Mavilde, body and soul nurse

The life of Nurse Mavilde Melo is deeply linked to the Hospital Colónia Rovisco Pais (HCRP), as this place is part of her memories and that of several family members who developed and develop professional activities there. When she was placed at the HCRP, her sister Isabel, had already worked there for about five years, also as a nurse.


Then, she met her future husband there, having lived in employees neighborhood for eight years, at a time that coincided with her children’s childhood, and recalls that “[…] the houses were great and the environment too. Here in the Tocha, there were few houses like we had. There were two to four bedroom houses. Each one had their own garden, cared for by gardeners … It was nice to live in the neighborhood”.


Unraveling the memories of a professional life entirely linked to nursing, Nurse Mavilde started by referring to the training she did in Coimbra, to then lead us on a “journey” through the different areas of action, within the broad HCRP.


She graduated from the Dr. Ângelo da Fonseca School of Nursing, while he was still working at the Hospitals of the University of Coimbra. She took the Nursing Assistant Course in 1967 and the General Nursing Course in 1976.


She started working at HCRP on April 1, 1967 as a Nursing Assistant. She already knew the environment and the type of patients that his sister passed to her. At the time, the HCRP understood that it needed nurses permanently at the Preventory and Nursery, but it was difficult to find staff. “There was only one colleague who was willing to go there, but the family did not leave because of the stigma of the disease”.


Nurse Mavilde worked at the Preventory and Nursery until 1969. The team was permanent and the hospital nurses could only go on weekends or if necessary.
Children who were born at the HCRP were sent to the daycare center. They even had thirteen babies, under one year old, simultaneously, and had to take care of them and feed them. When they reached the age of one, they moved to another room, and so on until school age, that is, around the age of 6-7 years, when they moved to the Preventory and started attending the primary school there.


In Preventory there were healthy children who came from outside the HCRP, and were placed there when their parents were hospitalized. Young children stayed in a separate quarantine dormitory for a while. Age was variable, sometimes there were younger children, three or four years old.

In an initial phase, the children of the Preventory and Nursery received visits from their parents at the “locutório”, a room attached to the entrance of the hospital. Later, when the “locutório” started to be used for article store, he remembers “[…] to pass and see the children and their mothers, outside on the porches”.


At the Preventory and Nursery, nurses took care of babies and children, carrying out all types of pediatric nursing activities. “When I went there were 120 children, it was no joke. They fell, hurt themselves, it was time to make the dressings, give drops, vaccines… It was authentic pediatrics, there were no serious diseases, but we had everything – tonsil surgery, otolaryngologist, dentist… ”recalls Nurse Mavilde, adding that the doctors at the Hospital were there and that he remembers well the general clinic consultations of Dr. Julião Pinto, who was an excellent doctor, and pediatrics Dr. Santos Bessa.


In 1972, Nurse Mavilde asked for a transfer to the area of hospital to better combine schedules and chores of wife and mother. It was placed in the Family Center nº 4, which consisted of houses with a garden, where families of the sick lived, who, being workers, developed paid activities for the hospital – they were gardeners, masons, carpenters, etc. At the Family Center, Nurse Mavilde was accompanying resident families and in her office she treated wounds, made dressings, administered injections and other medication, measured temperatures, among other tasks. In the afternoon, activities were carried outdoors with patients, such as embroidery and knitting.


With regard to agricultural activities and a school in the interior of the HCRP, she said that there was milk production, there was a dairy and pigsties with many pigs, as well as orchards and cornfields. Most of the tasks were performed by farm workers, from the hospital itself, but in the pigsties they also worked sick.

About the work done by the patients, she describes that there was a small house where the Secretariat of Patients worked, and that was located next to the pavilions that are currently occupied by APPACDM – Portuguese Association of Parents and Friends of the Mentally Disabled Citizen. There, the hours worked by the patients were carried out so that they could be paid through the Hospital’s funds. The head of this Secretariat was also a professor at the Adult School, existing at HCRP.


Gradually the houses of the Family Centers became empty. The patients were discharged or became older, and at that time they started to have mobility difficulties or needed continued care, so they moved to the Hospital.


However, in 1973, Nurse Mavilde was placed in the Hospital building, and there she spent a long time working in the operating room, where surgical interventions were performed every week. Her sister also worked there for a long time, and as she had a specialization in obstetric nursing, she performed several births.


In the Hospital building, Nurse Mavilde felt that “[…] the responsibility grew, but the functions performed were more attractive…. The existing clinical activity covered several medical specialties: dermatology, ophthalmology, orthopedics, psychiatry, gynecology, obstetrics, otolaryngology, radiology […].”Among the doctors who worked there, mention the orthopedist Dr. Aguiar Melo, the radiologist Dr. Vítor Carvalheiro and the psychiatrist Dr. Silva Marques, who were at the Hospital until later.


