“Don’t Afraid”: My Terrifying Appendectomy in a Po-dunk Ukrainian Hospital
August 7, 2012
Part 1: My intimate moment with Babushka and the hospital of death
Eight years ago this week I went to visit my friend, Pasha, in Ukraine. This memory became more dear to me last fall after Pasha passed away. I did everything in my power to help get his body back from Chicago, where he was when he died, back to his family in Kiev. Many expressed surprise that I was going to such great lengths to help them out. After reading this account (I combined my emails to friends about the incident, my journal entries and included a few post facto annotations) I’m sure you will understand why the Makarevsky family will always have a special place in my heart.
I was living in Moscow at the time and decided to slip down to Kiev for a few weeks to visit my friend Pasha and to check out this beautiful homeland he always spoke of. I arrived and we spent a few days exploring Kiev, Pasha translated everything for me because I still didn’t speak Russian all that well at this point. I was especially excited for our trip to Pasha’s dacha in the countryside outside of Cherkassy, about three hours south of Kiev. We arrived in the dacha and Pasha and I went out for a walk, where we saw people out walking their goats or the cows, fetching water from their wells and so on. I tell you that so you can know how quaint and rural this place was.
The first night at the dacha at about 1 am I started to feel a horrible pain in my side. Pasha’s family had been feeding me like they were planning to make fois gras out of my liver, so I thought maybe it was just indigestion. But when I woke in the morning the pain was still there and even worse. The next morning I tried as best I could to decline breakfast explaining that I didn’t feel well, but they of course made me eat. The plan was to go visit Pasha’s grandmother in the town and I tried to be a polite guest and go along with the plan. But as I was sitting in the back of their van and we were driving over the bumpy road, Pasha’s mom looked back to see my pale, sweating face, grimmacing from pain. She asked, “Janey are you alright?” I burst into tears and explained that my stomach REALLY hurt.
We got to Pasha’s grandmother’s house. I tried again to be a polite guest as they introduced me to her. They explained to Grandma that my stomach was hurting me and she asked, as a good Grandma does, “Do you need something to eat?”. No. After the crowd talked amongst themselves (I was in too much pain to try and understand Russian at this point) Grandma went to the kitchen and made me some murky green concoction to drink. I drank it. It tasted, what I’m assuming those ‘pies’ we used to make in the back yard with mud and grass and weeds tasted like, but I can’t be sure because I never ate one.
I don’t remember all the specifics of this time at Grandma’s house. But one moment was very memorable. The green drink didn’t help and I was still literally WRITHING in pain on the floor, flailing from side to side, sweat pouring down my forehead and clutching my abdomen. Everyone crowded around me, not knowing what to do for me. Grandma got an idea of something else we could try. Pasha, started to try and translate what this was that was going to happen to me (I say ‘happen’ because I did not play an active role in this). He kept trying to think of the word for this in English, but couldn’t think of it (I would have been very curious if he did know this word in English). Finally, Pasha just kind of giggled, gave up on translating and said, “Just go with my grandma”.
I went to the bathroom with Grandma. She said something to me in Russian that I didn’t understand, while gesturing a shoving something motion, then a clenching of fists and a squinty face, followed by the run, run gesture and the word tualet (toilet).
Grandma then had me pull my pants down, bent me over and gave me an……Ohhhhhhhhhh, so that’s the word he couldn’t think of,…. enema.
When I emerged from the bathroom I felt like virgins must feel in cultures where the wedding party waits outside the honeymoon suite while the couple consumates their marriage, and the couple is then expected to emerge victorious. Except Grandma and I were not victorious. Yes, we had exchanged a very intimate moment, but to no avail. The pain was getting stronger and stronger. Everyone was discouraged, because if the klisma hadn’t worked then they didn’t know what to do. Pasha, giggling, asked, “So how do you say that in English?”
Finally, they resorted to calling a doctor. The problem was that I am a foreigner and with socialized medicine the system is under no obligation to help me. So Pasha’s family came up with a plan to pass me off as a Ukrainian. This was particularly hilarious because I didn’t speak Russian and I didn’t have any Ukrainian documents. They told me just to answer yes or no and not try and say anything else, because my accent would give me away. I was supposed to just act like I was in so much pain that I couldn’t speak.
The doctor arrived, poked and prodded my stomach and quickly came to the conclusion that it was my appendix and that I needed to go to the hospital right away. They called an ambulance for me. The ambulance was essentially a moving van. The back of the van contained a small bucket with a dirty rag in it, a stool, which Pasha sat on and an office chair on wheels for me. The ambulance raced, as it should, to the hospital. But every time the ambulance would turn a corner I would roll all around the back clutching at my side in excrutiating pain.
We arrived at the hospital. The problem was that it was a Saturday. For anyone who is travelling to Ukraine and has the miraculous ability to control when they fall horribly ill, I strongly advise you to not get sick on the weekends. I guess, in parts of Ukraine, the good hospitals are closed on Saturdays (still not sure how that works). So we had to go to THIS hospital.
I later found out that there is a saying in this town about their hospitals, “In Cherkassy there are three hospitals: one where you go to get better, one where you go to survive and one where you go to die.”
And it was only the third one that was open on Saturdays.
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