Elias, nursing on wheels

Elias Paiva graduated from the School of Nursing Dr. Ângelo da Fonseca in Coimbra, in 1964. He was in the troop in Vila Franca de Xira until 1968 and after having worked at the University of Coimbra Hospitals, he started working at the Hospital Colónia Rovisco Pais, in 1969.


At that time, recalls nurse Elias, people lived in terrible conditions and with great promiscuity. Leprosy, as it was known, frightened many people.

At the Hospital Colónia Rovisco Pais, recalls, he still found some signs of fear of contagion. Some doctors opened the doors with the gowns and did not touch the patients. And when they had to make the “doll”, it was the nurses who “raised the shirt to the sick”. Even patients withdrew when someone tried to approach to greet them, so there was great admiration when Raoul Follereau visited the Hospital and approached the patients, greeting them. 


Gloves were not worn and they were taught to wash their hands. All staff were instructed to wash their hands frequently. But, he does not remember any employee who was infected.

The nursing offices were located in the hospital building and in the pavilions of Santa Lúzia and São Vicente. Doctors and nurses went to other pavilions and centers when they were called. At night, some nurses, scaled, made the rounds of the pavilions. Many patients came from the immediate vicinity of the hospital, and so they fled at dusk. The nurse Elias had sometimes noticed that the patients were not lying down, but he preferred not to report them so that they would not be “arrested”, instead he tried to have a conversation with them when they returned in the morning.


The sick, who were able, could work and earn some money. The remuneration was not high, as the Hospital already provided them with food and assistance, but many wanted work to earn some money. This dynamic helped to keep them active and for Hospital Colónia to remain self-sufficient. There was production of milk, meat, potatoes, beans, etc.

From the assistance point of view, the Hospital ensured follow-up in several medical specialties (dermatology, stomatology, orthopedics, obstetrics, etc.). The surgical interventions performed there were numerous and sometimes complex. For these services, several doctors came from Coimbra.

The assistance action of Hospital Colónia Rovisco Pais extended to the whole country, through brigades composed of doctors, nurses and social workers and home nursing services, which since 1961 have covered almost all districts.


In 1970, he was assigned to the Home Nursing Service in the Algarve where he was for seven years. In this service, he followed the approximately one hundred and forty leprosy patients, identified by the brigades or on discharge, after being admitted to the Hospital Colónia Rovisco Pais. His mission included visiting all patients, in cyclical periods of fifteen days. Sometimes he traveled by motorcycle almost 100 kilometers a day, to collect samples that he sent to the laboratory, to administer the injectable medication (sulfone), to fill the daily bulletin with the clinical, economic and social conditions of the patients. He treated the sick as friends, always compartmentalizing them. As some worked, he avoided visiting them during working hours so that they would not be rejected by society. I ended up doing work on Saturday and Sunday too. From those times, remember some stories.


One day, he was going to visit a patient who appeared to him crying. The lady sharing that she had a lot of difficulties in being able to go to her and get the injection because she was married and had not told her husband about the disease, afraid that he would reject it. She begged her to go for oral treatment. And so, with the authorization of the clinical director, the patient started to receive the pills. Years later, he would meet this patient again in one of the rocket brigades they made, once a quarter. On that occasion she said that her husband already knew the truth and that he had not abandoned her.

After 1974, and following the 25th of April, the Hospital Colónia Rovisco Pais, which in recent decades has been granting more and more discharge, started to avoid making new hospitalizations.

One day, in 1976, during one of the home visits in Algoz, near Silves, he knew the existence of a patient who lived in great suffering. Its tent was made of clay and the bed consisted of a blanket over a metallic structure. He lived in subhuman conditions and the clinical situation was very worrying. Then Elias started several steps to relocate him or take him to the Hospital. First with the Health Delegate of Silves, who showed him a warehouse full of people sleeping on the floor. 



He also appealed to the Faro Health Delegate, the firefighters and, as he was unable to get any support, and could not be admitted to another hospital, he took him in a taxi, from Silves to Tocha, where other fellow nurses working at Hospital Colónia Rovisco Pais o received and cared for. He paid the taxi driver a thousand escudos out of his pocket and faced disciplinary proceedings for having a new patient admitted to the Hospital, but ended up having no major consequences because the patient died about a month later. He did not regret it. It comforted him that the patient had spent the last days of his life with other conditions at that hospital.they made, once a quarter. On that occasion she said that her husband already knew the truth and that he had not abandoned her.



In 1977, he returned to the Tocha and continued to practice at Hospital Colónia Rovisco Pais. After some time, the patients ended up being discharged and left, but returned a few months later, because that was in hospital they felt good. He accompanied them until he retired in 2007, and then went to visit them regularly and maintained a friendly relationship with them.
He believes that it was thanks to the assistance they received from that hospital that some patients and former patients lived for so many years.


When he stopped being a nurse, the ex-patients, who still lived there, wrote him a letter whose reading still touches him. The sick said he was like a brother to them. And, he still says today: “I really enjoyed working there. I feel like I was a nurse there! ”


“The only pity is that this great work and its mentor, Prof. Bissaya Barreto, who has done so much for the district of Coimbra, are still not properly recognized.”




(Based on oral testimony, in 2020. Interview and writing by Cristina Nogueira – CulturAge)