“There is no vials here,” said the pharmacist

Pam and her husband Dave in the Italian countryside

Late last year I got an email from Pam Saylor, a writer living with type 1 diabetes. Pam offered to do a guest post here for you. I’m always open to guest posts by the way. This story below is from Pam. Much like her travel book, Braving the World: Adventures in Travel and Retirement, Pam’s post takes us on a journey to the Vatican City with diabetes playing a major character. Sit back, relax, have a cup of tea and read on.

Thank you Pam.

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It was hot and our bus moved slowly.  I lifted the hair off of the back of my neck and leaned towards the bus window hoping to catch a breeze.  The sounds of Rome’s morning rush hour traffic came in through the window—blaring car horns, motorcycles revving their engines, and the wheeze of buses stopping and starting.  I closed my eyes and fanned the back of my neck with my passport.  It seemed like hours but was probably only twenty minutes before I felt a gentle jab in the ribs from my husband Dave, who was sitting next to me.  Startled, I looked at him and he pointed at the electronic display at the front of the bus.  The next stop was ours.  We were on our way to the pharmacy in Vatican City to buy insulin—and I didn’t have a clue what to expect.  

Only a year before our bus trip to the Vatican City pharmacy, in 2016, early retirement unexpectedly became an option for Dave and me.  We jumped at it.  Dusting off the dream trip we had imagined for years, to live for one entire year in Italy, we began serious planning to make it a reality.   

Like giddy kids, we bought two one-way tickets to Rome.

But buying the plane tickets was the easy part.  Trying to figure out how life would work for me, diagnosed as a Type 1 diabetic only three years earlier, was harder.  Trip planning was thrilling and exciting, but I had a lot of questions. Would I be able to buy insulin in Italy?  Would it be affordable?  Would my prescriptions be accepted at pharmacies?  The unknowns of our dream trip woke me up at night. I couldn’t rely on the typical advice for short-term travelers and take “double the diabetes supplies that you think you will need.”  That advice didn’t apply to me.  I didn’t have a year’s supply of insulin to take to Italy.

As a confirmed planner and anxious list-maker, I researched every single detail that I could before we left the country in 2017.  I found an online group of expats in Rome who assured me that all Italian pharmacies would have insulin.  That was the good news.  They also told me that Italian pharmacies would not accept my American prescriptions.  That was the bad news.  Another helpful expat chimed in to tell me about the Vatican City pharmacy inside Vatican City.  This pharmacy not only accepted American prescriptions, but it had cheaper prices and lower taxes than a typical Italian pharmacy.  And so that is how, after only a few weeks of living in Rome, Dave and I came to be on a bus headed to the Vatican City pharmacy ready to test the advice of an anonymous online source and buy insulin.

Arriving in Vatican City, we hopped off the bus.  With passports and prescriptions in hand, Dave and I walked to St. Anna’s Gate, a little north of St. Peter’s Square where the Pope held his weekly outdoor audience.  I went first through the gate and handed my paperwork to the guard on duty.  Slowly and carefully he examined the papers and then handed them back.

“You must leave.” The guard sounded stiff and unhappy.  My stomach dropped and I looked at Dave with wide eyes. Now what? The guard continued talking. “It is not yet time to open.”  I glanced at my watch.  It wasn’t 8:30 yet.  We left and after an espresso, returned to the gate where the same guard slowly and carefully examined my paperwork again—as if it might have changed in the last 10 minutes.  These security guys did not mess around.

Once through the gate, we went into the small office next door and handed over our passports to a guard behind thick bullet-proof glass in exchange for a clip-on visitor’s pass.  Following the signs outside, we walked to the building marked Pharmacia and entered.

The room was already full of people.  On a screen near the ceiling, digital displays flashed red numbers.  This was a familiar setup—like the deli counter at the grocery store back home.  I needed a number.  Squeezing past packed bodies, already smelling faintly of sweat in the hot room, we got to the ticket machine and I pulled out a numbered ticket.  Waiting for my turn with a pharmacist, I wandered around the room looking at the shelves of cold medicines, lotions, and soaps for sale.

When my number flashed on the overhead screen I hurried to the window and handed my insulin prescription to the pharmacist in the white coat.  He disappeared into the backroom and returned with a box of insulin pens instead of the insulin vials I used to fill my insulin pump.

“Do you have insulin vials?” I asked.  Opening my purse I pulled out the small bag of diabetes supplies I carried.  I handed my vial of insulin to the pharmacist.  He turned it over in his hand and read the label, frowning, he disappeared again into the backroom.  When he came out, talking to another man in a white coat, I saw them shaking their heads.  Returning to me, he said, “There is no vials here.”

Some insulin was better than no insulin and I knew I could use the insulin pens to fill my pump, so I accepted the pens in place of vials.  One box of NovoRapid a/k/a NovoLog insulin pens (five pens per box for a total of 1500 units of insulin) cost a total of €46 or $56.

After paying for my insulin, I found Dave in the crush of people and we left together to collect our passports and catch the bus home.  I bounced down the pharmacy steps into the warm sunlight with the all-important box of $56 insulin in my purse.  

We still had eleven months of travel in our futures and I did not know then if I would be able to buy affordable insulin down the road.  Visa problems had forced us to change our travel plans and now our year-long dream trip would include living in Croatia, London, and Venice.  

But my trip to the Vatican pharmacy gave me confidence that things would be all right, somehow, one way or another.  I would find a way to solve problems.  This adventure didn’t come with an answer sheet and that was okay.  I would figure things out one day at a time and wasn’t that what diabetes had already taught me?

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Pam is a retired paralegal and a contented travel addict. Her book, Braving the World: Adventures in Travel and Retirement, is her first book and is available on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B091BCNVWQ To see pictures of her year of travels, visit Pam’s website at www.bravingtheworldbook.com

2 thoughts on ““There is no vials here,” said the pharmacist

  1. Pingback: “There is no vials here,” said the pharmacist – Diabetic Daily

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