Adventures in Russian medicine, or a week in a public hospital

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***Part 1 of 3(?)***

This is not a horror story, this is not a sad post. This is not the tale of some foreigner who got rushed into emergency surgery. This is, however, my story of spending a week in a public hospital in Russia.

First, some useful vocab in case you ever find yourself in the hospital:

  • палата = patient room, recovery room
  • операционный блок = operating room
  • реанимация = intensive care unit
  • комната для осмотра = exam room
  • столовая = cafeteria
  • капельница = iv therapy but also refers to that tube they leave stuck in your arm
  • укол = injection
  • чулки = compression stockings
  • мензурка = little measuring cup for pills
  • клизма = enema
  • ходить по-маленькому = to go number one
  • ходить по-большому = to go number two
  • мерить давление = to check your blood pressure
  • Фельдшер = medical worker with more authority than a nurse but less than a doctor
  • страховой полис = insurance document

Also, to help keep this organized, here’s a brief timeline of my experiences so far:

  • 2019: A broken arm lead to all kinds of interesting visits (seriously!) to a public hospital and public clinic downtown… will share that in a future post. Also, a biopsy at a private clinic.
  • 2020: 2 days in a different public hospital for a biopsy, followed by 8 days in that hospital for a surgery.

Checking in at the hospital (or, what not to do)

When you check in at the hospital, you need special shoe covers called бахилы. Some hospitals might sell them in a vending machine:

Public hospital in the city center.
My бахилы.

When I came to a different hospital in the suburbs for a consultation in January, however, we’d forgotten to bring бахилы from home and there was no place to buy any. We sat in the waiting room of the surgery ward…

.. and when they called me back to check in, I actually just took my boots off and entered in socks. 😂 The woman behind the desk was horrified. “What in the world are you doing?!” My surgeon came along and said, “She doesn’t speak Russian, she speaks German” (haha what?) and the woman immediately softened and pulled out some shoe covers from a drawer somewhere.

The next time we came to the hospital, I was checking in for an overnight stay. This time we’d remembered to bring бахилы (we are set for a few years now, I think!) and were even able to give out a few pairs to people who had forgotten their own. I was told to check in to the hospital at 9:30 AM, right after opening, and the waiting room was already packed with people and their shopping bags of food and water.

The check in procedure involved signing a lot of paperwork, handing over my shoes + coat to be kept in storage, and doing some basic vital stats like weight, height, blood pressure, and temp. Please be warned: when they hand you a thermometer, you’re not supposed to put it under your tongue!!! It goes under your arm. Lesson learned. 😆

Once I was officially in the system, I said goodbye to my husband and was escorted to the room (палата) in the women’s ward. But wait a minute… let’s go back to 2019 for a minute…

Last year I had a very minor surgical procedure and a biopsy done at a private clinic. It was a quick procedure: no food or water the morning of the procedure, come to the clinic, go under general anesthesia (IV), wake up, lie around a little in a tiny палата, go home. I think I even went to work that afternoon.

Палата at the private clinic. They even brought me tea!

So I assumed this would be the same. I didn’t understand why I was supposed to stay at the hospital for 2 days, though. Maybe to stay under observation because of the anesthesia?

So here’s the thing about any surgeries or biopsies in the hospital: day #1 is always The Day of Waiting. The surgeons, doctors, and anesthesiologists are running around, doing their thing, and you’re waiting for them to stop by when they have time. There are no appointment times to discuss your case. You just wait. I didn’t know this so it seemed like people were just randomly barging in the room all day long. On the other hand, once I found out that the biopsy wasn’t that day, it meant I could go eat in the столовая down the hall!

Food in the hospital

The столовая opens only at certain times. Patients are called to eat when the food is ready, meaning the door will be flung open and the meal will be called out, “завтрак / обед / ужин!” If you’re hungry outside of mealtime, there’s a fridge in the hall to store food in or you can keep snacks in the little тумбочка (dresser) next to your bed. Meals, by the way, aren’t prepared on site. They’re delivered 3 times a day in huge metal vats. I know this because I could see the delivery truck from my window.

Lunch has arrived!

The столовая was a small room with 5 tables and seating for about 25 people. YOU MUST BRING YOUR OWN ЧАШКА (CUP). This first stay, I forgot my чашка so I drank only bottled water those two days. There’s a menu posted in the столовая every morning so you know exactly what’s being served but it’s always the same:

  • breakfast = каша (different kinds of oatmeal)
  • lunch = суп, каша, котлет, салатик (soup, a different grain, meat cutlet, maybe a tiny scoop of marinated carrots or cabbage)
  • dinner = a wild card. Sometimes you get something great, like plov or запеканка, and sometimes it’s just more гречка (buckwheat) and a hardboiled egg.

Some of the meals:

A few of these meals I ate in my room, the first few days after surgery.

