One of the questions we’re frequently asked is just how good is the healthcare in Portugal. An earlier post covered Harold’s time in the emergency room of one of Porto’s big public hospitals, and this one is about my experience in a private hospital. Let's find out how that went.
As an author for the last two decades I’ve managed to avoid some of the work-related physical damage other writers experience (carpal tunnel syndrome to name one). I’ve invested in such odd things as an “upright” mouse and a split (and angled) Kinesys keyboard. Both were costly, but kept me from crippling myself.
My luck finally ran out and I developed problems in both hands: a ganglion cyst in my right about an inch below my ring finger, tucked up against the nerves, making my hand burn, and basilar thumb arthritis in my left hand. The latter is an age-related issue seen in females after menopause (lucky me). Thumbs really shouldn’t make clicking noises and hurt, which was my first hint, but that’s exactly what happens when the cartilage between those two bones is history.
After a round of treatment for the left hand problem with an acupuncturist—his efforts did reduce the discomfort of the swollen ligament somewhat—I researched orthopedic docs and found one very nearby who had extensive experience in hand surgery and spoke English. Dr. Dinis Carmo is a delight. After consulting with him we opted for a cortisone shot in the left thumb area to buy time during my lengthy trip to the States. When I returned we knew it was time for the surgeries as both of these issues had only grown worse.
Much like in the U.S. we needed to gain approval for the procedures from my health insurance company (Médis). So lots of x-rays, reports from the doc to the insurance company, and an ultrasound and finally we got the official thumbs up. (Sorry, couldn’t resist). All the pre-op bloodwork, chest x-ray and ECG were completed and I met with the anesthesiologist (Dra. Carmo — my surgeon’s wife. Language tip - in Portugal a female physician uses the Dra. title).
Surgery was scheduled at Hospital Santa Maria, a private Catholic hospital here in Porto. I started at the front office where they took a deposit for my stay (200 euros) and then I was escorted up to my room. A nurse checked me in, did all the proper things required (obtained vitals, a list of allergies, you name it.) I changed into a gown and an IV was started. Good to go. To be honest, it’s the first time I’ve ever been in a hospital that had monogrammed sheets.
One of the biggest concerns for anyone in a medical situation in a foreign country is how to communicate if your language skills aren't stellar. Not a problem. If someone I was dealing with didn’t speak English, they found someone who did.
And I was off! A trip through the halls and I’m at the room designated for my surgery. Chatted with my surgeon, who verified exactly what was being operated on — he marked both my hands to ensure there were no mistakes and did so in front of the OR nurse so there was a witness. I chatted with my anesthesiologist, who gave me a friendly pat on the shoulder, and then we’re off to Oz. As I expected the surgical suite was state-of-the-art and my procedures went well. I woke in recovery with my hands trussed up, ice packs around my hands and arms to reduce the swelling. This did not surprise me.
What did surprise me is that I figured this would be an out-patient surgery — nope. I was going to be an overnight patient. Somehow I missed this bit of info during the pre-op discussions. Frankly, that wasn’t a bad thing especially since I was wired up with ice packs to reduce swelling (see photo) and going nowhere. That worked for me, even though I really don’t like hospitals at all. Also, again to my surprise, I did not have a roommate as my insurance paid for a private room. Okay then.
The care was excellent. As a former nurse I know when the staff are running their feet off and often that is telegraphed to the patient in rushed care. Not in this case — they were busy but when they were in the room with me I was the only person that mattered. They made sure I was as comfortable as a trussed up human can be, helped me up to the bathroom, kept me medicated so things didn’t hurt that much and ensured Harold had the info he needed. From what I can tell they did not use any narcotics post op, but infused paracetamol (Tylenol) via my IV. It worked fine.
In particular, the overnight nurse was a joy. We joked with each other, she made sure I had everything just right so I could go to sleep and heal. At this point I just needed rest and the occasional pain med, and I got those. I also knew that if I needed help all I had to do was push the call button and they’d be right there.
Despite my lack of fluent Portuguese this went well. A couple of the nurse’s aides did not speak English, but we managed. The supper they brought me post op (pork, potatoes, rolls) was enough for both Harold and I. And yes, he had to feed me. LOL
The next morning my doc returned, they removed the bulked-up bandages and put on the lighter ones. He gave me a thorough list of things to do and not to do and he took his time explaining everything. Dr. Carmo also told amusing stories of his trip to Brazil, which never go amiss. I checked out at the front desk — they would send me the final bill — and home I went.
I received the final bill from the hospital a few days later asking for an additional 49 euros. Of course, this amount would vary depending on what brand of health insurance you carry (mine’s one of the more extensive insurance plans at 179 per month and does have a couple exclusions for pre-existing conditions).
So all total, my portion of the overall bill (doctor visits, lab, EKG and x-rays, surgery, anesthesia, medications, supplies, private room etc.) came out to about 500 euros. I have another x-ray and doctor visit in my future, but those are minimal expenses.
To be honest, our experiences within Portugal’s healthcare system have made us much more comfortable about any future medical treatment. Of course, as with all things another person’s mileage may vary, but for us we have been given top care and not been bankrupted in the process. Should I eventually need surgery on the right thumb (thank goodness it’s behaving itself) I know how this all works.
Harold is a former software engineer. Jana is an author. Together they're exploring their new life in Portugal.