As easy as A-B-C
Back in April, I described my recent medical adventures which took me from here in the Algarve north to Lisbon under the heading ‘Alphabet Soup’. Regular readers of this page will recall that a melanoma on my upper left arm was quickly diagnosed, removed and analysed locally before I found myself capital-bound for further expert follow-up treatment at the Portuguese Oncology Institute (IPO) all within the space of three months – here part two of that Hippocratic odyssey.
An electrocardiogram scheduled for 8.30am at the IPO radiology department followed by consultation with a group of dermatology specialists an hour later on April 3 are not the easiest of appointments to keep if you live in Alvor. However, a quick online search later I had secured a room for the preceding night at the nearby Casa do Zé guesthouse conveniently located on the Praça de Espanha, adjacent to the hospital campus.
The only minor hurdle appeared as I confidently strode into Portimão railway station armed with my overnight bag on the Monday evening only to be told that Comboios de Portugal were on strike! I tried to tell the guy behind the, in this case protective, glass shield that ‘Dia das Mentiras’ or April Fool’s Day had been the previous day but no joy.
Slightly shaken (but not stirred), I quickly made my way to the Largo do Dique bus terminal and was comfortably seated and on my way by 7pm having enjoyed what turned out to be my last sustenance before the next morning – two pints of Super Bock at the Tapa Latina – during the unforeseen delay.
During the bus journey, I sent Zé of Casa do Zé a text to inform him of my slightly later arrival and was pleasantly surprised to find him waiting at the Sete Rios disembarkation point ready to drive me to my clean and very functional residence. Unfortunately, being located in what is largely a museum and diplomatic district of Lisbon, all bars and restaurants in the vicinity had closed by 10pm and I went to bed on an empty stomach.
In contrast, numerous cafés were open and buzzing as early as 6.30am the following morning, and I was able to present myself at the IPO a tosta mista and galão for the better.
The ECG was promptly performed and, not long after, I was the subject of poking and prodding by six of the best ‘skin doctors’ in the country who collectively determined that an enlarged exploratory operation on my arm as well as the extraction of an informative lymph node would be the wisest course of action.
As part of the prep, I was immediately dispatched to the x-ray department for a closer look at my thorax followed by blood and urine tests. Being somewhat stubborn (and thirsty) by nature, I had had enough following the third medical encounter of the day and decided to forgo the last-mentioned procedure in favour of an early bus home and a calming libation, reasoning that blood and urine should be able to be tested in the Algarve as well.
As it turned out, logic doesn’t always win out, and the clinic here told me that documentation and specific instructions were needed which I didn’t have. No matter, my next appointment in Lisbon was already due on the 11th, now at the more user-friendly time of 10.50am, which I made catching the first now back-in-service train of the day, and turned out to be a rather disappointing straightforward question-and-answer session with the leading anaesthetist which, in my opinion, could have been conducted verbally or on the internet – but, carpe diem, as I confessed to having skipped the blood and urine analyses on my previous visit, those were done there and then making that particular trip worthwhile after all.
And back it was again on the morning of April 24 for a 24-hour stay to which I had cordially been invited by phone a few days earlier. Any worries that I was running a bit late for my ‘check-in’ were soon allayed by an orderly name tag ‘João’, sharing the same lift up to the fifth floor of the main hospital building, who, out of the blue, enquired if I was “Mr Dirk” and proceeded to usher me through to the waiting room without any further formalities.
After some more background pre-op questions at the chief nurse’s station during which I got my orange ‘all-inclusive’ wrist band – I was now theirs – a still smiling João escorted me to the nuclear medicine pavilion where I spent three hours being injected with some bright liquid under my skin in the area where I was to be operated on, subsequent images produced in a gamma-ray tube showing my prospective surgeon exactly where to use the ‘knife’.
At 2pm, João took me back to the fifth floor and I was shown to my enormous bed in a three-man ward complete with an almost private bathroom and a couple of television sets. Several hours of Portuguese afternoon soap operas later – enough to make anyone ill – it was my nervously pacing neighbour from the lower Alentejo’s turn first – his two packets a day smoking habit had caused some heated yet comical exchanges with the nursing staff resulting in some nicotine substitute being administered to calm him – and some more hilarity followed as he was told that the very tight and high surgical stockings were not to be worn with underpants underneath!
By 7pm, it was finally my turn to be wheeled down the corridor by three young nurses who laughed and joked all the way into the elevator which took us down into the basement where ‘the team’ introduced themselves. One injection and five deep breaths into an oxygen mask later and I was out for the count, coming round again what seemed like only a few minutes later, awaiting transportation back to my ward.
The time was now 9pm and I was starving, but I was told I would only be able to have some dry biscuits and a sip of water at midnight – which rather put paid to the spicy samosas and cans of Super Bock my girlfriend and sometime diplomatic aide Rebecca had smuggled in.
I did persuade her to take off those tight surgical stockings – mine, not hers! – before she left, and when confronted about the missing hosiery by an irate nurse some time later, I was able to successfully plead my innocents, pointing to one heavily bandaged arm with the other trapped by a drip.
The next morning, after Rebecca had ‘broken in’ and been sternly dismissed again, I was offered assistance with a visit to the bathroom, which I politely declined, before having my seven-inch ‘wound’ cleaned and redressed. Back in my street clothes in time for lunch, I finally received my ‘release’ papers complete with post-op care instructions and was enjoying my freedom and a delicious cataplana with Rebecca in the sunshine before catching the train home. It was April 25 – long live the Revolution!
A thin white scar is all that now remains to remind me of my ‘adventure’. The ‘ladies in white’ at the Alvor health centre did an excellent job of patching me up every other day for a couple of weeks and, at the beginning of June, I was asked to attend a concluding meeting in the dermatology department at the IPO – unfortunately at 8.45am. Not wanting to stay over another night, I caught the midnight Renex ‘redeye’ from Alvor roundabout and spent three restless hours upon my 5am arrival reading and drinking coffee in a café before presenting myself.
To cut a long story short, I was greeted with smiles all around, the operation had been a success and I was given the ‘all clear’ at 10.30am on Tuesday morning, June 12.
I already have a date in September for a follow-up scan to make sure there is no recurrence and, looking back over the past six months, I must say that I cannot imagine having received any better treatment, private or otherwise, anywhere in the world than here in Portugal. Saúde!
By Skip Bandele
Skip Bandele moved to the Algarve 20 years ago and has been with the Algarve Resident since 2003. His writing reflects views and opinions formed while living in Africa, Germany and England as well as Portugal.