If you like Russian food, you’ll enjoy the hospital food. It’s a bit bland- no salt protocol?- but tasty enough. Everyone brings their own snacks though. There are rules about what you can and can’t bring but I don’t quite understand all the logic of them. Candy and sugar are okay but chocolate is not. Kefir and tvorog are okay but chicken and mushrooms are not. In the evenings, the communal fridge gets checked by a nurse. This meant a barrage of shouting in the hallway: Чей банан? Whose banana is this? А кто пьёт коку колу? Hey, who has been drinking Coke?

Allowed / forbidden foods.

If you are lucky, someone will drop off supplies for you: more bottled water, some extra food and snacks. The hospital was under regular quarantine (flu) so I didn’t really have visitors but a friend dropped off THIS AMAZING FEAST one afternoon!

And yes, toilet paper. You should definitely bring a roll.

She even brought along homemade pelmeni and then dropped off mashed potatoes + chicken another day. My appetite was tiny but it was so, so uplifting to have a homecooked meal.

Back to the столовая… When you’re called to eat, there’s a big rush toward the counter where the food is served. You grab a plate from the counter (food already on it) and a piece of bread from the bread bucket, pour yourself something to drink (кисель, чай, компот), and find a seat.

Some women brought their own spoons, which was another thing I didn’t understand. We’re all eating off the same plates, why not use a hospital spoon too? (No forks or knives available.) The plate is surely washed in the same manner as the spoon? But those who didn’t bring spoons often made a huge deal out of selecting a spoon. Pick one out of the container, examine it for spots, put it back, and repeat until finding a satisfactory spoon. The worst was when I saw a woman cough into her hand and then start the spoon selection process. 😡

The столовая was a quiet place. People sometimes chatted a little but most women focused on eating and were finished within 10 minutes. It was a bit clique-like: you usually sat with the women from your палата. During my overnight stay, there was no one else in my room so I just sat where I could. I was more scared and unsure during that period, so I would wish my tablemates “приятного аппетита!” and shut up. There was an older woman I sat by twice, enough for her to notice I didn’t have any bread and lecture me on the dangers of this: “You know, I once knew a man who died from not eating bread.” During my long stay, however, I met a wonderful group of women so we always saved each other spots at mealtimes.

All in all, I thought the food situation was great. It’s not like you’ll spend much time eating when you’re recovering from a procedure or waiting for a procedure, but when you’re ready to eat, the food tastes good. And even better: for most people the food is free… as is the entire hospital stay and the medical procedure itself! The catch is that you have to wait on a list until it’s your turn.

Next post: room tour + roommates at last, daily routines, the surgery, and making friends in the ward. Here’s a peek at what most days were like (and the 6 AM wake ups were no joke: the nurses get you up for the first укол of the day and to make it even more joyful, it’s in the попа/butt, of course)….

Stay healthy out there, fellow Russian learners!

8 Responses

  1. SH
    | Reply

    Thank you! I’ve lived here in Russia for a long time and have visited the травматологический пункт (“emergency station”) many times (dog bite, and various falls with and without broken bones) but so far have never had to be hospitalized. I especially appreciate the lists of allowed and forbidden foods, as well as the warning to bring one’s own cup (and spoon!). Sometimes I have visited people in the hospital, and didn’t know what to take them for food.
    Please do give us more posts on your stay. I’d be very interested to know about how things went with the staff and doctors (Were they patient with any language difficulties? How much information (especially about your condition/treatment) did/would they give you?). I’d also like to know about “gadgets” – Were you allowed to have your smartphone/Kindle/laptop computer with you? What about security/safety for those or other personal possessions? I assume the little тумбочка doesn’t have a locking drawer.
    Anyway, thank you for this post, and I look forward to reading more.

    • Katherine
      | Reply

      Privet SH! Wow, you must have some real stories from the травматологический пункт. Fingers crossed that you won’t have any reason to visit it this year! Which part of the country are you in, btw?

      The staff was incredible, incredible, incredible. The surgeon was the best in the oblast, everyone says he has золотые руки. I think there was definitely some “we have a foreigner here” special treatment, of course, but that meant they were VERY patient at explaining things and with all my endless questions: what’s in that needle?, what happens next?, are you sure it’s not cancer?, now what’s in this needle?

      And they made sure it was crystal clear what they would remove / would not remove during the surgery. I’ll explain more about that in another post but I’m really grateful for their thorough explanations. Also, when I was discharged, they gave me a full list of all the medications given + operation report. And they shared photos + video (on Viber, haha) so I could see what happened during the surgery.

      Thank you for reading, I’m glad that food list was useful to you! Answering your security questions now in the next post 🙂

      • SH

        Thanks for your response, Katherine. I’m in Yakutsk, in the Sakha Republic. I’ve been in Yakutia for about 18 years now (not counting visits “home”). I actually don’t have any exciting stories from my травмпункт experiences as most of my injuries were not at all dramatic. Almost all were related to falls – I needed to find out if anything was broken. None of them required going by ambulance. The two times I had broken bones, I didn’t even go right away, I thought/hoped that they were just strains/sprains. Turns out that real sprains/strains hurt a lot more than the broken bones I’ve had!

