Magazine article Russian Life

Rural Medicine: Remedies and Realities

Magazine article Russian Life

Rural Medicine: Remedies and Realities

Article excerpt

IGOR PULLED UP to the local hospital in our UAZ jeep and ran around to the passenger side to pull me out. I winced as he lifted me and carried me up the crumbling steps to the entryway. Inside, the building was dark, damp, and quiet. After some searching, Igor found a nurse, who directed us into a small room with a three-legged bathtub in the middle. Tiles were missing from the walls and the floor and one of the windowpanes was broken. Soon a man in a white smock and a tall white hat resembling that of a pizza chef came in and pointed me to a low bench in the next room.

"What happened?" he asked.

"I fell off my horse when he spooked upon seeing a snake. I hurt my hip, maybe broke it," I replied.

He kneaded the flesh around my hip as I bit my lip, trying not to scream.

"I don't think it's broken," he said, just bruised. "Let's take an X-ray just in case."

He told us to go to the X-ray room on the second floor, at the end of the hall.

Finding the elevator broken, I hopped up the stairs on Igor's arm, stifling the screams I wanted to utter with each step. I hopped all the way to the end of the dark hallway, into a large room with a gigantic X-ray machine in the middle. As I lay on the machine, the nurse disappeared and the ancient machine detonated a blast of radiation.

"It's not broken," the doctor said, looking at the developed film in the light filtering through the dirty window. Take some pain killers and stay off it for 10 days.

That was my first encounter with a rural Russian hospital. It was 1997, the year I moved to the remote village of Chukhrai to be with Igor and work in the nature reserve he then directed. Chukhrai doesn't have a hospital or even a country doctor or nurse. The next village--Smelizh, six miles down the rutted road, has a feltcher (village medic), who gives out pills and vaccines. Any greater ills require a trip to the hospital, 40 miles away. Many of my village neighbors have never been to a hospital, relying only on herbal remedies or fate.

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Luckily, except for bruising my hip, I had always been healthy and had had no reason to become acquainted with our district hospital and its staff. But, after the birth of our son Andrei in 2001, Igor and I felt that we needed to find a local doctor we could trust. So we befriended the pediatrician at the district hospital. We invited Dr. Sharov and his wife to visit us in the nature reserve, taking them on sleigh rides and introducing them to our banya (steamhouse). They were a very pleasant couple, intelligent and good-natured. Over the next couple years, Dr. Sharov would come to our house to administer vaccines or treat my son for a cold. He refused to take money and in time became a good friend of our family. We were grateful for his generosity, as he spared us trips to the hospital and waiting in long lines with our infant son. One can't make doctor appointments in Russia. You just show up, get in line, and hope to be seen that day, or the next.

I especially admired Dr. Sharov because, like many Russian doctors, he always suggested herbal and home remedies. Perhaps it was a way to avoid administering unneeded medication, or to help patients save money on drugs, or maybe he just felt home remedies were more effective. When my son's lungs were congested, the doctor had me rub salo (pig lard) on Andrei's chest until it was warm, and then wrap him in a blanket and put him to bed. When Andrei's throat hurt, Dr. Sharov recommended gargling with a chamomile infusion and chewing beeswax with pollen and honey. When his nose was stuffed up, I had him breathe over a pot of hot water with dissolved baking soda, holding a towel over his head to trap the steam. If one of us was sick, we would hang a garlic clove on our neck to ward off germs. These remedies suited me fine, as the nearest pharmacy was 40 miles away, and I was reluctant to give my son drugs when it wasn't absolutely necessary. …

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