It’s 8 pm, time to kick off my 24-hour shift. It’s not a regular shift – it’s New Year’s Eve. I’m replacing a colleague who’s in an almost catatonic state. He obviously can’t wait to get ready for a New Eve’s dinner with friends. He’s leaving me at the clinic, clearly ecstatic at not being the one chosen for this final night shift of the year: a quick exchange of information and he’s gone, wishing me good luck.
Well, here I am, four years into this job, and I’m only here because I promised to help the friend who’d ‘won’ the 31st December night shift for the second year in a row.
I knew a few important things (more or less) before I agreed to the switch:
Last year, for example, there were two suicide attempts during the night. I also knew that the prisoners each get a small bottle of sparkling wine (Spumante) to celebrate the New Year. We are after all in Italy. It’s only a small bottle – and made of plastic rather than glass – but the prisoners manage to get drunk anyway by mixing their wine with alcohol ‘homemade’ in their cells from fruit and the psychiatric meds that most of them receive – anti-anxiety, sedatives, anti-depressants, anti-psychotic – you name it – whatever prescription drugs they get. It can make a pretty lethal cocktail.
As is typical for this night shift, there’s no-one else in the clinic. There won’t be any other doctors or nurses around until 8:30 a.m. – I’m totally on my own. Also, because of the holiday, the number of Correctional Police officers on this shift is cut to the barest minimum.
And so, here I am. Oddly, there are no patients waiting for the physician to visit – there isn’t even a waiting list. It gets stranger – by this time of the evening there’d typically be requests to see a doctor from inmates who decide their eczema is in need of urgent medical attention (particularly if I’m the emergency doc; and all the more so if it’s in their genital area).
As I’ve heard all the stories from the ‘battlefield’, I start to check the equipment – Is the defibrillator in place and fully charged? Check. Is the ECG working properly? It is and there’s enough paper for printouts. IV infusions at the ready? Check. Is the emergency backpack all packed up and ready to go? Check. Cool. It seems we’re good to go.
It’s only 9 p.m. I head off for my first visit to the coffee machine. I need to go via the disciplinary isolation section – not quite what you imagine ‘isolation’ to be since it’s a main walkway for movement between the different parts of the prison – in this case, it’s my path to my coffee. The inmates in isolation are in cheerful mood, calling out ‘Happy New Year, Dottorressa!’ as I pass, and I start to feel not so cool…
When I get back to the clinic, I check all the equipment again. Emergency kit, OK. Bandaging, OK. Tranquillizers, OK. SOS treatment for alcohol poisoning, OK. The surgical sewing kit, OK. Anti-anxiety meds for the doctor herself? NO can do.
It’s strange … no phone calls, no requests to see the doctor, nothing but a creepy silence.
I go downstairs to the commanding office. It’s locked and bolted. Great.
Back up the stairs and to the clinic. I sit at my desk and send an email to my husband who’s at home with our daughters. And then, suddenly, all hell breaks loose. It’s now 10 p.m. and the whole prison is shaking and tremoring – the inmates have started to party. They’re banging violently on the bars with metallic objects, repeatedly bashing the armored doors of their cells, screaming in hundreds of voices and languages.
Smoke fills my nose. It’s coming from the 8th section, which is the closest block to the infirmary area. It’s where they house inmates with severe medical issues – usually of a psychiatric nature, so I pick up the phone to try and reach someone from the commanding office. On my third attempt, someone finally answers. Yes, we know, they tell me, throughout the prison inmates are setting toilet paper on fire and throwing strips into the hallways and out of the windows. Wonderful. The few police officers working tonight have their hands full, running between floors and sections to make sure there’s no real damage to life or property. “It’s all good, Doc,” they insist, “no need for your intervention right now.” Excellent. Except that through the bars of the infirmary’s windows I see burning papers raining down from the upper floors.
OMG! Have I checked our oxygen supply? And our oxygen masks?
I’m seated on a bed in the clinic, aware that there are still hours of partying ahead. This uproar is likely to continue for another two hours after midnight. My heart is thumping, my panic levels are soaring. What emergencies lie ahead on this night? How much longer can I take this tension? Who’ll be the victim of this year’s celebrations? My heartbeat escalates. Perhaps I shouldn’t have gulped down two espressos on this night of all nights … this pressure is petrifying. I swear to myself that I will never again agree to the 31st December night shift. I’m not cut out for this. And then, just moments before they call an ambulance to evacuate the doctor (who exactly would do this??? OMG I’d have to call my own ambulance to be taken to ER …) or the doctor injects herself with a sedative, the sleep fairy arrives (or the alcohol-meds mix has finally done its thing) and, as if a magic wand had been waved, quiet falls over the prison. Quiet doesn’t begin to describe it – the silence is total and absolute. And I wasn’t called out to a single prisoner, no-one had called for me at all… Then again, the shift is a long way from done – another 17 hours still lie ahead.