Rush hour traffic was legendary as it was, undoubtedly, every weekday evening. Traffic flowed sluggishly and purposely like treacle from the city’s main arteries. All sorts of people sat stoically in their gleaming black Mercedes, lipstick red Audis and dusty, beat up trucks that were filled with grimy-looking laborers or possibly extras from the set of a Bruce Willis movie. Heading north on Tverskaya Street, cars and trucks alike parted ever so slightly as we approached them from behind at high speed with multiple sirens blaring. Our driver had done this so many times before that he barely flinched as he wove in and out, pressing a path through the mounting torrent of vehicles. As the ambulance hustled erratically, my daughter’s gurney would clang loudly as it hit the sides, front and back of the bench restraints. Other loosely restrained items of medical equipment and a spare tire would likewise clatter about awkwardly while the driver and his copilot fixated on tactical progress toward our destination.
Arriving very late that night at the Filatovsky Hospital, the largest Children’s hospital in Moscow and Russia, the kid was immediately whisked into a dark room, unceremoniously stripped naked, and x rayed. Through our hotel-based interpreter, at $4.00 per minute, AT&T Connect-the-World rates, the doctors told us she had acute appendicitis and needed to undergo an immediate appendectomy.
We had of course figured out that the malady was appendicitis and that an imminent operation was indeed required. However, like aspiring actors auditioning for that first big breakout role in an upcoming blockbuster it seemed that we really wanted to milk the concerned parent in a foreign country fish-out-of-water scenario. With my best Dustin Hoffman troubled-father chops, I rapidly asked all the fact-gathering questions in a stuttering machine gunfire manner. The wife’s best Meryl Streep followed up by asking many of the same questions again but more slowly and deliberately in what could otherwise have been a smoothly delivered award acceptance speech.
Our offspring went under the knife swiftly—or more precisely, laparoscopic surgery, as we call it here in America. As she went hastily from surgery to the hospital ward we began to notice that things were slightly different at the Moscow Filatovsky Hospital when compared to our other healthcare experiences in Europe and America. Naturally, hospitals can be drab and uninteresting as structures go, but this post-Stalin concrete sprawl of a building looked like an abandoned cement factory that had been used for shootouts on the Terminator movie franchise. The toilets had no seats, lids, or doors and the grimy windows needed no curtains. Burly cleaner and food babushkas looking equally grubby either mopped around resident pools of dirt or served up various shades of gray slop to hungry kids.
At night, raucous groups of children ran clumsily throughout the gulag’s corridors and large open wards without supervision or curtailment in scenes that were reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. In daytime, little Russian versions of the artful dodger, Charley Bates, Oliver, and their little comrades would go from bed to bed possibly to elude Faganovski or the big nurse with the syringe. Perhaps some anti-Putin western embargo or other imposed sanctions had somehow included oral antibiotics as part of some post-Soviet asset freeze. Even in deep discussion with the attendant doctor commissary, at $4 a minute, he insisted, in proper glasnostian disclosure, that antibiotics could be administered exclusively by injection. Cue Tatyana, the big babushka with the soviet-era syringe. And it was painful, causing numerous teen tears every morning throughout the gulag.
All in all, while quite different to what we might expect back home or in other countries, the care was effective, the caregivers were competent, and there were some smiles to be found here and there throughout the decaying public structure. Most importantly, our little teenager was repaired, good as new. The entire cost was a mere fraction of our AT&T cell phone bill over the same period.