[dropcap size=small]I[/dropcap]t all started with a very greasy piece of chicken I ate at lunch in the home for otherwise homeless mothers where I work. If I had been smarter, I wouldn’t have eaten it. But I did. A few hours later, in the middle of the night, I began to throw up. And a few hours after that, the next morning, I was in the Novosibirsk Infection Hospital — the city’s oldest hospital and, consequently, an architectural landmark.
It’s worth noting exactly how I got into the hospital, because admittance into a Russian hospital happens more easily than, I suspect, admittance into an American hospital does. Probably, if I wanted to, I could sign myself into the hospital right now with nothing more to complain of than a faint ringing in my toes. Yes, an American hospital would let me in with such a small complaint, too, but only because they fear a lawsuit. A Russian hospital would simply be happy to have me.
After vomiting all night, I needed dehydration salts, and so I called Tanya, the organization’s Russian-German translator, and my friend. She was, when I called her, sitting at her desk exactly two floors below my bedroom. A few minutes later, Tanya came into my room with the salts from a pharmacy, took a look at me, and said, “Let me call a doctor.”
“I don’t need a doctor,” I said.
“No, you look really bad. I’m worried,” Tanya said.
“No really,” I said.
And like this we argued for a few minutes until I gave in. Tanya was worried, and in Russia doctors make house calls, something that all Russian language textbooks will note. But instead of calling a doctor, Tanya called an ambulance driver. She, the driver, looked me over, pressed down on my stomach in a variety of places, and asked me all sorts of questions. I only realized that she was a paramedic, and not just a doctor paying a visit, until she told me to get in the ambulance.
“Why?” I asked Tanya.
“The doctor is at the hospital,” Tanya said.
“It hurts to move,” I said.
“Better go to the hospital then,” said the paramedic-driver. And the three of us left.
Nurses and doctors prodded me some more at the hospital. One old nurse took me into a separate room, told me to take off my pants, and then told me to spread my butt cheeks so she could do something that vaguely hurt. That whole ordeal took a while, because I’ve never come across, either in reading, or on television, or in life, the Russian words for “spread your butt cheeks.” Eventually I got it. And in case you are a Russian language enthusiast, too, I’ll tell you how. “Raz” is the Russian root for “divide,” “break-up,” “set apart,” and anything of the sort. High school literature teachers will almost always tell this to their Crime and Punishment-reading students, because Raskolnikov is a divided man. Well “raz” doesn’t just appear in Dostoevsky.
Prodding accomplished, I got up from the wax-paper covered bed to leave and go home, and go back to my bed in my room of the small volunteer quarters in the large Catholic orphanage-mother’s home-kids’ club-monastery-central of west Siberia operating office compound.
“They’ll tell what room you’re in upstairs,” the doctor told me.
“I’m staying?” I asked Tanya.
“Just in case,” she said. “Don’t worry, I’ve stayed in the hospital dozens of times. It’s normal here.” And she carried my backpack upstairs, and help me put the covers on my bed. “Father Gracien will pick you up when you get out,” she said. And then she said good-bye, and I told her thank-you. I did not exactly want to be in the hospital, but more than that, I didn’t want to be sick and alone, and because of Tanya (though others would have stepped in to her place, had I not gone to Tanya first) I wasn’t alone. And because of Tanya, even after she left to go back to work, I still wasn’t alone. Up on the second floor where the patients slept, doctors and nurses bustled in and out of rooms, watching carefully. A plump, pink-lipsticked, supremely competent-looking woman stuck an IV in me –“It will hurt a little — there you go. Good job,” she said. And I slept until night.
The next day passed in a fever-haze. My parents and my boyfriend called at strict twelve-hour intervals. The other three beds in the room filled with other girls my age with food poisoning. The nurse glared at me every time she took my temperature, only to find that it had not gone down. But then my temperature did go down, and she continued to glare. There is a certain iciness Russians wear. One day, when I finally tip over the fed-up-with-it-point, I’ll ask, “Why can’t you just be nicer, perkier, more pleasant to be around?” But, probably, the question won’t translate. And then you and I will never know the reason.
Thrice a day an old woman in a dress and kerchief straight out of Tolstoy’s romanticizations of peasants came with a cart of food. Life — her life spanning from the heyday of the USSR through its slow crumble through the strange period in the 90s when just Russia, once again, came to be, to up until now — had grizzled her. So I suspected that she enjoyed poking her head into the Devooshkas (young women) with food poisoning room, and seeing our normal blood and milk selves absolutely decimated. “Tea?” she asked. “Fish?”
