Flip-flops: a Cautionary Tale

Not a very literary blog, but a seasonal health warning and an tribute to the NHS.

In summers in Greece I usually l wore flip flops - it was all part of the careless sun on skin lifestyle. I’d invariably get cracked heels after weeks of salt water, dust and heat. My tanned feet were sometimes sore but never more.


One evening as we were getting ready go out to dinner I felt shivery, as if I’d had too much sun. Within 30 mins I felt very ill. I started being sick, was burning hot and then had some kind of fit. My leg hurt.

I fell into restless sleep, throwing on and off covers as I alternately burned and froze and my teenage daughter tried to spoon water into my mouth. When I tried to get up to go to the bathroom, my leg would no longer hold me and I hopped along the corridor. I looked at my leg - it felt hot, was blotchy, my groin ached, I felt dreadfully sick.

In the morning we called the excellent island doctor. He came up the track to find me, was puzzled but prescribed antibiotics. He returned in the evening with his young son. He brought him along on consultations he said, to deter him from being a doctor.
My leg was purple - red and swollen, my fever was climbing. He suggested injecting the antibiotics into my breast bone - a uniquely Greek form of delivery, I think – an Athenian friend had had it for a quinsy.

‘But it is no worse than abortion, Madame ‘ he had, said, bizarrely, as she cowered from a thick long needle.

But my doctor, returning a third time, also wondered if I had a DVT - I’d been flying all over the place in the last month.

At midnight he rung a consultant on neighbouring Corfu and it was decided I needed moving to hospital immediately.

I had sometimes seen old men lying in the back of pick-up trucks, clearly very sick and being taken to the clinic. Now it was me, curled up on the back seat of an old taxi, drifting in and out of awareness as the driver travelled with infinite care down the bumpy tracks to the port.

It was 1.00 am, but the port lights were on and a small boat was waiting, and so was a small crowd of onlookers - it was all in a evening’s entertainment and Greeks have none of the reticence of the British when it comes to illness or, indeed, any form of privacy. The captain had to be paid €200, then I was lifted on to the back of the boat, followed by the GP who gave me an anti nausea injection in my bottom while the crowd sighed in sympathy.

The crossing was hell and interminable. I wanted to die and believed I might. Every lurch of the black sea was excruciating. But eventually we arrived in Corfu town, 20 miles away, and an ambulance was waiting on the quayside.

At the clinic I was put in a room with a woman with broken legs. She and her husband watched closely as the doctor gave me a thorough examination. They had opinions on my condition – none hopeful.

The television was on and would remain on throughout my stay. Dubbed Brazilian soaps, football programmes and news of provincial disasters were the order of the day. Women – with huge hair and darkly outlined lips – and images of thirteen car pile-ups blended with my feverish dreams.

Corfu Polyclinic: staffed by crooks, run by fools. So sue me.
The Polyclinic, Corfu. NOT the NHS. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

The nurses were kind: they cold sponged me and wrapped me in wet bandages. Every time I persuaded someone to turn off the television they came in brightly, all concern, to turn it on again. They even sent an electrician to check if it was faulty.

But in Greece most nursing is done by family. My drips blocked and instead of replacing them they used a syringe to try and force fluids and drugs through it. My arm swelled. The pain in my leg was excruciating- dark greyish streaks followed the course of my tender blood vessels. I struggled to remember why this was a bad sign, but knew it was. In this hospital it appeared painkillers were never given. I asked once and was given a single paracetamol as gingerly as if they were feeding an addiction.

Outside it was 90 degrees. I was thirsty but hospital water was not safe to drink, and bottled water could only be bought outside the hospital – if a visitor came to fetch it.

I was still in the teeshirt I’d arrived in and sufficiently relieved to put on the red satin nightdress, fit for a 1960’s honeymoon, which a friend eventually delivered.

Another friend brought me a furtive pack of ibuprofen. I drifted in and out of sleep with my daughter or a friend sleeping on the floor beside me or administering bedpans. As the drips didn’t drip I deteriorated.

Occasionally I would wake up enough to text home: ’I think I am very ill.’ I started making bargains with a god I hadn’t thought I quite believed in. I’d lose the leg - now fiery to touch and without feeling - if I could live.

A day or so later, driven half mad with vomiting and pain I was having fantasies about pulling myself to the sea shore and throwing myself into the cool water and ending it all. I had bitten a black bruise along my lower lip.

Eventually I started having mild heart problems. ‘No need to worry dearest lady’ said the doctor until he attached the ECG leads from something that looked like an old car battery. After reading the trace, the hospital decided it was they who should worry and it was arranged - thank heavens I was insured - that I should be flown home.

Better than the stuff at the PolyClinic, Corfu
The ECG machine... yes, I’m joking. But not by much...

In the UK I was swiftly diagnosed with septicaemia. Not only my legs but my IV site were seriously infected; my heart had been affected too. I was given heavy duty painkillers, moved to a high dependency unit. I became noisy and agitated as my oxygen levels dipped. I was so traumatised – by continual pain and fear - that I couldn’t speak for two days but in fact with the right drugs, properly administered, it was only a week later that I left hospital, with dressings on the huge black blisters on my legs.

My UK consultant said cases like mine occur every year as cracked feet are exposed to foreign pathogens to which they have no resistance. I have my leg - but it is a damaged one: scarred and with lasting lymphoedema.

No skirts nor bare legs nor gorgeous shoes for me again (the other leg is as delightful as ever). Though, yes, against all advice, I still wear flip flops. I have an abiding gratitude for the NHS: the order, the resources, the cultural conventions of nursing care and of generous pain relief.

Greeks are resilient and only a few hospitals have the facilities of an average district general hospital here; the system relies on strong family networks and knowing and soliciting the right doctor. It is their sheer robustness that makes me believe the Greeks will survive their current travails. I was not tough, I discovered, nor very stoic.

The lessons: always carry health insurance but also, the simplest of all - moisturise your feet and never ignore cuts and cracks!
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