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Posted by portugalpress on April 06, 2018

The name of my local ten-pin bowling team is the ‘Alvor Red Spurs’, the acronym of which just happens to be the same as that of the Algarve’s regional health service, ARS, and prompted me to bring this month’s reflections to paper.

A lot of horror stories about how Portugal looks after its sick, doctors and nurses taking strike action and patients remaining unattended for hours on end have appeared in the press over the years - here is a personal account which paints a rather different picture.

Sometime last autumn, I noticed that a small black mole on my upper left arm, which had been there for many years, had ‘bubbled up’ and turned into a two-centimetre long lesion. When I finally agreed to see a doctor about it, the ensuing sequence of events proved to be very thorough, speedy and professional.

Most people in Portugal don’t have a family GP, so the first step was a visit to the local health centre - Centro de Saúde - in Portimão. Although not strictly necessary - you just pay over the odds - getting ‘into the system’ can be a bit time-consuming involving a lot of waiting around at different counters until a patient – utente – number is issued.

For this you just need to provide the usual personal information and a tax number easily obtained at the tax office, or finanças. Other than that, you just draw a number when you get there, the earlier the better to avoid the ‘rush’ - there is already a small queue when the doors open at 8am - and wait to be called up.
You are then given the time of your appointment, typically about an hour later (I always have a good book with me) with one of the half a dozen or so doctors on duty.

Probably as a result of better wages paid elsewhere such as Britain, the majority are young and from Eastern Europe but highly qualified and very friendly, and if you find one of them particularly helpful, you can ‘stick’ with them for future visits.

Mine turned out to be Dr Olga Borba - love the name - from Siberia who assured me that I probably had nothing to worry about but referred me to a specialist at the nearby Portimão Hospital (or Barlavento Hospital) - just to be sure and arrange for the removal of the offending growth.

I got to see Dr Adalberto Pereira Silva, who turned out to be a neighbour from Alvor, on December 12 - following another check-up, which did not raise any undue concerns, he told me I would be given a date for minor surgery shortly.

That notification was given by phone and then in writing a few days later, and when my New Year’s Eve hangover had receded, I found myself under the knife on the morning of January 4. The minor surgery at 10am took no longer than half-an-hour and I was home and hosed by midday.

The next two weeks’ highlights were regular visits to Alvor’s very own nursing station at times of my choosing for dressing changes - a bargain at €1.20 a go - until the wound had healed up and stitches were removed.

In due course, I returned to see Dr Silva at the Barlavento for a post-op check and, although everything was fine, he recommended I see a visiting dermatologist with the results of my biopsy. ‘Visiting’ because it appears that there are no longer any skin specialists working in the national health system in the Algarve, and thus a considerable wait could be involved.

However, another few days later, I received a phone call at home - I was still in my dressing gown - asking if I could turn up at the hospital within the hour in order to take advantage of the surprise presence of Dr Tiago Mestre.

A taxi-ride and brief wait later, I was sitting opposite the young, pro-active and very animated expert!

He explained that pre-emptive steps were advisable preventing any recurrence of cancerous cells building up in my skin as treatment might not be as straight forward should there be a next time.

To this end, another date, March 13, was booked in for further consultation on his next visit south and, in the meantime, I should have a CT scan to give him a more complete picture.

‘Computed tomography’ makes use of computer-processed combinations of many X-ray measurements taken from different angles to produce cross-sectional images - virtual slices - of specific areas of the body without cutting.

On March 1, I reported to the radiology department, was prepped with a special liquid and slowly passed through a doughnut-shaped scanner. The whole procedure only took an hour and, some hot flushes apart, proved to be not entirely unpleasant.

Dr Mestre was happy with the results - nothing nasty showed up – but, in line with his philosophy of “prevention is better than cure”, he strongly recommended further ‘treatment’ at a specialised facility not available in the Algarve and, furthermore, to expedite this next step as speedily as possible by taking the ‘next’ train to Lisbon!

Come Saturday - the Algarve was inundated with more rainfall in one day than the monthly March average for the region - armed with my biopsy sample neatly preserved in kerosene wax and a CD containing the CT scan results, we - my girlfriend Rebecca also chose to escape the deluge which was to prove most fortuitous - reclined in still affordable first-class seats on the way to the capital.

Sete Rios, a major railway hub prior to reaching the Oriente terminal, is located right next to the extensive grounds of the Instituto Português de Oncologia, or IPO (oncology is a branch of medicine that deals with the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancers), and only a five-minute walk away once you get off the train. Unfortunately, nobody told us that admin and external consultancy departments are closed at the weekend, but a burst of ‘diplomatic’ activity from Rebecca managed to save the day.

A few phone calls and a friendly taxi driver later soon had us speeding through narrow cobbled streets on the way to an old friend from her days at the Italian consulate in London and a promise to deliver the ‘goods’ during the week. And we still had time for lunch at a quaint Portuguese restaurant - Iscas, pork medallions and mushroom sauce - before heading back home.

Another phone call, followed by written confirmation, now has me, as I am recording these events, planning my next trip to Lisbon. As you are reading my ‘medical history’, I will have undergone an 8.30am ECG - Electrocardiogram recording the electrical activity of the heart - immediately followed by a meeting with specialists in my condition - my only worry is figuring out how to get there in time. Further developments next time. 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.