The following is the email I sent to friends and family after my surgery, written exactly eight years ago today:
The parts in Italics are the parts I’m adding post facto.
Hello, everyone, I have survived a surgery in a third world hospital and I can stand up and walk for about 3 minutes straight without crippling pangs in my belly. And I don’t have any strange diseases that might come from unsanitary conditions in an operation room, well, not that I have yet discovered. It was on the whole, a cultural experience and I will always cherish it in my heart and in the now hollow cavity below my abdomen.
More than anything this experience has opened my eyes to the opportunity for growth and improvement in the world. I was so horrified at first, when they had me lay on a board without sheets for my surgery, when I went to give the urine sample and saw 3 jars of pee just sitting there on the cracked and broken toilet, open, unlabled. Not to mentionthe toilet and the floor surrounding where it was obvious that several of those jars had lost their balance. The gynecologist who examined me had three gloves which he was washing after each use and hanging up to dry. The conditions, were quite primative and unsanitary, but the doctors were very caring and skilled. My gynecologist was the funniest man, I felt like I had some disease that was some type of ancient riddle that he had at long last solved. He shrieked with delight and intense satisfaction when he found out certain facts or symptoms that would lead to a diagnosis. He would ask me a question, poke something on my body and depending on the correlation of the two answers would gasp and say, “Yessssss!!!!!! That’sssss what I thought! Didn’t I say that, ladies?” His nurses hurriedly took notes on everything he said and gave him nods of approval whenever he exclaimed.
The gynecologist visit was particularly awkward because Pasha had to stay and translate the whole thing and there was no little sheet to maintain my privacy. A pap smear is traumatizing for women, let alone a 19 year-old boy to witness. The gynecologist was talking about how Americans are dirty because they gave Russians the filthy word ‘sex’, that the Russians had no such word until we soiled their vocabulary with our negative influence. He was making all other sorts of comments about his surprise that American coochies look just like Russian ones. It’s a small world after all! And then I guess things started to get vulgar because then Pasha stopped translating and would occasionally blush and shake his head in disbelief.
After the gynecologist’s exam and the urine and blood analyses came back they had a verdict: appendicitis.
Then they decided to do surgery on me. We debated, when they told me I had to have surgery, if maybe it would be safer to drive 3 hours to Kiev to a more modern hospital. By that time, I remember my stomach was swollen up like I was 8 months pregnant. But then again, that could have just been because I had eaten so much since my arrival in Kiev.
I followed my surgeon to the pharmacy, where we bought all the necessary disinfectant, bandaging and anesthesia. While I was in surgery Pasha’s family went out and hurriedly bought bedsheets and nightgowns, because you also have to provide all of that yourself. I stood there so thankful that I was with Pasha’s family because they have money and power they pulled a lot of strings so that I could even get service on a Saturday. They gave the surgeons, whose eyes were glazed over with tipsiness, a $50 bribe. They explained that they don’t normally do surgeries at that hospital, but for me they would make an exception. I imagined what it would be like to be a poor countryside Ukranian with not enough money to buy both disinfectant and anesthesia. I am a very fortunate girl. It’s also a miracle that this all happened when I was with Pasha’s family in Kiev. Had this all happened in Moscow, where I was ENTIRELY on my own I probably would have just rolled over and died in a Metro car trying to make my way to a hospital located I don’t know where.
They put me in a stiff, bleached, and yet still dirty and worn hospital gown and led me to the wooden board where I would be laying for the surgery. I will never forget Pasha’s face as they peeled me away from him (I was clinging to him in terror). He later told me that he honestly thought I was going to die, conditions were so bad. He said while I was getting the surgery, he was trying to think how to delicately inform someone in English that their child had died.
