The doctor came to the home where I was staying to examine me. That morning I had gone from bad to worse. “You must go to the hospital now!” My heart sank. This was not good news. I knew I was sick, but – hospital? That was something I never expected.
It was a Sunday night, only a week after my arrival in Dnepropetrovsk, a Russian-speaking city of 1.7 million in eastern Ukraine. I had come alone from Canada with two huge suitcases bulging with donated medical equipment and supplies, plus their beloved peanut butter. I had never heard of Dnepropetrovsk until I decided to go on a volunteer mission experience during my vacation. I had heard stories of Ukrainian hospitals before I left but they were only jokes, weren’t they? Apparently not. The family I was staying with immediately started scurrying around the house collecting bedding, towels, water, and food. “What are they doing?” I wondered.
“When you go to the hospital, you have to bring your own things,” was the reply. I knew you brought your bed clothes and slippers, toiletries, and that sort of thing, but bedding? Food and water? I had no time to absorb this because before I knew it, I was packed and ready to go.
Pastor Roland Syens, Lutheran missionary and my contact in Ukraine, his interpreter Sergei Nikolenko, Sergei’s fiancée Olga, Sergei’s mother Dr. Larisa, and I made our way to car waiting outside. All too soon we were in the “office” at the hospital. A single light bulb hung from the high ceiling. A very young man who spoke some English was waiting for me. Surely this couldn’t be the doctor! But he was. He examined me in a makeshift examination room (and I use that term very loosely). “You must go on intravenous immediately.” He also used the word “critical”. Dr. Larisa seemed to concur.
My mind raced. I was here to help. I was to help teach English, work in an orphanage, and help with the mission that Pastor Syens headed at the Alpha and Omega Christian Youth Association. Nothing was right. This was not turning out as planned!
A nurse led me up the stairs by flashlight to an empty room. She motioned to me that I could choose my bed. I took a quick look around and picked one by the window because it seemed to have the least number of stains on its thin, button-filled mattress. I spread my sheet on it and tried not to look at the dirty pillow I stuffed into the pillowcase. Then the nurse took me down the hall to show me the bathroom. In a small outer room was a sink, and behind the door, a toilet bowl – no seat, no lid. The room smelled worse than any outhouse I had ever been in, and this was in a hospital! I think that’s when I got scared.
We came back to my room and the nurse started the intravenous. I silently prayed that they knew what they were doing and whatever they were putting my veins was not harmful. I was at their mercy and felt helpless. Thank the Lord for Olga! In her broken English, she told me she would stay overnight and sleep in the bed next to mine. I don’t know how I would have managed without her. She was like a guardian angel, one of many who would minister to me during my stay in Ukraine. And I had come to minister to them!
In the morning as I walked to the bathroom, several men stood in the hallway – patients on the same floor. In a few rooms I looked in, beds filled every possible space (mine only had five). I went to the end of the hall for a blood test. The nurse had her microscope slides in a little, ragged shoe box. She was friendly and had a sympathetic look on her face. I prayed that the needle was clean. When I returned to my room, two new patients were there.
Olga had to leave for work but another “angel of mercy” appeared. Ira Shumchuk, a young secretary at the mission centre, had just started her summer vacation and had come to spend it with me in the hospital. I felt so bad. I didn’t know this lady, yet she was cheerfully planning to spend her holiday as my interpreter and “medication runner”.
Hospital patients must buy their own medicines and supplies. Since these are scarce at State Hospital No. 7, one must go to pharmacies for supplies if none are available. Out of their meagre salaries, doctors will buy medicines for those who can’t afford them. Every day, Ira filled eight prescriptions for me, travelling to three or four different places to find the intravenous kit, antibiotics, and whatever else they were putting in me. I couldn’t have managed without Ira to do this for me.
The allergy specialist, Yevgeniya Dityatkovskaya (“Dr. Jenya”) came around mid-morning to examine me. She too, spoke some English. She listened to my chest. “Bronchitis.” That, I understood. But what were these big, itchy blisters all over my arms and legs? Were they horribly infected mosquito bites? Why was my foot swollen and dark red? What was this ugly thing on my ankle that looked and felt like rubbery hide? Why were all these bruises appearing on my body? She answered Ira in Russian, but Ira had no English words for me. The best I could make out was that these were “toxins coming out of my body.”
The intravenous was flushing out the toxins. Was it steroids they were giving me? That word seemed to confuse the doctor. “Steroids”, I repeated. Then she shook her head, and said very emphatically, “Nyet. Horrr-mone trrreat-mendt.” I said another prayer.
