produce her diploma took nearly two decades. In the meantime, finding a position with an established group was not as hard as finding an office. Levenstein tried out numerous different offices, each with a seemingly worse landlord than the last, until her group settled in 2010. The most interesting part of the book is the author’s descriptions of her alternating admiration and horror at Italian medical practices. Collegiality is all but unknown, and there are no referrals. Office hours are optional. Doctors almost never touch their patients, but they always listen to every word. Though they write prescriptions, the pharmacist can and will substitute another drug. As for testing, if a patient feels she needs an MRI, CT scan, or other test, she can just go in to the office and request one. Levenstein also demonstrates how well universal health coverage works. Italians live some of the longest, healthiest lives of anyone on the planet, mostly due to diet, accessible care, and even distribution of wealth. The author gives many illuminating examples of patient encounters as well as encouraging accounts of alternative forms of treatment.
Levenstein’s devotion to the Italian practice of medicine is admirable, and she delivers a charming story well told.