Fevers – Measure Away Mamma

Drawing by my super-talented 12-year-old nephew Gaetano M.

Italian mammas spend their days measuring their child’s fevers.  When a child has the flu, the mamma has to measure the temperature at least four or five times a day to report the specific number — 38.3, 39.1, 37.9 — back to the mother-in-law, husband and pediatrician.  An Italian pediatrician under the National Health Service is obliged to visit your child at home if he or she has a fever.

I’ve learned to invent the appropriate fever figures to satisfy my needs — down a few notches for the husband and mother-in-law, up a few if I want the pediatrician to come. The mother’s obsession with her child’s temperature helps him grow and develop into a true Italian hypochondriac, taking full advantage of the national health-care system with frequent blood and urine tests and regular analyses to see if he has skin, stomach or prostate cancer, or other such deadly ailments.

Sometimes I play a little game with Italian male friends.  If they say to me they are sick and have a fever, I say “Oh really, how high?” Then I count how many temperatures they give me.  For example, a typical response would be, “Now it is 37.5, but last night it was 38 and the night before it went up to 39.”  The winner of this game is always Pietro, a 32-year-old who works in my office and is finishing his engineering degree.  He lives at home with his mother and frequently is afflicted with fevers.  He admits he is little obsessive, but says he measures at least ten times a day and is always ready with the numbers.  In between measuring his fever his mother fills him with liquids.  She gives him liters of tea with fennel, liters of Rosehips tea, and liters of chicken broth.  Then, he says, once he is over his fever and ready to leave the house, she makes him ‘dress like an astronaut’, every inch covered, to resist the severe Roman cold.

In addition, Italians believe that, if you have a fever, you must stay home in bed.  It is the favorite excuse for getting out of work, dinners and any sort of unpleasant meetings.  No one questions a fever.  I’ve noticed whenever a male colleague calls in sick with a fever, he always has 38.9.  I’ve heard the same number from friends bowing out of dinner parties, “My husband is in bed with 38.9.”  For me, it is enough to know that a colleague is not coming to work or a couple is not coming to dinner. I do not need to know the number, but Italians do.

While an American mom might give a child baby Tylenol, and drag a sick child with her to the supermarket, an Italian mamma would not dare.  One day I had an appointment for three-month-old Chiara to have a check-up with Dr. Guidotti.  I brought three-year-old Caterina along with me.  Caterina had had a fever on and off for several days along with a deep cough.  She seemed better, and I had no choice but to bring her along.  It was a steaming hot early-September day in Rome and we were dressed in sleeveless dresses.

As I walked towards the door of the doctor’s office, a couple raced past me carrying something. They stopped at the doorway, ringing furiously at the bell.  As we got nearer, we could see the father had a boy, who must have been about three, in his arms.  The boy was wrapped up in several baby blankets and we could only see his sweaty face.  The mother continued frantically pressing the bell. No response. “Porco Giuda,” cursed the father. clutching his son tightly, “Porco Giuda.”  “Are you going to see Dr. Guidotti?” I enquired.  “Yes, but, Porco Giuda, where is he? “ responded the father clearly about to have a nervous breakdown. “Is your son okay?” I asked.  The father glared at me with desperation in his eyes, “No, he has had a fever of 38.3 for three days now.”  “Oh, so has my daughter,” I responded, looking down at Caterina who was about to engage in her favorite trick of pouncing on the handle of the baby carriage in order to tip it over and send baby Chiara flying.  Both parents looked at me, their mouths agape in horror.  At that moment someone buzzed the door open and the agitated parents charged up the stairs, leaving me struggling up with my baby carriage and rambunctious three-year-old.

It can be convenient to play with the fever numbers and all Italian mammas  do it.  A mamma can call her local pediatrician any time on her cell phone, declare fever and, by law, the doctor must make a home visit.  It took me years to figure out this handy system, but finally, through Italian mamma friends, I caught on.

My local public health service pediatrician,  Doctor Blassetti, is a wonderful, calm efficient, woman who can nail an illness in a few seconds flat.  Because her services are free, she must see millions of sick kids a year.  And someone that sees millions of sick kids a year develops some pretty good instincts.  She is helped by her assistant, the indomitable Signora Luisa, who runs the waiting room like a military general while wielding the telephone in one hand, shaking off endless calls by anxious mammas.  Signora Luisa is the only person in this world who has succeeded in making my three little beasts sit quietly and behave in a waiting room.

Despite her tranquil manner, Doctor Blassetti’s first question on the phone is always, “How high is the fever?”

One day. in exasperation, I said laughingly, “I have three kids sick with the flu. They’ve all been running a fever for days and I cannot be bothered to measure it. I just feel their foreheads.”  Big mistake.  “Well, measure now then, and call me back,” she responded firmly.  So I waited ten minutes and called her back, “Nico 39.6, Caterina 38.1, and Chiara 38.3.”

15 thoughts on “Fevers – Measure Away Mamma”

  1. What an altogether delightful and enlightening post. I had no idea. My mom was the “hand on the forehead” kind of mom. Dead on accurate she was, too, but I, having worked in medicine 23 years, and being an altogether obsessive personality, well, I have to have the numbers. And on occasion, a chart. Like I said, obsessive. I found the law about mandatory physician visits for patients with fevers of interest. Does this apply to adults as well? Thanks again for a terrific post. Happy New Year to you and yours.

  2. HI Trisha:

    What a great post — so revealing and funny. I found it very entertaining. We are also of the New England-school of doctor visitation: “What, is it bleeding? Oh, it is? Is it an artery? Yes, OK, then maybe we should go to the doctor. But remember there IS a copay.”
    Your bro

    1. Stephen — thanks for you comment…definitely wasn’t expecting a father of four to be reading my blog. And you make an important point — the cost. In Italy, your pediatrician and local family doctor are free. So Italians can spend endless hours getting themselves checked for various ailments at no cost at all.

  3. Hysterical post! I am curious to know how mammas are treated when they come down with a fever. Are spouses at home taking the mother’s temp and calling the doc or do mammas just knuckle down and get on with things fever and all. What is the protocol for temp taking and docs. for Mammas?

    Also, kudos to Gaetano. I love his cartoons. He deserves a lot of credit for doing so many and in English. YAY Gaetano!

    1. Let’s just say that I’ve seen a lot less Mammas with fevers since I’ve been in Italy. I think that as in most places of the world the Mammas just get on with doing what they need to do.

  4. One of your best! It’s just so funny thinking about all the Italian boys being made into hyopochondriacs! I used to refer to the ER at Newton Wellesley as the Kirk memorial stiching room. With 5 sons you can bet we made a number of trips…after the usual, “Any blood? How much? Where?” calls of concern by this mamma. Keep the blogs coming…I love them all!

    1. Thank you Penny!!! Yes, with five sons I can imagine you had your fair share of stitches. I appreciate your support…I am worried I might be running out of steam on this blog. I need some inspiration for 2012! And while I am at it, wishing you and yours a wonderful New Year!

    1. Peter– you have hit on something very important. I think there are a lot of things in commong between the legendary Jewish mother and the Italian Mamma…from the fretting over the health of their children to the slaving over the food, both a long call from the Tiger Mother.

  5. Now I better understand some of my grandmother’s obsessions of when her grandchildren were sick.

    And in spite f it all, I guess I turned out OK even with all our gadgets.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Kids usually do turn out ok, despite all their parents terrible errors. I certainly hope my kids won’t be scarred by all my parenting errors!

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