In the following eight days, the doctors allowed me to be an outpatient. Ira and I would go to the hospital with our food and water and whatever medical supplies she could find. We would arrive around 8:00 AM and leave about 4:00 PM after the treatments and a daily exam. This regimen cancelled all the plans for mission work. I was very disappointed, but my spirit was positive, buoyed, I am sure, by the prayers in Ukraine and at home. The doctor said I suffered a severe allergic reaction to an antibiotic I had brought with me.
Every day in the hospital, I would, in my broken Ukrainian and through Ira as an interpreter, talk to my fellow hospital mates and listen to their stories. Many patients would come from other parts of the hospital to see “the Canadian lady”. Some were recent converts to Christianity and were eager to talk about Jesus. I was struck by these mostly older ladies who had found hope even though they told me that in Ukraine, you only come to the hospital to die.
My body was responding to the intravenous medications, but I continued to experience strange symptoms. Lumps would grow on my face, forehead, and temples. One day, one eyelid started swelling and by evening a lump hung down over my eye. The lumps would last about twenty-four hours and then disappear. The explanation? More “toxins” leaving my body.
I developed frightening reactions to food I had eaten all my life. My throat and lymph nodes would swell and my chest constrict. The doctor placed me on a “green” diet (could only drink or eat white or green food and liquids), saying that my body was in a “hyper-allergized state” and anything could set off a reaction. On top of all of this, I also contracted a kidney infection.
It was hot in Dnepro, too – 35 degrees and muggy. The factories billowed out their smoke and I coughed constantly. It wasn’t helping my bronchitis. I was worn out by the daily trek to the hospital and back, in addition to the five flights of stairs to the apartment. But still, I felt blessed. The loving-kindness and concern of my hosts and various members of the Student Centre were overwhelming at times. God was watching over me.
Despite the old and run-down conditions at the hospital, I received good medical care. The nurses and Dr. Jenya were caring and kind. When I saw my doctors in Canada, I discovered that the Ukrainian doctors had given me steroids and that was the right course of treatment. The eruptions on my body were hives – a severe reaction to something of which nobody is sure. One specialist says it was to the antibiotic, another to a virus. Whatever it was, only God knows. And only He knows why it was part of His plan that I should spend so much of my time in Ukraine sick and in hospital. I trust that somehow He used me to His Glory. After my hospital stay, I completed one of my planned activities – presenting a six hour seminar to Christian secretaries. It was very well received.
During my twenty-four days in Ukraine, I met many brothers and sisters in Christ and saw first-hand the mission work of Rev. Roland Syens. Even though I was sick, I was determined to attend Christian rallies and visit the Alpha and Omega Centre, and go to church twice every Sunday. The people who have come to faith in Christ have a passion for Him that is wonderful to see! For a short time I lived as an average Ukrainian. I admire their spirit of gratitude for any small comfort and their willingness to share what little they have. Moreover, I experienced Christian love and compassion as a stranger in their land. It would take a much longer story to list all the blessings I received. I will forever be indebted to my hospital companion, Ira Shumchuk, and to all the other “guardian angels” like Dr. Larisa and Ira Chaban who helped me. I know I have made some friends for life. Some of my friends in Ukraine accused me jokingly of taking the “Ukrainian experience thing” too far. “Not even a Ukrainian wants to experience a Ukrainian hospital, Connie!” Now I know why.
My kids picked me up at the airport when I arrived in Edmonton. When they saw me, they looked horrified. I was down to skin and bone and looked very emaciated. I saw specialists to find out what had happened to me, and because I continued to break out in bad hives and have strong allergic reactions to foods. They put me on medication that made me very drowsy and I was unable to go back to work for several months. I literally slept my days away.
When I was better, I contacted Pastor Syens in Ukraine and asked him to help me make sense of what happened in Ukraine. He told me he had been thinking about it as well, and did have some thoughts. Pastor Syens said, “You know, Connie, people from Canada and the United States come to us in Ukraine many times a year. They bring the young adults at the Centre gifts, clothing, financial aid, and help them in all their projects. They support and encourage them, and the youth are blessed over and over again. This was the first time that they had to give. They prayed for you, tended to your physical needs, helped you, and comforted you as they had been comforted themselves. They grew spiritually through that experience in a way they had never before. They were called to be a blessing to you and God used them and grew them in a profound way.”
Now all these years later, I think again about what he said and I do believe he’s got something there. Like we’ve always heard, God works in mysterious ways.
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