Sunday, February 10, 2008

Russia (1)
Midnight in Moscow

It was in May of 1999, just days after the birth of my first grandson, when I participated in a social work tour of Russia and Sweden. The tour was organized by the Social Work Department of the University of South Carolina. Two friends and I, all graduate students in the School of Social Work at the University of Missouri, were able to join the tour as a part of the requirements for our Masters in Social Work (MSW) degree.

We would be leaving St. Louis on a flight to Newark where we would join up with some of the others from the tour. After another stop at Heathrow in London, we would meet the remainder of our group at the airport in Moscow.

I made a mistake at the St. Louis Airport, one that had a big impact on my trip, and one that I have been careful to never repeat. As we were preparing to check our luggage, I decided that since we were going to be enroute approximately twenty hours with two layovers, I would divest myself of as much carry-on stuff as possible. One of the items that I stowed in my checked luggage at the last moment was a bag containing all of my diabetes medicine.

The trip over was fairly uneventful. We boarded an American Airlines flight in St. Louis and were in Newark a couple of hours later. I remember noticing from the air as we neared Newark, that New Jersey had a surprising amount of farmland, not the image that I had long harbored of the Big Apple’s neighbor. Our next flight was aboard a British Airway’s jet to London. It was an elegant aircraft with superior service. As that plane pulled up out of Newark and prepared to cross the North Atlantic, we all gazed out the windows at the Manhattan skyline. I had never been to New York City, and this was to be my one and only view of the World Trade Center.

One of the people who joined our group for the flight across the Atlantic was a young psychiatric social worker from Baltimore, Michael Hyman, who would become my roommate for the remainder of the trip. At the time of this trip there were demonstrations occurring against the Yeltsin government by labor groups in Russia. A married couple that had boarded in Newark changed their plan enroute because of the unrest in Russia, and decided to stay in London.

The last leg of our journey, London to Moscow, was aboard a decrepit Aeroflot, Russia’s de facto national airline. The aircraft rattled and shook as it flew low over the farmlands of Europe. I sat next to a Russian student who had been studying in England, and he talked about some of the changes that had been occurring in his country since the fall of communism.

Our plane landed at Sheremetyevo International Airport outside of Moscow, which was small in comparison to the other airports that we had been in during the past twenty hours. The remaining portion of our group, having arrived somewhat earlier, was waiting for us at the airport.

I was long overdue on taking my diabetes pills by the time that our luggage was off-loaded. I opened my over-stuffed suitcase on a nearby bench at the airport and rooted around for my bag of medications. I soon discovered that it was not there. The leather belt that I had packed was also missing. I confided to my MU friends, Andy Cleeton and Stefanie Englebrecht, about the loss, and they located our leader from the University of South Carolina, Dr. Leon Ginsberg, and told him.

(I understood why my belt had been taken later in Moscow where the cheapest replacement that I could find was a pricey $70.00!)

As people in our group slowly began to buzz about my situation, I overheard Andy whisper to Stefanie that she hoped this incident wouldn’t ruin the trip for me. It was at that point that I knew that I would have to soldier on. Not only did I not want to spoil my own trip over this incident, I didn’t want my friends worrying about me when they should be taking in this once in a lifetime experience without unnecessary distractions.

Dr. Ginsberg paired me up with one of our young tour guides. Cornelius was from England, but he had been married to a Russian woman and spoke the language fluently. Cornelius told me that once we got to the hotel in Moscow he would take care of the situation.

The bus ride into Russia’s capital was about an hour. We passed the monument that marked the end of the Nazi advance into Russia. Hitler’s soldiers had come within mere miles of the Russian capital, but, like Napoleon’s army in the previous century, they were soon stopped by the Russian winter and then routed by the country’s fierce peasants. All history is prelude.

Our tour group stayed at a large hotel in Moscow that had built for the 1980 Olympics. The plan was for the group to attend the famous Moscow Circus that night, but my situation caused me to miss that activity. As soon as Michael and I had settled into our room, Cornelius showed up and took me to the hotel’s clinic on the sixth floor. The small clinic, actually a hotel room, was staffed by two women in white, neither of whom spoke English. Cornelius explained my situation in his flawless Russian, and one of the ladies got on the telephone to relate details to someone else.

