Saturday 22 October 2016

Falling ill abroad - no fun, but we did learn lessons

Sarah Carey was obliged to rescue her husband after an international medical crisis that ruined a mini-break

Published 12/06/2016 | 02:30

Faro: If you're are going to get sick abroad, do it somewhere nice
Faro: If you're are going to get sick abroad, do it somewhere nice

The sublime Frank McNally of The Irish Times once neatly captured the life of a columnist when he described sitting outside a cafe and glancing over to where he'd parked his bicycle. When he realised the bike was gone, he said he had two thoughts. First, that his bicycle had been stolen. Second, that he could get a column out of it.

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When my husband's friend, John, phoned me from Faro and gravely said; "I think it's time you came out here", I had two thoughts. Yes, I would heroically and calmly rescue my husband who'd managed to get himself seriously ill on holidays. And I'd definitely get a column out of it. I don't feel as bad as I should for that, because by wearing out that 'I' key, readers can benefit from (and hopefully avoid) my various experiences.

With that justification out of the way, we'll get back to the hapless husband and the various morals of the story.

When he first got a ferocious pain in his tummy about five years ago, I took to the internet and quickly diagnosed gallstones. Our GP concurred (and was only slightly piqued that a wife and the interweb got there first). Off then for an MRI and chat with a consultant who recommended elective surgery. When my husband baulked, he said, "You can put this off for as long as you want and then one day you'll end up in A&E, probably on your holidays". And thus it came to pass.

He blames himself. I blame all the people who volunteered horror stories about straightforward procedures ending in appalling complications. Everyone seemed to know someone who'd actually died getting their gall bladder removed. With him being a nervous ninny and pain striking very rarely, he put it off. Moral one: Have all superfluous and rancid organs removed forthwith. And keep gruesome surgery stories to yourself.

When he got the chance to go with some pals on a mini-break to Portugal, I encouraged him. He was wrecked and really needed a break. I had to push him out the door because he was feeling guilty. "Nonsense," I said, as I secretly planned my revenge trip. He also complained of feeling a bit queasy. I said: "Well, make sure you bring your European Health Insurance Card then." Moral two: I should have listened to him. He should have listened to me. Twenty fours later he was rushed by ambulance to the hospital in Faro. And he didn't have his Health Insurance Card.

The inevitable had happened. A stone had dropped. I photographed the card and emailed it to John. Do not leave home without this card. It's free. It takes a few minutes to apply for one online. It means you get free medical treatment in EU member states. And make sure you holiday within the EU. Nowhere too exotic.

When I first got the call I wasn't unduly concerned. Gallstones. Big deal. A ruined mini-break is a first world problem (though I did apologise profusely to the poor friends who had to abandon cycling and canoeing and various other plans to attend to their mate.)

But as the days went by my upbeat jokes became more strained, especially when the words "pancreatitis" and "severe necrosis" were mentioned. I didn't like those words. Neither did Dr Google. I got off the internet and started preparations for real drama.

I've been boycotting travel insurance as a total rip-off for years, but despite various hardships had refused to give up the VHI. I'd taken the kids out of it and while confident that I'd live a long and healthy life before dying cheaply of an aneurism, I suspected my spouse would prove inconveniently unhealthy as he aged. So I kept us in. A phone call confirmed we were covered for international rescues. Moral three: if you have to starve or freeze, don't give up health insurance.

And so I fled to Faro. Which turned out to be a pretty nice place. Moral four: If you're going to get sick, do it somewhere nice.

Also, do it in Portugal if you can. It was a public hospital and they're in bailout land too. I observed the cracked pavements and crowded out-patient clinics. But inside the hospital I encountered nothing but professionalism, concern and care. After a while, between wandering about the town and dealing with the different staff, I realised that Portugal is what Ireland was like a generation ago. People walked slowly. Despite the circumstances of my visit, part of me actually relaxed. I realised how in Ireland, everyone walks around really fast - with purpose. As if not having a purpose was illegal. What happened to us? Did the money, and subsequent lack, have to change us so very much?

Back at the hospital, there were really only two problems. The first was that I'd forgotten my make-up and the senior doctor was really attractive. Of all the times to be ungroomed! Moral Five: Remember - you never know who you'll meet! So I upped the charm factor, bought chocolates for everyone and I'm sure Dr George looked wistful when it came to the eventual goodbyes.

The other issue was the strident insistence of my husband that he wasn't really that sick (the oxygen, antibiotics and nutrition drips being "ridiculous fuss") and I was to get him home ASAP. Dr Handsome admitted he'd had to speak to him "with authority" to persuade him he was really sick. Adulterously disloyal, I assured the doctor he was right and recommended he administer Xanax to keep the patient quiet. Within the hour, hubbie was sedated while I got on with negotiating our repatriation.

After several worrying days we were finally released into the hands of Jacob, a Dutch nurse flown in for the job, and we became those people who hold up queues at airports, with our wheelchairs and medical kits. We had a great laugh as a glorified cherry-picker was required to get us on the Aer Lingus flight and enjoyed the curiosity and mild alarm of other passengers as the nurse set up a drip on the plane. Cabin crew fussed over him and a steward slipped me a Jameson. I hadn't had a whiskey in years and it was great.

When we got back, it was straight up to Vincent's Private and for the first time I felt really bad. It's like the Four Seasons up there. What I wouldn't give for a few days in it myself. But two things really hit me. As long as the top tier can enjoy luxury like that, where's the incentive to fix the public system? If I were in charge, I'd make it illegal for politicians and top civil servants to have private health insurance. That might create the required sense of urgency about health reform.

The other was how a crisis ended up being in many ways a positive experience. There are times when it's easy to believe we have changed only for the worse. But throughout the few weeks, we were overwhelmed with kindness. From his friends who stayed with him until I got there. The hospital staff. The manageress in the restaurant who asked if I was okay as I poignantly ate alone one night. All our friends and family at home who swept in and took care of the children in my absence. The pals who piled up to Vincent's to cheer him up.

That's the real moral. The single most important truth to hold on to is that most people are nice. Remembering that changes everything. Now if the Irish could just remember what it was like when we walked more slowly, we could cope with anything.

Sunday Independent

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