The Cat Ambulance
Updated: Oct 3, 2021
"we didn’t realise that this DIY ambulance would have to traverse up steep hills and over cobblestones and pass perilously close to loudly barking dogs."
In which Chocolate Cat has to visit the vet; Luciano drinks alcohol for the first time in four years and I spend the night in hospital
So we last left you in the paradise that is the Cies Islands. The distance from there to our next stop of Porto in Portugal was going to be between 14-17 hours. We had had a non taxing day lying on the beach and felt well rested. So at 7.30pm, we set off for our night sail to Porto. The wind was in our favour, a fresh northerly which was pushing us down the coast. We did have a few issues with our headsail getting repeatedly caught in the hatch in the pitch black and as we reached Portugal, there were suddenly a humongous number of fishing boats which we had to steer around in the night. However, we made it into Porto early in the morning, were greeted by the marina crew in their rib and guided to our spot and they helped us tie up - you will know from last week’s post how much we appreciate this!
Before I get on to Porto, I know the trip to the vet for Chocolate Cat will be weighing on your mind, so I will put you out of your misery. Back in England in July, Chocolate had got what looked like a bite on his paw. As he kept licking it, I had to clean it and cover it which made for interesting conversation from prospective tenants viewing our flat. Eventually it seemed to scab over and I didn’t think about it. However, while in the Cies Islands I noticed that it was bleeding. I don’t know how long this had gone unnoticed, because it is a small wound and he has dark fur which covers it. He wouldn’t stop licking it. For context, Chocolate is an avid groomer, not only of himself, but also of his sister Suki and he will also spend half an hour licking me and Luciano’s arms, or as much as we can bear of his rough tongue. Usually a sweet trait, he had reopened the wound with this eagerness. I put some skin steroid cream on it and we bandaged it. We were worried about the bandage being too tight, as he hated wearing it, lifting up his foot and spending the whole day trying to get it off until you would wake up in the morning and he would be staring at you triumphantly with the bandage lying next to him and the wound reopened. I called my friend Jaimie, who is a vet, while we were in the Cies Islands and she recommended taking him to the vet just in case it hadn’t been a bite but a puncture wound which could have caused a joint problem or be infected.
So that was our first job in Porto. We found a vet within 15 minutes walking distance of the marina and constructed a cat ambulance. The cat ambulance consisted of the unwilling cat in his cat carrier strapped to the back of a folding bike, wheeled by Luciano the Paramedic. Being new to Porto, we didn’t realise that this DIY ambulance would have to traverse up steep hills and over cobblestones and pass perilously close to loudly barking dogs. The vet was very thorough and examined the cat's wrist. She had to shave the fur over the wound, but pronounced it clean and there was no damage to the joints. Next came the bad news. He would have to wear a plastic collar until it healed up. Knowing that he can reopen wounds even after they are mostly healed, I felt very sorry for him, as he would have to wear the collar for a long time. He was on his best behaviour at the vet, as usual and accepted everything she did. But maybe he thought the collar would be like an injection, something horrible but fleeting that only happens at the vet and doesn’t continue when back at home. When we got back into the boat, he immediately made his extreme displeasure and distress abundantly clear by wiggling backwards to try to remove it and on realising he couldn’t, retiring to sulk in the bedroom. All this time, Suki had been watching in astonishment. She couldn’t quite believe her eyes, so she followed him into the bedroom. Curious yet cautious, she eventually plucked up enough courage to jump up to the window ledge where he was sulking and sniffed the plastic collar. But too ashamed; or too annoyed to look at her, he turned his back on her in a huff. Please watch the video footage of this encounter; scroll down to the end of the blog for this week’s video. Unfortunately the poor creature is still wearing it. He has managed to remove the collar at least three times, each time undoing his body’s hard work of healing. However, he is more used to it than he was, although not his usual upbeat self. I will be very glad when we can take it off for good. Luckily the wound remains dry and clean and looks like it is healing and we can clearly monitor it as the fur has been shaved off. He and Suki had a weird relationship after he got it, with each of them hissing at each other, but they have reached a peaceful coexistence again.
So that was the background drama to our time in Porto. However, Porto has been an absolute feast; we have loved our time here. In fact it is now the first place on our list of future places to live. Soon after we arrived we went for a walk in the little neighourhood near our marina. This is on the ‘Gaia’ side of the river opposite the main city and the old town. We found a lovely little bakery from which to buy rolls and drink an espresso every morning while admiring each individually tiled house, many with specially painted tiles of individual fishing boats. From here we could watch the old grandmas looking after their grandchildren and having a natter with their neighbours, the old men doing the shopping or stopping for a chat with a friend. We instantly felt what a lovely traditional close-knit community this was. Back at the marina we met my friend Claire and her husband Simon who were in Porto on their honeymoon for drinks.
