Pure Slush

flash ... without the wank

From Russia with Gloves

<  Showdown at l'aire de jeux

by Sharon Louise Stephenson        Great Great Uncle Charlie  >


Late September in Yekaterinburg is, of course, quite cold.  She’d be wearing a sweater, a coat, a hat, and gloves.  Her people do not parade around with their bodies exposed to the elements.  Russians avoid the state-run hospitals by bundling up.

The year is 2004, the day September 27 and perhaps a cell phone is in her coat pocket.  Today she carries no purse. 

Yekaterinburg is the third-largest city in all of Russia, but it cannot compete with the gilding of St. Petersburg or the frightening new wealth of Moscow.  London has the Thames, Paris the Seine, but Yekaterinburg has the Iset, a shallow, wide river so overpolluted that it can, on occasion, spontaneously burst into flame.

This bundled up woman fits the profile of the Russian consumer who would scrimp and save in 2004 for a cell phone.  Russians love their cell phones even more than Americans.[i]  She would call hers a mobile phone.  Only Americans, the same Americans who don’t wear enough outerwear, call them cell phones.

No Russian would want to be hospitalized in 2004.  The level of care was and is still poor.  Medical staff were and still are overworked and underpaid.  On September 27, 2004, this woman made her way to City Hospital #40 in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

My last three times in Moscow someone has asked me for directions, which means after 17 years, I have finally mastered the dress (aged dark wool, every button engaged) and composure (lightning fast eye contact, devoid of emotion) of a Russian citizen.  On the other hand, the new-money Muscovite pays so little attention these days to their audience when looking for the shortest path to the bakery on Chernigovsky Pereulok that they would ask even someone as non-Russian as me. Nevertheless, clearly, I am proud.

Once I found myself in “the premier clinic in Moscow,” a place recommended by the US state department.  Nurses did not wear latex gloves because the clinic could not afford latex gloves. Dark bodily fluids stained the large rubber mats on the examination table where I was to sit.  I chose a chair.  I reminded the three gloveless nurses to use hand sanitizer before opening the hypodermic needle, which I was glad to see was still in a wrapper.  Blood was dripped into a test tube, a process that is quite slow.  We huddled close, mentally encouraging the blood to drip faster into that test tube, our heads nearly touching, our collective breath hovering: cigarettes, hot tea, black coffee, waxy lipstick.  The clinic cannot afford the plastic hub and vacuum tubing normally used in the US.  I left the clinic pink faced and sweating even though it was late November 2006.

On September 27, 2004, a woman who may or may not have worn gloves and may or may not have had a cell phone in her coat pocket found her way to City Hospital #40 in Yekaterinburg, Russia.  She did not arrive by ambulance.  In such a large city a bus, the electric trolley, the subway, all are possibilities.  Forced to take public transit, her urgency would have caused many a stranger’s eye to flit her way, in that nonchalant looking-but-not-looking way Russians perfect. Each pair of looking-but-not-looking eyes would send images to each judging-but-not-judging brain, and those brains would instantaneously spin colored yarns about how this bundled up pregnant woman with the sweaty brow came to be on this particular trolley and the colored yarn stories would spin phump phump out of their imaginations to bind and weave the strangers together even more than usual in the stuffy trolley car.  All mental tapestries point to some unspoken suffering.  A few exchange glances quickly, a blur, then look-but-not-look back towards the  hump-bellied woman with the sweaty brow, her perhaps-gloved hands out of sight, one perhaps jabbing the small of her back, the other perhaps in a coat pocket, fingering her real or imaginary cell phone.  She may look up once and again, but no one meets her gaze.  Let her keep some dignity.

But surely someone she trusted made that journey with her, what a cruel world we live in if this was not the case. 

If she travelled alone then for the love of the Romanovs let us hope, let us imagine, that one of those strangers on the electric trolley took the extra fifteen minutes needed to walk her from the West Tram depot to the entrance of City Hospital #40.    As is the Russian way, they might even take their gloved hand and cup her elbow to distinguish who guides whom.

Better yet, let us imagine a loved one drove her all the way to the front door, helped her out of the car, and for reasons only she knows, let her assure them she would be fine, women have been doing this sort of thing every day for centuries.  

Once in Yekaterinburg I needed an antibiotic.  Yekaterinburg, remember, is the third largest city in Russia, comparable to Philadelphia or Dallas.  My translator and driver, Dema Shevzov, God bless him, went to nine pharmacies before finding amoxicillin.  He has a wife and a toddler but Dema claims that neither he nor his family has ever needed an antibiotic.  He and his beloveds wear hats, gloves, scarves.  His daughter’s snowsuit is amusingly puffy.

City Hospital #40 makes an architectural attempt to instill confidence.  Rigid white buildings, nine or more stories tall, arranged at right angles, windows uniformly sized.   Surely competence resides here.  She would walk into that hospital, through the glass and metal doors, and see others like her, others needing help, and she would see the universal colors of medical care – the uniforms of pale green, white, baby-eye blue. 

She would not need to go downstairs.  Down the stairs of this hospital is the morgue.  Instead, she would be shuttled off to maternity.

City Hospital #40 is well known among bioterrorism wonks for it here that all 64 victims of an anthrax outbreak were autopsied.[ii]  Two pathologists spend long hours in that overfull morgue during most of April, 1979. [iii]  Two sets of gloved hands belonging to those freaked-out pathologists gather raggedy lung tissue from victims connected just by geography -- working men, stay-at-home moms. 

A Soviet ventilation filter is incorrectly replaced at the treaty-defying bioweapons facility, and anthrax gleefully escapes on the breeze. 

In April 1979 at City Hospital #40 the KGB appears out of nowhere, just like in the movies, and the KGB takes those tissue samples but the justice-seeking pathologists had the forethought to collect two sets, just like in the movies, one set hidden away until the Soviet Union fell and the aged tissue pieces in shabby little boxes could reveal their true nature. [iv]

And what an interesting set of liberated samples!  Not one or two or three but four different types of anthrax viruses, shocking even the seen-it-all biologists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the late 1990’s. These scientists suck in their breath while removing their latex gloves when they consider the consequences of that day in April, 1979 had the weather been blustery instead of mild.[v]

Our young woman at City Hospital #40 came not to ponder the role the hospital played in the history of the 1979 anthrax epidemic but to give birth.  She did not arrive with her birthcoach or husband or best friend or mother.  She did not have a doula or midwife.  She came alone.  If anyone gave any comfort while she was in City Hospital #40, their touches and words of grace, if any were given, these small gestures would have been most welcome.

She arrived at City Hospital #40 with no purse and therefore no identification.  Her name and address were and are irrelevant.  She may have lied about her age, but if she didn’t, then she is ten years younger than I am.  She may have lied about her previous pregnancies, saying this was her second.  The first had been a vaginal delivery, as this one was turning out to be. 

The young woman who may or may not have had a cell phone that day definitely delivered a child on September 27, 2004.  The delivery was medically unremarkable.  

She must have been exhausted and sore but once she was free of those people wearing green and white and blue uniforms (and perhaps, if they could afford it that day, latex gloves), she made herself stand.  She would slowly, carefully put on her undergarments, her street clothes, her coat, her hat, her scarf.  Before she put on her gloves she would, if she had a cell phone back in 2004 (a mobile phone in her case) she might call or text someone who cares about her. 

Then, gloves on, she would slowly enter the pale green corridor and walk out of maternity, past those people who need medical care, her eyes looking past any green and white and blue uniforms, back into the city.

Abandoning a Russian newborn today is much easier.  Baby-boxes are conveniently available at a number of progressive hospitals from the shores of the Black Sea to our gilded St. Petersburg.[vi]  The creamy postal-like portals have ample breathing room and a nurse is stationed at a closed-circuit camera focused on the box’s milky, calm interior.  An alarm sounds within the hospital when a bundle is deposited.  A special delivery indeed.

The baby girl delivered vaginally on September 27, 2004 in City Hospital #40 was underweight but surprisingly long.  Today that girl is seven years old.  She can play piano, swim a lake, breakdance.  She will toe walk in her soccer cleats mimicking Michael Jackson.  She has a swagger which refreshes, especially in one so young, so tan, so diminutive.  Her eyes are brown, her lips red, her teeth very very white. 

Most weekend mornings, the seven year-old offspring of that possibly mobile phone carrying, possibly gloved woman will wander into my bedroom.  While we wallow in the sleepy glory of my waking bed, her beautiful brown eyes might linger on a set of black and white photographs of me pregnant with her brother, of me holding her on the day we met.  These pictures sometimes compel her to ask about her birthmother.   I tell her all I know.

[i] “Food, Water and Cell Phones”, March 24, 2006 by Maria Kolesnikova Russian Life online magazine http://www.russianlife.com/article.cfm?Number=1623 accessed September 1, 2011.

[ii] “Quantitative Pathology of Inhalational Anthrax I: Quantitative Microscopic Findings” by Grinberg et al, Modern Pathology, 2001, 14 (5) 482-495.

[iii] Anthrax:  The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak by Jeanne Guillemin, 1999, University of California Press.

[iv] “Quantitative Pathology of Inhalational Anthrax I: Quantitative Microscopic Findings” by Grinberg et al, Modern Pathology, 2001, 14 (5) 482-495.

[v] “Wastes of War: A Puzzle of Epidemic Proportions,” by David Hoffman, Washington Post, December 16, 1998.

[vi] “Russia rolls out boxes for unwanted babies,”Neil Harvey and Anya Fedorova, http://rt.com/news/prime-time/baby-boxes-russia-legal-497/, accessed January 4, 2012.


published 11 February 2012