The weather in Moscow is hot. It is friggin' hot and tops 40 degrees centigrade with the humidity. Unlike the rest of the world, Russians refuse to pay for air conditioning and simply swelter and suffer (not without the occasional burst of "Blin! It's hot!"). There is no air conditioning in the shops, in the restaurants or cafes or bars. The metro and the buses are like ovens. I went to a cinema to try and cool down but there was no air conditioning there, either!
So two weeks ago when, in the middle of my last class for the day, a sudden wave of feverish nausea swept over me, I attributed it to heat stroke. Unusually susceptible to heat stroke as I am (all my life I've suffered in anything above 20 degrees), I drank a glass of cold water and immediately I was wracked with a series of sharp, knife-stabbing-me-in-the-gut pains throughout my stomach which doubled me over. I ran to the toilet and the glass of water I drank a few seconds before left my body.
After shaking my fevered head in surprise, I made my way home, first stopping at the little outdoor McDonald's "walk-through" window at Novoslobodskaya for some dinner. Once home I took a big bite out of my quarter-pounder (a "Royal Cheeseburger" in Europe) and immediately ran to the washroom to get rid of it.
I suffered through that night in a series of feverish, fitful sleeps, sweating profusely for half an hour and then, despite the heat, shivering uncontrollably for another half an hour. Every hour or so I had to run to the toilet to drain whatever moisture remained in my body. This process repeated itself throughout that first night. I was forced to call in sick in the morning.
The next night Katya came over and, seeing my pale face and apparently sunken eyes, and watching me run to the toilet every thirty to sixty minutes, she immediately called the medical clinic my company provides insurance for and booked me an appointment. So it was that by the early afternoon of Friday I was laying on a bed in the doctor's office (in a very nice clinic, I might add, except that nobody speaks English) and the doctor was jamming her latex-covered fingertips up under my rib cage and touching my upper intestines, causing bolts of excruciating, tear-inducing pain to flash throughout my body.
She turned to Katya and said something in Russian to which Katya started to cry. "What? What is it?" I asked through clenched teeth. "They need to send you Moscow State Hospital #2." Katya replied, sobbing. "The Infectious Diseases Hospital!" I had heard nothing of this place before, but it sounded ominous, what with Katya sobbing and the doctor looking at me with a mixture of curiousity and pity. "Ummm...is that bad?" I asked, in hindsight, rather stupidly. "The only place worse is the Lubianka!" Katya choked, referring the infamous prison where the NKVD, and later the KGB (and now the FSB) tortured prisoners for years on end.
This wasn't good news for me, and as the pain from the doctor's probing subsided and the suffocating heat of the office once again stole the attention of my miserable nerve receptors (think there would be a/c in a medical clinic? Nope!), I tried to smile. "It will be alright. What, will they do some tests? What is wrong with me?" Katya translated to the doctor who looked over at me, laying on the table, and sadly patted my hand.
When someone asks a pleading question, the worst thing a person can do, as I learned last week, is to smile in a sad way and pat their hand. Rather than calming a person, that tends to panic them. "Tell her to stop looking at me like that!" I demanded of Katya, but she just sobbed.
Three hours later I was laying on a hard wooden board mounted on scaffolding-like poles mounted on wheels in State Hospital #2. There was, without any exaggeration, shit and blood and puke on the floors and walls all around me. A woman, somewhere (maybe even on another floor) was screaming with either grief or agony, a sound which lent to the surreal Halloween-cum-Hostel atmosphere in the hospital. There were armed guards standing outside the doors to the hallway I was wheeled down and they locked them after I was wheeled through!
It suddenly dawned on me, as a large central-asian woman with mean, uncaring eyes roughly pushed my wooden board down this hallway, that I was effectively a prisoner!
With all the attention that someone would pay to a trolley filled with garbage, the woman pushed my wooden slab down a brown and browner-stained corridor, past ominous-looking doorways with heavy locks on them and small peepholes for orderlies to look in. Laying as I was on my back, my view consisted of the passing of bare lightbulbs and lots of rusting pipes traversing the ceiling in a chaos of directions. At one point I tried to sit up (I had a fever and the runs, I wasn't dead) but the woman barked something in Russian at me and I quickly laid down again.
After twenty or so lightbulbs passed across my vision the ceiling suddenly turned to the right and I passed through a doorframe. "Vot!" The woman shouted, pointing to a bed with a plastic mattress. There was a single, dim lightbulb in the room and no windows. Three other beds, two of which were occupied, shared the room with the bed she was pointing at. There was a single rough woolen blanket bunched up on this bed, which, hot as it was (again, no friggin' air conditioning) I used as a pillow.
The woman made sure I was laying on the bed and then abruptly left, but my door wasn't closed or locked like the doors I had seen in the corridor.
In the bed beside me was a grizzled old Russian man whose mouth seemed to be pulled back into a sneer, until I realized that his skin was decaying while he was alive and I was effectively looking at a living skull! Grey stubble speckled his chin and he slept with a ghastly gurgling, wheezing breath. I decided to call him Fyodor, because I always liked that name. Across the aisle at my feet was another man with an IV drip pouring into his arm and a small machine that beeped every ten minutes or so, to what purpose I don't know.