And somehow I ended up with the fish in front of me, eating with a nice 25-year-old who had already been in the hospital four days. She picked up her spoon. “This is a very Russian hospital,” she said. “We’ve always considered forks and knives unnecessary… Some of the fancier schools have forks and knives in their cafeterias now, but when I went to school, we ate everything with a spoon.”
Here is Russia’s great cultural treasure. Yes, there is Swan Lake and Crime and Punishment, and lots of mathematical, scientific, and literary theoretic achievements that academics in those areas, I’m sure, get very excited about. But for the rest of us, what Russian culture can give and teach, is that being a person is a rather unglamorous affair. My greasy hair in the hospital reached the stage of greasiness where the scalp itches, but no matter. Most Russians consider nothing uncouth.
I had already known about spoons. The kids in the orphanage don’t even see a fork or knife until the age of ten. But it was very nice of the girl to explain.
Health returned the next day. I gnawed on some bread at breakfast. I laughed on the phone with my parents and my boyfriend. The ice-nurse came in with an anti-vomit shot for me, and I informed her that I absolutely did not need it.
“Hello, my beauties!” the head doctor said, stepping energetically in her high-heels into the room. The newest patient, still strapped to an IV, didn’t even wake. Another girl lifted her head from her pillow briefly, and then let it fall back down. This girl had come unprepared with no change of underwear, and her rinsed-out thong was drying on the windowsill. Russian women wear thongs like the Maori tattoos. My friend Katya looked up politely, and I stepped out of bed and said, “Doctor, I’m ready to go home.”
But her (the head doctor’s) energy, doctor-ness, and high-heels soon overpowered me. Within two minutes I was back in bed, nodding, saying “Da, da, da, I completely agree. I’ll stay here and rest a few more days.” Yes, a few more days. When the doctor, Elena Sergeevna, left, Katya had to explain something that, unlike the spoons, I hadn’t been prepared for.
“Remember signing the paper when you came in,” Katya said. “You signed yourself over to the care of the staff here, and they are generally very, very cautious. I’ve been well for a few days already, but I’m not leaving until Saturday.”
Yikes. So I lay in bed. I sweat. My hair became greasier. I read a novel as slow as I could manage, and counted down the minutes until designated phone calls. My mom called that night three minutes early. “What a nice surprise!” I said, truly overjoyed. The next day passed similarly, but the day after that (with still over 24 hours hospital time remaining) something snapped. I had been reading “A Winter’s Tale,” and I’m sorry to say it, but Shakespeare had provided no spiritual support.
Not even light entertainment. I couldn’t focus on the words — all I could think about was my itchy scalp and getting out.
“Elena Sergeevna,” I said, bursting into her office, “I’m healthy. Lying (because that is the word Russians use, and it’s true to life. One doesn’t sit, or walk around in a hospital. One lies.) in the hospital just as a precaution is not my custom.”
“Your body needs to rest,” she said, getting up from her chair and beginning to look more intimidating than ever. “We have a harsh climate (it was then the middle of winter). Perhaps you worked too much, ran around the street too much in the cold. And because of that you got sick. Lying in the hospital is good for you. Relax,” she said. “Go back to bed.”
“No, really,” I said, turning apologetic. “I’ve learned my lesson. I need to rest more, do less. And when I go back home, I will do nothing more than lie in bed for the next four days, but I want to take a shower.”
Then, she said okay. She signed me out, called my organization and said they could pick me up whenever.
A few minutes later I got a call from Tanya. “You really need to rest,” she said. And that was that. The Russian rest-centered conception of health beat my use-it-or-lose-it, get-sh*t-done American sensibility. And the worst was, I had to go back to Elena Sergeevna, and explain that I was staying the night because my organization wanted me to rest more. “It’s not going to hurt you,” she said.
I had lost, but my rebellion sparked three more among my now uniformly better roommates. One-pair-of-underwear girl argued with Elena for a while, then called her boyfriend and told him to wait in the car outside the hospital, and then just left, without her release papers. Another girl, after more arguing, succeeded in getting her release papers because she had a son to breastfeed at home. And Katya, though she would stay until Saturday, did get to leave the hospital for a time that night to go to the movies with her husband.
Father Gracien and Tanya came, as they promised, the next day. The original pick-up time was two, but because they knew I was desperate, they changed it to ten. I skipped out. Then we went bowling.
Read Franny’s first installment detailing daily life in a Russian orphanage here.
Read Franny’s second installment, consisting of musings on the city of Novosibirsk, here.
Read Franny’s third installment about immigrant girls here.
Read Franny’s fourth installment about attempting to escape a Russian hospital here.
Read Franny’s fifth installment on sadness here.