I lay there, trembling, trying not to think of all that could go wrong. My surgeon and his right hand man, tried to brush up their English. “Now….ihhhh….vill…be….iiiihhhh…pain….leettle….pain……on arm….”” A shot. “Khow….in English….you say…. This knife(pointing to the needle)”” A needle, and you will give me a shot, please give it to me by all means! Then the other surgeon interrupted to correct “A small prick…ihhh…you feel….don’t afraid.”” And then together discussing whether it is more correct to say “”Don’t afraid or Don’t be worry””
I woke to the whole crowd of all the doctors who had helped me throughout the day, the ones who took my blood sample, the ones who helped me in the door, all of them, greeted me as I came to consciousness. They were all smiling with their big, pretty gold choppers “Behold!”” “”Everyting will be goot!”” I got a lot of extra attention throughout the night, I think simply because my surgeon/nurse wanted to practice English. Throughout the next couple of days all of the doctors continually checked in on me.
After the surgery they said it was a good thing that we did the operation immediately because my appendix was HUGE and would have ruptured within an hour. So I feel blessed on many levels.
End of email.
Now for my continuation…
I guess the communal room where they keep all their patients was just crowded and filthy, so Pasha’s family insisted that I get a room. They only had one room and it was supposed to be reserved for WWII veterans. But it was currently vacant so they put me in there. It was a tiny and very dirty little walk-in closet where the janitor kept a bunch of his supplies. Once they put me in there I was on my own. They asked if I would allow one other woman to be in the room with me and I said, “Sure, if she’ll fit”. I had Pasha’s sister, Katya, who was in her final year of medical school to help me. But the lady next to me had to change her own bandages and get her own food and water. I felt very blessed. Katya would change my bed pan, change my bed sheets, wash my hair, give me a sponge bath. At one point she had to flip over the mattress because I was complaining that a spring was sticking me in the back. She told me to close my eyes because she didn’t want me to see the nastiness that was under the bed.
Some missionaries from my church came to visit me. I’ll never forget the look on their faces when they came in my closet. You know how when something bloody and gruesome happens to someone, like their face gets bashed in or something and they feel fine until they see the look on someone else’s face at the sight of their wound and only then do they start freaking out? Well, that’s how I felt when these American missionaries started looking around at my condition. I’m sure they had never seen anything like this. Pasha’s family had managed to remain pretty calm, but these Americans were in shock. One girl’s chin was quivering and they just kept saying, “I’m so sorry you have to go through this, we will pray for you”. All the while with the look of sheer horror on their faces.
My insurance asked for an itemized report of the surgery so that they could reimburse Pasha’s family. I don’t remember the specifics of it but I know that one of the items on there was “$50-surgery bribe”. We are currently paying our hospital bills for our second child and 50 bucks is about what I paid for an ibuprofen. So my appendectomy was a steal of a deal.
After 3 or 4 days in this hospital I was well enough to go to a better hospital in Kiev. In Ukraine they make you stay in the hospital til the stitches are healed. But also, this, in comparison with a c-section that I later had, was a rough recovery. I was in a lot of pain for a long time. After my c-section I was up and at it within a few days. A leader from my church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints) was able to get my insurance information and arrange for me to stay in a 5 star hospital in Kiev. It was nice. He took these pictures of me in my nice hospital to send to my parents, who were pretty terrified at this point. Both this leader and Pasha’s family had spared my parents the details of the po-dunk hospital, which is probably a good thing.
When I went back to Kiev in fall of 2011 for Pasha’s funeral, I was a legend in the town. Everybody, all of Pasha’s relatives as well as everyone in their part of town knew me as the girl that survived an appendectomy in the ‘horrible hospital’. We all laughed and reminisced about the horror of it all. There’s a lot that I don’t remember about it, but they reminded me of several of the horrific details that I was oblivious to. It was terrifying then but it made for some great laughs once it was all over.
Everyone was so surprised that I went to such great efforts to help to arrange to get Pasha’s body back to Ukraine from Chicago, where he died. We had all stayed pretty close over the years. During my toast at his funeral lunch I explained that this is a family who took care of me in my moment of need. Pasha’s grandma had given me an enema, Pasha had watched my entire gynecological exam and his sister changed my bedpan, and for that we are all eternally bound.