        Two of my falls were just due to my own clumsiness indoors. The others were connected with snow, ice or uneven steps (one step higher in the middle of a flight of steps – watch out!). The docs were always patient with me, and usually surprised that I chose to live here. The first time I went (I broke a bone in my foot) the doc was really nice and conversational. He also had me come back to him at the травмпункт for followup x-rays and cast removal. It was interesting to me that the docs gave me the x-rays, to keep my own medical records. That was quite a few years ago. When I went last fall and this January (bad year for falls!) the x-ray images were transmitted digitally and shown on the computer screen. Last fall the doc was very helpful in explaining and pointing out the condition of my shoulder, and he let me take photos of the computer screen. Also wrote down the diagnosis when I asked him to. He was impressed by my Russian copy of Arnold Nelson’s “Stretching Anatomy” that I took with me for the diagrams. This January the x-ray didn’t show anything, so I didn’t ask to photograph the computer screen. Also, the doc didn’t have a lot of time, as there had been people before me and others were waiting in the hall to be seen. He did give me a paper to take to my polyclinic if I wanted to followup there, but I never did.

        Only once did I call an ambulance: that was when I was attacked by my neighbor’s pit bull. The bites really weren’t too bad (could have been sooo much worse) but my hands/wrists were bleeding and I felt rather shocky, so called 03. They came quickly. Perhaps they took me into the building through a separate “ambulance” entrance; I don’t really know! Everything went fine there. They were nice and helpfully suggested that I sign up for the free insurance before coming for the followup rabies shots as they would have been expensive otherwise.

        Apparently the initial visits were free whether or not someone had insurance. Followups required payment if you didn’t have insurance. My first injury was before I had insurance, and I got at least 2 followup visits with x-rays for something like $50 total, I think. It was a long time ago.

        When I went during regular working hours, there was a reception window to do the minimal paperwork at, before waiting to be seen. During off hours, there has been no receptionist, just a guard (apparently) who points one in the direction to go if needed. They’ve recently done some cosmetic repair to the entry hall at the травмпункт here, I was surprised and pleased.

        Thank you again for your post(s) on these medical themes. Dealing with medical situations is one of those things that I think is hard for foreigners, and not covered much in language courses. One of the other types of situation that I think is hard and covered even less in language courses is rebuking/correcting children/teens/adults who are running and jumping from garage roof to garage roof (leaving one child crying behind)/vandalizing/disturbing the peace/smoking/lying drunk/etc. The last difficult language situation is dealing with calling the police – writing a statement, what the procedure is, etc. Happily I’ve never had to deal with being arrested myself, and I don’t expect to!

      • Katherine

        Yakutsk, that’s right! 👍👍👍 Now I remember your comment on the Sakha language post. I can only imagine how many slippery sidewalks you’ve survived there in 18 years, yikes. On a related note, have you checked out this excellent blog?

        Yeah, it’s funny how we run into these very specific situations like you described where there’s no language primer or any kind of pre-knowledge. I got super lucky because I randomly met someone in January who had once spent 2 weeks in the hospital. She was the one who advised bringing toilet paper, a coffee mug, water, etc. Otherwise I would have shown up with nothing 😂 Sometimes something is so obvious to the general population that they completely forget to tell you.

        By the way, I’ve been trying to follow the coronavirus situation there in Yakutsk. 7 cases, right? Has daily life there changed much recently because of that?

  2. Elisabeth
    | Reply

    Thanks so much for sharing about your experience with a Russian hospital. I hope everything went well, and no more extended visits are needed (interesting as they are linguistically/culturally).

    The vocabulary is particularly useful – I’ve only been to the поликлиника but even for those kind of appointments, vocabulary lessons on the internet have been of limited help. Luckily the very first appointment I had was with a doctor who spoke English, but since then I’ve been making my way through them in Russian (and having someone later check the printout I get to make sure that I have indeed understood the doctor’s main points).

    • Katherine
      | Reply

      Privet Elisabeth, thank you for your comment 🙂 Good on you for getting through your appointments in Russian, wow! Do you think your Russian is now better than your Vietnamese?

      • Elisabeth

        I don’t think I’d feel comfortable going to the doctor in Russian about something very serious, but for minor ails I’m glad I can sort of manage.

        No, my Russian still has some way to go to catch up. We travelled to Vietnam in January so I got a sharp reminder of the difference! My Vietnamese used to be about B1+ (probably low B1 now) but there’s an element of effortlessness that I haven’t achieved yet with Russian.

      • Katherine

        Keep going, you’ll get to that place where Russian is as comfortable as Vietnamese! I’m so happy to hear you got to visit this winter. 🙂

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