As we ventured into the Old Town, we were breathless. I think Porto may be the most beautiful European City I have been to. Tiny narrow cobbled streets lined by tall buildings covered in individual coloured and patterned tiles. Even many of the churches are tiled. One of the things we most enjoyed about being back in a city was being able to get vegan food and we were even able to try vegan versions of the local cuisine. We tried vegan nata. Now I get the big deal about these custard tarts; the flaky crunchy pastry combined with the creamy delicately spiced filling. We were also able to try Francesinha, a local sandwich usually filled with meat and topped with cheese and gravy, but in our case we were able to try one with seitan, tofu and mushroom filling with vegan cheese and vegan gravy on top; very tasty. We visited the Church of São Francisco of Porto, marvelling at the carving in the baroque interior, especially the 3D Tree of Jesse showing Jesus’s family tree. But our favourite part, of course, were the catacombs, with skulls presiding over the top of each tomb and an extensive ossuary. We also climbed the Torre dos Clérigos, from the top of which we could see all of Porto, from its waterside with its famous bridges to its red roofed buildings and lush green parks.
On our penultimate day we went surfing, which was great fun and then went straight on a tour of the Churchill’s Port company, where we also got to taste a selection of the ports ranging from white to ruby to vintage tawny. Tawny comes from the wine ageing in smaller barrels and therefore losing some of its rich red colour. This is where Luciano broke his four year abstinence. For those of you that don’t know; four years ago Luciano contracted an abscess in his liver the size of a melon. If it had burst he would have died. After lots of tests and cancer scares, it turned out to have been caused by a parasite living in his liver called fasciola hepatica. It’s a parasite that lives in water near where sheep graze and can come from the contaminated water itself or vegetables it has been grown in. It must have been picked up while we had travelled in Nepal or Indonesia. Thankfully he has made a full recovery, but in the words of his consultant, his liver now looks like a ‘Swiss cheese’. While he is now allowed to drink, he got used to not drinking and never went back apart from an occasional medicinal sip of brandy. But he couldn’t resist trying some of the samples of aged port and had a hangover the next day to show for it!
The next morning we set sail for the ‘Venice of Portugal’, which is Aveiro. The marinas are pretty tight and shallow all the way up the river to the city itself, plus the bridges make one of the marinas impossible to enter for a boat of our height. Instead, we anchored closer to the mouth of the river at a spot called São Jacinto, a small beach resort about 8km from Aveiro and connected to Aveiro by regular ferries and connecting buses. Before we left Porto I had suddenly glanced down at my legs in my shorts and noticed they were covered in spots. I thought at the time it must be heat rash, but as we arrived at the anchorage I suddenly felt very ill and feverish. The rash had spread and intensified. I searched my medical bible, Google, and found that a rash with a fever in an adult can be cause for alarm and a doctor must be seen quickly. We have at least four medical kits on our boat. I searched every one of them, but none of them contained that rather basic medical tool - the thermometer. This left only one option - the cat thermometer. Luckily it had not been used so I had no qualms about sticking it under my tongue. Temperature was 37.4. I read that the normal temperature range for a human is 36.1-37.2 degrees, with a fever starting at 38 degrees. I wasn’t feeling any better so took my temperature again - 37.7 degrees, it was going up. The next time I took it, it was 38.1 degrees. As I was on my period and using a menstrual cup, I was now convinced that I was suffering from Toxic Shock Syndrome, that rapid onset and deadly bacterial infection that if not treated in a timely manner can lead to limb amputations and death. It is what every teenage girl is warned about during the tampon talk and I had never forgotten it. The prime symptoms are a widespread rash and a fever.
I told Luciano I needed to see a doctor right now; by this time it was dark. He set about pumping up the dinghy. Somehow he managed to pump up the dinghy and get the outboard engine into it on his own. The outboard engine for the dinghy lives bolted onto the stern, or back of our boat. It usually requires a complicated pass the parcel to get it down the ladder and then into the wobbly dinghy. Drop it in the water and you have lost the whole engine! As we motored over to the shore we saw a ferry was coming so we had to idle among the little fishing boats until it passed, next we saw a little jetty where we could get out, but as we got closer, we saw there were a group of people night fishing from there and we couldn’t risk getting the propeller caught in their fishing lines. Finally we were at the end of the harbour and found ourselves caught in between two fishing boats, both with lines stretching to the shore. We were trapped in the narrow gap between them without space to turn around or we would get our propeller caught. Panicking, Luciano turned off the engine and lifted the propeller out of the water. We then had to use the paddles to try to move out of the tight space and grab the lines to pull ourselves along backwards. Eventually we made it out and back towards the jetty where we found a small space to get out. Luciano asked a passing fisherman if there was a doctor in the town. He told us to go to a local restaurant to ask. They said there was no doctor, but there was a pharmacy. We walked there, but it was closed. We walked back again to see if there were any ferries to Aveiro but they were finished for the night. Luciano found a group of locals near the ferry port and they gave him the Portuguese equivalent of the NHS 111 helpline. They asked a lot of questions and told us to go to the hospital and which one to go to. When we arrived they would already have a report of all the questions and answers we had given over the phone. But there was another problem. Everyone said we wouldn’t get a taxi at that time. We tried Uber and had no luck. We decided I wasn’t going to die that night and could get to the hospital in Aveiro the next morning when the ferries were running again.
