20 Minutes in Tuscany

Most twenty-minute periods in a day go by without incident or notice.  It’s just twenty minutes.  This is a story about how much can happen in twenty short minutes.

We were on our way – the beginning of our week exploring the Tuscan hill towns and hot springs!  This holiday, two days in Florence and a few in Rome, sandwiching seven nights in Tuscany, had been several months in the making for Matt and Jennifer (my brother and sister-in-law).  This was their big vacation for the year and my hurrah  in a nine month European backpacking adventure.

After 48 hours in Florence, and 90 minutes driving south toward Massa Marittima (our home base in Tuscany), it was five minutes till noon when we stopped in Poggibonsi, a small Tuscan town.  Pizzeria/Ristorante, the sign read.  Perfect for our travel day lunch, but it wasn’t open for twenty minutes so we followed the signs toward the city center hoping to find an open restaurant

Along the way we saw a car stopped on the road.  Driving past it, and in the middle of me asking “What is this guy doing?” we noticed a scooter and it’s rider on the ground in front of the stopped car – the rider wasn’t moving.  Immediately Matt pulled over.  I jumped out of the car and ran back to the accident, Matt and Jennifer right behind me.

He’d apparently wrecked on his own, we decided later after noticing the car had no marks of a collision, but the car’s driver, now out of his sedan, was frenetic nonetheless.  When we got to the injured man he was still face down in the roads concrete gutter, his helmet still on.  He was motionless and making a snoring-like sound – for a moment it looked like he was sleeping.  Then a red pool could be seen forming under his face.  The sound was the man choking on his own blood.  The old, white-haired man from the car was on his phone with emergency services, though he could have been talking to us, I wasn’t paying him any attention – and I don’t understand Italian when spoken slow and deliberately, let alone unintelligibly fast as in this situation.

Whether he was a cautious rider or only because this was a cool, early winter afternoon, his helmet was strapped tightly on and he was wearing a thick, heavy-duty riding jacket and gloves.  At the least, the gear saved him from getting road rash on much of his body.  Other than the blood near the temple and above his right eye, from when he was face down, the only sign of injury was blood coming from his mouth.

Matt and I both thought we needed to get him on his back and do something to improve his breathing so I attempted to stabilize his neck while Matt starting rolling the injured man over on his back.  In mid role, Matt said “His body is completely stiff!”  That’s the exact opposite of what I was thinking.  His neck was like jelly and his head would have flopped around like a stadium giveaway bobble-head if I wasn’t steadying it.  After what seemed like minutes, but was probably only moments, more passersby were out of their cars to help.  I heard many of them on their phones.  His breathing was starting to improve, I thought, and while my level of concern didn’t drop, I thought the improved breathing could only be good.

That said I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know what else to do.  If the situation were to get worse I’d be at a loss.  We were right in the middle of this but with everyone speaking Italian so quickly, to each other and on their phones, for the first time – in many months – I felt completely foreign.

Matt was holding the man’s gloved hand and I was still supporting his head and neck when his breathing started getting worse.  “Should we roll him on his side?” I wondered aloud, thinking blood was now collecting in his throat and blocking his airway.  “I’m not sure what to do, now his breathing is…”

Huge gasps for breath interrupted staggered breathes.  Following that were, what seemed like, extremely long moments of breathlessness.  All this time the rest of his body was still motionless – no twitching, no uncomfortable grimaces.  Just violent breathes.  I’ve never watched someone die but I imagine last breathes, when taken under similar circumstances, are akin to this.  My thoughts changed from hoping he’d be okay to wondering if he would live.

Then, gradually, he started coming to.  First, a little movement from his left hand, the one Matt was holding.  Matt said, “His eye is opening!” as the man rubbed his gloved hand around his face.  Then came movement in his legs and bending of knees, like he was in pain and uncomfortable (and I’m sure he was).  We thought it was a good sign for him but it also presented a new challenge for us.  Now we had to keep him still.  He wanted to take his helmet off.  He wanted to sit up.  I had to hold the shoulders of his coat, squeezing tightly with the helmet wedged between my wrists and forearms to keep him from turning his head.

Another pedestrian helper was on the ground beside me by now trying to unzip the jammed coat zipper.  He and others talked to the injured man, trying to calm him and make him stay still.  Now I was glad there were Italian words all around us.  If Matt, Jennifer and I were the only help, the man would be injured, confused, and with no one around able to communicate with him.  By now several people had gathered and tried to talk him into remaining still and keeping calm.  This went on several minutes (actually probably less than two, but it felt like 10).

Finally, from behind me, Matt saw the ambulance approaching.  As they arrived the small crowd began to part and one paramedic took the place of the man next to me.  He talked to the rider before turning to me and speaking Italian.  “Sorry,” I said, “English?”  He replied, “You can take your hands away.”

I did, slowly, as he replaced them with his own.  I stood up to back away while he and the other emergency workers began further assessing the situation.  First, removing his helmet, then, feeling around his neck for injuries and immediately putting a neck brace in place.  They had a board ready to put under him and…

Moments later while walking back to the rental car I noticed my legs were numb from squatting in a strange position for several minutes, and my hands shook from adrenaline still rushing through me.  From behind I heard Matt tell Jennifer his hands were shaking too.

It was intense.  A week’s worth of confusion, fear, anxiousness and panic concentrated into a short series of moments.

We left and drove a few minutes before finding an open restaurant.  It was 12:15.

A lot can happen in twenty minutes.

This is a true story from Tuscany on December 7th.  We don’t know what happened to the man, if he was alright, or the extent of his injuries.

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