Regarding what she liked most about her professional experience at HCRP, Nurse Mavilde said with great enthusiasm: 

“I really liked the work in the area of surgery…” – and described “the magnificent operating room” there, with “a room all lined with marble” “where interventions of all kinds were carried out: both hysterectomy and a hernia operation… it was what was needed.” Because, she said: “When I came here, there were about 900 patients, well in so many patients there were many health problems… There were many operations on the stomach, many amputations… that was horrible, I didn’t like anything, they cost me.” She also mentioned the existence of “many reconstructive surgeries in which Dr. Veiga Vieira, who already had the specialty of plastic surgery, treated leg ulcers, taking tissue from one side to place on the wounds”. And she adds: “it almost always worked, especially in the youngest, although it was a long process”. And she did not remember interventions to the face, but recalled that an occasion “reconstructed a nose to a patient”.


Prof. Bissaya Barreto also operated there and was at least twice in interventions performed by him. “They said he was very demanding”.


In the Hospital building, she mentioned the existence of the laboratory, on the 1st floor, where about six analysts and an assistant worked. The chief was called Dr. Fausta. In addition to the numerous patient analyzes, they also carried out analyzes on employees and their children. The physiotherapy section operated on the ground floor, but did not have much activity while she working at the hospital.

Hospital admissions were motivated by the type of leprosy, the injuries and the conditions in which the patients lived. “In the hospital, there were patients with various types of leprosy. There was a guy who was less contagious, but many patients were maimed and they poor people were not able to, so they went to the HCRP. What would become of them? ” – but “there were also, in the Tocha region, many people with the disease who made their lives abroad and who never had to be hospitalized”, explains Nurse Mavilde. Regarding this reality, Nurse Mavilde, who sometimes went urgently to seek patients for hospitalization, recalled one of the episodes she experienced: “Once I was tasked with picking up a patient at home, in the Castelo Branco area. It was Sunday, there were no drivers and so I went in an ambulance with my husband, who was also an employee at HCRP. Her house was dug out of a rock, she lived alone, and there nobody touched her. She was bedridden and the clothes… poor thing… it was a misery. We arrived at the hospital with the patient and it was already dusk – colleagues still bathed her. But I learned later, when she returned to work, that the patient had died. ” and goes on to say – “we went to other places and the homes of the sick were very poor… without water and without any conditions and with that disease… that was one of the reasons why they removed many sick from it home.”


The disease was treated with ampoules and pills. “Later on, there was already Rifadin and this is the one that came to cure leprosy!” Before that, patients took some pills, once a day, whose purpose also presupposed that they were no longer contagious. “Samples were taken regularly and after three consecutive negative analyzes, they were allowed to go home. The problem is that some neglected the treatment abroad, and that is why they were contagious again”. Each patient was different, and there were cases where it was more difficult to get negative analyzes.

Regarding the existence of possible contagions to employees, Nurse Mavilde said that “no employee ever caught the disease… Farmers, for example, eat with the sick and fortunately there was never any contagion. It was a wrong idea, so Covid-19 was now, which is often not even evident if the person is infected. In leprosy, the contagion was immediately apparent, it was seen on the face and hands and that caused dread. ”

At first, when she went to work for the hospital, the director instructed them to open the doors with the gowns. In fact, initially there was more care: they used gloves and often washed their hands with blue soap and water. But, “over time we got used to it and it wasn’t as bad as it seemed… It was all done with tweezers… and there were no fears to change the patients either. I no longer had any problems with this. ”

From the time she was at the hospital she kept several memories of the patients. She readily shared that: 

“There was a patient who marked me a lot! She was a 33-year-old patient with kidney problems and at the time there was no dialysis, no transplants like today. We did what we could. She had three children … Even today, I often remember and pray for them. I remember her… I think she was called Odete, with three little children on her side… It was not the custom to let her children in, with the sick, but this time her father would bring them and let us go and say goodbye to her… That was the part that shocked me the most … We had several patients who died with kidney problems, that one marked more because of her age, and for being a mother of three children’s.The death of kidney patients was terrible … Kidney problems affected several patients and became much worse due to medication”.


After the 25th of April 1974, many patients left, and the prospect of some buildings being reused for other purposes, was motivating the patients to join, moving them now to the Asylum, now to the Hospital. However many of them were getting older, some were bedridden and by the end there were no appointments at the Hospital. The sick went to Coimbra.

Nurse Mavilde retired in 2001. In addition to the HCRP, she also worked, on vacation, at Health Centers in Figueira da Foz, in Quiaios, Alhadas and Bom-Sucesso, in Tocha and Cantanhede. In this area, she says that on one occasion, there was a visit from the Minister of Health, and she was asked for a nurse for the Tocha Health Center. Having been appointed for this purpose, Nuese Mavilde created the Maternal and Child Health Service at the Tocha Health Center. But, as she says, only accepted with an agreement to continue at HCRP for half a time, as she “did not want to leave the Hospital”.

Regarding the strong connection to the Hospital and the reasons inherent to Nurse Mavilde, she says: 

“I really enjoyed being at the hospital, because it worked differently there, it was enough to have the operating room that gave us another dimension of what our nursing was”. There, “I enriched my training, my course, more than a colleague in another hospital, in a single specialty… it was enough the fact that I had [in the HCRP] all the specialties… I didn’t exchange my experience for theirs.” And she added: “I have always loved my profession and I have always been very close to the patients. Now I’m not going there anymore because it shocks me a lot… there are already few patients.”


(Text based on oral testimony, in 2020, validated by the interviewee. Interview and writing by Cristina Nogueira – CulturAge)