I woke up the next day after a lie-in, feeling almost completely back to normal; the rash had faded and I took my temperature again and it was 36.3 degrees. I just had a minor headache which I treated with paracetamol. Maybe it had just been a heat rash after all. We took the ferry and bus to Aveiro. Aveiro is a really beautiful little town, we arrived by the canal front with all of the beautifully decorated boats. Unfortunately it was absolutely pouring with rain so we couldn’t do a boat trip. We looked at some beautifully tiled buildings; and best of all, a gorgeous little church covered completely inside and out with blue, white and yellow tiles, just stunning. Unfortunately the rain did mar our time there a little. We hid in a café for a short time before heading back to the boat. Unfortunately, that evening I started shivering. I thought it was the effect of being out in the rain. But I looked down at myself and saw that the rash had spread from my legs and feet to all over my back, torso, arms, hands and neck and was bright red. My temperature was rising again. My eyes were bloodshot, another symptom of TSS and my hands and feet were swollen and joints in my hand aching. We were in the same predicament as yesterday as it was by now night again and the ferries would have stopped running. We decided to wait till the morning and then do a day sail to Figueira da Foz and stay at a marina and visit a hospital there to get it checked out. We hadn’t planned to visit Figueira da Foz, a touristy beach resort; we had wanted to do a night sail and get all the way to Nazaré or Peniche. We were aware the wind was soon going to be changing direction and big waves were forecast for Tuesday, when we wanted to get to Lisbon. However, we realised it was sensible as I was too ill to do a night sail and where we were was too remote.
The following morning I was again feeling better and we sailed to Figueira da Foz. We got our berth and took a taxi to the hospital. We didn’t have to wait too long to be triaged. I was given a yellow wristband. This was an encouraging sign. The poster on the wall said yellow was urgent which should mean a wait of only an hour. I looked around me, only one other person had a yellow wristband and she was called in to see the doctor after only a few minutes. Everyone else around me had a green wristband which meant a little urgent with a two hour wait. The time of triage was just before six in the evening. Seven and a half hours later we had managed a quick chat with the doctor and I had given urine and some blood samples. We were still waiting. I couldn’t believe that this was a longer wait than in England where it is usually about five hours. One man in a green wristband finally left with his diagnosis and prescription at 1.00 am. He had been there since 2.30pm. Luckily I had a yellow wristband! All this time we couldn’t eat or drink because of having to wear a mask. We didn’t want to go outside the building to eat or drink in case we missed my name being called and I wanted Luciano there as he could translate for me. As had been the case the previous two evenings, I had been feeling much worse than in the daytime, temperature increasing and rash intensely itchy and covering my entire body. I had been sitting in a chair for more than seven hours and had developed a stomach ache. I asked for paracetamol but they wouldn’t give it to me as they said it was my fault for not eating or drinking. When Luciano dared to politely ask how much longer it would take, he was shouted at. Eventually they declared that I had had an allergy to something I had eaten and gave me a prescription. As we went to go and pay (thanks Brexiters!) I suddenly felt like I was going to pass out. I lay on the reception floor and then realised I still had the needle and connector in my arm from the blood samples. Still feeling faint, I went back to the treatment room to have it removed. At the doorway I passed out and was caught by two nurses. They sat me in a chair and started taking my blood pressure, but I felt sick and pulled it off, running for the bathroom. On my way there I felt faint again and vomited several times in a bag a nurse gave me. They then decided they were going to keep me in overnight for observation. No one told Luciano anything that had happened to me, despite me asking them to and he wasn’t allowed back to the treatment area. Eventually he tried to sneak back and was caught by a security guard who persuaded the nurse to speak to him. He had to go home and get some sleep as he hadn’t slept in the last few nights.
I was desperate to lie down in a bed, rather than be forced to sit in an uncomfortable chair. However, this bed was so small that in order to stretch out my legs, I had to put my feet protruding out of the metal bars at the end on either side of the clipboard. I also had one arm attached to an intravenous drip and the other arm permanently attached to a blood pressure monitor. I couldn’t turn over on either side because of this. I was one of many patients lying in one of these beds in the corridor. The patient in front of me was very elderly and clearly in pain or distressed as they spent the whole night moaning. Every few hours I was woken up by the nurses taking my blood pressure. The next morning I was seen by the doctor who told me that my blood pressure was still low but in the normal range and she was going to discharge me. I was given a list of four medications to buy and told to go back to the doctor if I didn’t start to improve in the next two to three days. I started the medications today, so fingers crossed they will work. We are embarking Sunday morning on a 24 hour sail straight to Lisbon. We should arrive on Monday morning in time to avoid the big waves coming.