Both my companions were fast asleep. I lay there in my bed and, having a high fever and no choice about my circumstances, I decided that the best course of action was to sleep. A good motto that has carried me through many strange circumstances is "Stay calm and carry on."
I drifted off to an uncomfortable sleep with little strings of wool from my brown blanket-pillow tickling my cheeks.
I don't know how long I was out for, but something strange happened. I awoke not because of noise, but because of a lack of noise. Fyodor, in the bed beside mine, had stopped gurgling and wheezing. I opened my eyes and turned my head towards him and was given a shock. His head was laying at a precarious angle off the side of his mattress and his eyes were staring at me! That skullish sneer was still on his face, but unblinking gray eyes were looking right at me!
I haven't been around death a lot in my life. The only corpse I've ever seen was at my grandmother's wake, and then she was dressed in her best and laying peacefully in her coffin with a bouquet of roses on her chest. The family was gathered around, some sobbing, and, young as I was, I didn't feel much grief because she looked so damn content.
Not so with Fyodor. Here was death quite literally staring at me, skull and all, and although in movies it is pretty terrifying in real life I felt nothing. I studied him for a few moments and said a silent prayer in my head for his departed soul, all the while those grey eyes stared through me, with a look of infinite knowledge. I don't know how I'm supposed to react in such a situation. It wasn't in my guide book, but I decided that the only humane thing left to do was to call for help.
"Hello?" I shouted in the direction of the door. "Prostitsye? (Excuse me?)" There was no response. "Hey! Come on! People are dying here!" I yelled as loud as I could. For a while there was no answer but finally a large, middle-aged blonde woman with breasts larger than my head stormed into the room and barked something to me in Russian. I pointed at Fyodor's body and said "He's dead. Morte." She didn't even glance at Fyodor but instead marched to my bedside and yelled something to me in Russian. "I don't know what you're saying! Ya nye gavaroo pa-Russki (I don't speak Russian). But he's dead!" I shouted that last part, which I learned that she didn't like because she slapped me across the head and stormed out of the room. Although she was dressed in a nurses' uniform, she was very obviously a jailer. Had I known the correct grammar, I would have demanded to see her medical credentials. As it was I received a slap on my forehead, and Fyodor was still staring at me.
Those eyes were starting to freak me out, so, gingerly at first but then with confidence, I reached across the void seperating our two beds and, in effect, the living and the dead, and I brushed his eyelids closed. Just like in the movies they closed incredibly easily, although they were cold (not even room-temperature...the only things in Russia that are cooler than the stinking heat are the dead...).
"Hey nurse!" I cried out one last time, determined to get her to understand that I was laying next to a corpse. "HEY!" The same jailor came storming into my room again, this time completely enraged, and slapped me across my forehead again. "Hey! Stop th-" I started to shout, but she had slapped me again. I stared at her with in stunned disbelief, maybe even with a bit of hatred, and she turned on her heels and practically goose-stepped out.
Then she came back, this time with a woman in a clean white lab-coat and a stethoscope around her neck. Finally, a real doctor! I pointed at poor Fyodor but they ignored me and the doctor beckoned me to follow her. I stood up (why I was allowed to now and not earlier I don't know) and followed the doctor to a little office next door. There was another small doctor's bed in there and she motioned me to lay down in the fetal position, facing the wall. I thought this was strange, but before I did as she requested she motioned for me to pull my pants down. Oh crap.
With my ass sticking out I laid on my side while behind me I heard a strange grating sound of metal on metal, like a Turkey knife being sharpened, and realized that I was in for a really bad day.
Four hours and several painful probes later, I emerged, blinking, from State Hospital #2 to find Katya, loyally waiting outside (how long she would have waited I don't know. The Russian woman is fiercely loyal, as evidenced by those wives who followed their husbands into Siberian exile in the times of the Tsars and then to the battlefronts and the GULAG prison camps in the times of the Soviets...never mess with a Russian woman's family!). I had a nice green piece of paper covered in official blue stamps, which I proferred to Katya. "What is wrong with me?" I asked.
That was how I found out that I had dysentery.
Dysentery is most commonly found throughout the third world and has been making a resurgence in Russia and Ukraine. It is contracted, normally, though infected water or fruits. It is a bacterial parasite that attacks the digestive system and causes extreme fevers and a draining of bodily fluids. After two weeks of dysentery most people are lucky if they have survived. Thankfully it is fairly easy to treat if identified in time.
With my little green stamp-covered piece of paper we went back to the nice medical clinic where I started my day, and the doctor prescribed a real cocktail of anti-bacterial medications and then a slough of medicine to counter the damaging effects of anti-bacterials. She also wrote out, for Katya, my diet for the next week. Only small portions of rice or mashed potatoes with no salt or butter. And definitely no alcohol. Oh, how I craved for a cold beer in that hot Moscow summer heat!
We went to an Aptyeka (pharmacy) and bought all the medicine and then decided to go to Katya's in Shyolkova, where there is a large forest and fewer cars and temperatures are a good ten degrees lower than in the concrete jungle of Moscow.
A week later I sat down in an American-style restaurant (with, miraculously, air conditioning!) and stared with gratitude at a big juicy bacon-cheeseburger and a large pint of cold beer. As I bit into into that heavenly burger and washed it down with deliciously cold ale, I realized that I had had a brush with death and come out the other end with an experience to remember. Plus, I had air conditioning, if only for an hour or so.