The decision was finally made to send me to a local hospital where I could be given medications that were the “equivalent” to the ones that had been stolen from my luggage. It would take awhile for transportation to be arranged, so Cornelius took me back to my room and told me to wait there for him to return. He cautioned me in ominous tones to not leave with anyone unless he was along.

Michael and the other tour members were preparing to leave for the circus when Cornelius finally came back to my room. A lady doctor dressed in white with antique amber jewelry (very Russian!) and her female companion also showed up at about that time. The doctor checked my blood pressure. She said that it was “fast.”

We went to the hospital in an ambulance. The doctor told me, through Cornelius, that I looked worried, and I responded that I was just tired. She talked about having studied German and said that she wished she had taken English classes instead. She was also curious about how I could afford such an expensive vacation. The ambulance driver seemed to get a lot of enjoyment out of his important mission, and hit the siren at every red light. The first time he did it, the doctor barked something at him in Russian. When I asked Cornelius about it, he said that she had told the driver not to use the siren because it would scare me. He kept doing it until we reached the hospital.

The hospital was dank and dirty. We passed a group of men smoking in the entryway and made our way to a glassed in area that appeared to be some sort of small cafeteria. Several men sat around the tables talking and smoking. Cornelius told me that they were the physicians. I was taken on to a treatment room next to the cafeteria. It had two cots and a couple of chairs.

Nothing about the place looked sanitary. It had bare cement floors with walls that were a dingy yellow. Each of the windows was painted halfway up. The nurse looked like more like a streetwalker than a medical professional.

A couple of hospital doctors confronted the one from the hotel outside of the treatment room. Their discussion sounded confrontational. Cornelius translated:

My Doctor: “He’s lost his diabetes medicine. He’s sick.”
Hospital Doctor: “What do you want us to do about it?”
My Doctor: “Treat him.”
Hospital Doctor: “He looks alright to us.”
My Doctor: “Treat him.”
Hospital Doctor: “You are outside of your district.”

And so it went. While I was waiting for my fate to be decided by this less than enthusiastic group of physicians, I kept busy by observing the other man who was sharing my treatment room. Cornelius visited with him and told me that he had gastronitis. A nurse came in an gave him an injection in the rear, after which he exclaimed in Russian, “I’m cured!” He and the nurse then argued over the uselessness of the injection. I gave the man a piece of Bazooka Joe bubble gum and he offered me a drink from his juice bottle. I declined his well-meaning offer.

Somebody finally made a decision that the hospital would treat me. First they brought me a small vial of German pills. They were a mixture of pinks and whites that included whole pills and pieces of pills. Next a nurse stabbed my finger for a blood sample with what appeared to be a very used small razor blade. I was then sent to a small, smelly restroom to provide a urine sample. At about that point I was invited to spend the night in the hospital, but I passed on the offer, preferring to die at the hotel instead. At least the hotel might get my body home!

Cornelius and I discussed the situation as we left the hospital. He cautioned me to take the pills at my own peril, and promised that we would find an American clinic the next day. Outside I noticed with some alarm that our ambulance had departed during our protracted stay in the treatment room. Cornelius told me not to worry, that we would simply hitchhike back to our hotel. He said there were many owners of small cars, generally Ladas, who cruised the Moscow streets at night freelancing as taxis.

Why not, I thought. As we walked casually off into the Russian night, I whistled an old tune that had suddenly come to mind, Midnight in Moscow.

I had come to Russia to get a firsthand view of how their social services operated. While my friends from the tour watched trapeze artists and dancing bears, I had a close encounter with the Russian medical system. I learned a great deal that night and did not regret missing the circus. I was destined to visit several clinics in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and even hitchhike from one of those clinics to the Kremlin (during daylight!) on my own. My trip was not ruined by the theft of my medications, it was enhanced. I was truly able to experience Russia!

No comments: