On the day before my first nightduty our only anesthetist-resuscitator Elena had given me her own personal phone number.
— Don’t hesitate to disturb me in any case of emergency, — she said. She was an amiable old doctor who could have retired ages ago, but she loved her job and, moreover, there was no other resuscitator in the hospital. I gave her thanks but hoped that her number would not be needed on this my inaugural night in the hospital.
At 4.00 pm all doctors except me went home. As if by magic, all orderlies changed their clothes from white to black and seemed now just like the other prisoners (which after all is what they were). I thought that at any time my magic coach must turn back into a pumpkin… and smiled. I stayed alone in the staffroom. In my charge were three departments: two surgical and one therapeutic. Fortunately, not all of the patients were really ill because our hospital served several men’s prisons, so some of them had already recovered and were just waiting for transition back to their points of origin. Other men, by contrast, had merely come to confirm their health disability. They had to do it every year and it always seemed weird to me. Of course, there are some diseases which could get better and so an ongoing disability consideration would be justified. But, for God’s sake, if the patient doesn’t havean arms or a leg — and everybody can see that — why should he have to confirm it with a document? Crazy. It can’t grow back! Even more to the point is that, since nobody treats the prisoners in their colonies, why do they need confirmation or, for that matter, disqualification of or for anything at all? Just stupid formalities to hide the fact that nothing substantive was ever going to happen. Whoever really needed care or didn’t, this was a buried question in our primitive conditions.
I had a gap time before my mandatory inspection of the wards and during that period the official phone rang. I picked it up and heard the voice of one officer, who was named Alexey. He was officially a doctor, but his night duties were minimal because he worked (and viewed himself) more as a lieutenant.
— Let’s go for a walk, — he invited me suddenly. — I’d like to show you the local zoo.
— Local zoo? What do you mean? — I responded, amazed. — Sure, let’s go!
We came to a middle-sized, separately located two-storey building. On the oneside there were a few workshops where healthy prisoners worked during the daytime. Those rooms were closed now. On the other side a bunch of animals lived. I was stunned to find that the prison actually boasted a horse, several rabbits, turtles, decorative rats, parrots and a raven. And most surprising for me was the crocodile! It lived in a special room where the prisoners had carefully made a whole system of water channels.
— It is growing. It was so small when it came to us, but now we have to expand its pool from time to time, — Alexey explained.
— What are you going to do when it grows even more? — I asked with some hesitation. Now it was approximately one meter in length and imposingly drove his tail from side to side against a blue tile pool.
— Isuppose, we will expand the whole building! —He laughed. — Everybody loves this beast and we are not going to offend or upset him.
— Where did he come from? — I queried.
— Oh… Atfirst it used to live as a pet in a very rich restaurant which belonged to a bandit. One day there was a party and his owner wanted to show for his friends how cool he was. He put out his cigarette on the crocodile’s head… You can see a little scar near its eye. The animal had a good reaction and bit off a finger of that man. So, he decided to imprison his pet for its life. The crocodile is lucky that his last owner didn’t just kill him. And I think he feels better here.
I was impressed to see how clean all the cages for the animals were. Every creature looked healthy and cheerful… and tame. As ateenager I had spent a lot of time in my city’s zoo as a member of a naturalist’s club. So I could see the sincere devotion of the people who cared about these animals. I saw this love reflected in the condition of health of every creature. Sometime later, one day an old prisoner would consult with me. He had had a heart attack and I advised him to treat himself properly and have a sick leave from his duty. “No, please, — he begged me, — I have to feed and clean the horse…” I thought then, and I think now, what a pity it is that our prisoners don’t have a rehabilitation program with horses and dogs and other animals like it works in some countries. That zoo is just a casual whimsy, but people don’t stop being people just because they are in prison. Everyone needs a friend and often would like to care for somebody and even take care of some living thing. Animals fit the description perfectly. Moreover, it could contribute to the socialization of the prisoners for re-entering society.
That evening Iwas invited also to a penalty infirmary for prisoners. It was located in the prison’s territory too, but didn’t belong to the hospital. My words were not “the law” there, not like in the hospital, and I could only advise something. One of the prisoners felt badly and the guards asked me to check up on him. Alexey decided to accompany me and we headed there. On one closed square with cracked asphalt and without even a little green blade of grass he said calmly:
— This is the place where they used to shoot people who were sentenced to death.
I said nothing but was silently overwhelmed. I knew thatin the time of the USSR there was a death penalty, but it was so strange to tread on the same old asphalt and to see the same indifferent and dull walls which those people were led toward and saw — in the last moments of their lives. Sure, not all of them were villains; some of those people were executed for political beliefs, some — by mistake. And of those who really were criminals, not all had been dangerous, and I personally refuse to believe that any of them were evil by nature — they became so because of social reasons, and not because of inborn qualities or genetic design. How can you condemn another person to death? What could ever give you that right, as if you had become a god, qualified to stand in ultimate judgment of another human being? I could understand those ones who pulled the trigger — they just executed the order and didn’t feel a sense of personal responsibility. However I couldn’t comprehend the mentality of those who ordered… Of course, people must answer for their actions, but the real reasons behind every crime exist as part of the collaborative blueprint of any shared community, and exist therefore outside of each individual, so — if this logic serves — nobody can be uniquely guilty enough to be slaughtered by his peers. If I had looked more carefully, I would have noticed the traces of bullets on the wall. “They used to fall right here and the blood flowed in this crack,” — I thought, stepping over it. Since then many rains have cleaned the square, but all those things became too real for me in an instant.
Near the penalty infirmary — a gloomy and long one-storeyhut — we had to go through one narrow passage between two walls, where on one side there were several cages with big barking dogs. Two of them were on leashes with two young women wearing guard’s uniforms. The girls were short and slightly-built, and it seemed that they could only barely control those giant black Rottweilers. I wasn’t afraid of dogs, but it was really scary when one of those monsters snapped its teeth just beside my arm.
— The dogs are trained to rush at any people who are not in a guard’s uniform, — Alexey explained.
— Do you think those girls can keep the dogs properly? — I uttered, still unconvinced.
— Yes, they can. They are specialists, — he answered confidently while one of the girls tipped back almost to a semi-reclining position, she strained to keep the dog in tow, its leash looking as if it were about to pop.
The guards and a prisoner met us in the hall of the building. It is possible that they just didn’t want me to see the detention cells. That prisoner was desperately sick. He barely looked up with his sunken cheeks and coughed violently. I recommended that they hospitalize him with suspected pneumonia.
On the way back we didn’tmet the girls again, so we could go by calmly. When we passed the cages and the barking subsided, Alexey told me:
— Girls are good asa cynologists, but we had one big problem last winter, when our authority took a couple of girls to work as a real guards. They had to guard the perimeter and one of them noticed several prisoners on a roof near the wall with barbed wire above. The girls decided that they were trying to escape and according to the instructions began to shoot. They killed two men. And then it turned out that the prisoners were just cleaning the snow from the roof.
— Was it a big scandal? I haven’t heard about it in the city, — I turned to him.
— Of course not. The girls just were transferred to work in another place. These two deaths were issued on securities as attempts to escape.
— But they weren’t trying to escape! — I exclaimed in a low voice.
— No, they weren’t, — he nodded.
Before the night was out I had to visit the patients in serious condition in all three departments. Those who could go were accompanied by orderlies to an examination rooms. I consulted them in the presence of two orderlies and a nurse named Nadezhda. She was an old and very kind woman who looked like a grandmother. As I recognized later, they even called her “mother”. Our patients rarely complained about anything. When one of them said that he felt a lot of pain and couldn’t sleep, I asked her if we had any painkillers today. She answered sadly:
— No. My dear, — she looked at him, — we can only sing a lullaby to you, but it wouldn’t work. Maybe tomorrow we will be able to get some medicine for you, but today you should show a little patience…
Those patients who couldn’t go to the examination room I visited in their wards. Every ward contained approximately ten men, all of whom were very polite, but nobody smiled together, they resembled a pack of wild watchful animals with their tensed sights. I was uncomfortable even with the orderlies. I felt that I was too young and small to oppose those strong adult men. Having only rules and orderlies seemed not enough to protect me, but they were all I had. So I tried to straighten my shoulders, move smoothly and speak confidently.
…One patient was in a reanimation room with artificial ventilation. He had confused consciousness and multiple organ failure because of the advanced stage of his cancer. He was about 40 years old, but looked as a decrepit old man. And although that night was calm and nobody disturbed me, close to the morning he died. Everybody knew that nothing could help him and he would die soon, but I hoped it wouldn’t bein my first night. Orderlies knocked the door of the staffroom and called me into the resuscitation chamber. Nadezhda was already there. While I was verifying the death and noting the time of it, she said regretfully:
— Now I shouldn’t bring him yoghurts and bananas from the outside. You know, he wasn’t being able to swallow the local food because his esophagus was squashed by metastases, so I used to spoon-feed him. When I brought him banana first time, — she smiled joylessly, — he asked me: “Mother, what it is?” He had never seen bananas…
— How it is possible? — I was surprised. Only several walls divided two worlds, and in one of them there were people who didn’t know what a banana is. — Was he serving a life sentence?
— No, but he has been imprisoned again and again all his life since childhood. You know, some of them can’t adapt to life outside because they know only prison’s rules. So, when their time here ends, they are in a hurry to commit a crime and again be imprisoned. And here if you are not privileged, you aren’t able to watch TV and recognize that there are bananas in the world… And another thing I’ve noticed… I’ve been working here more than 40 years and noticed that all the murderers die from the cancer. You’ll see…
Later I heard that her opinion is spread among the hospital’s crew. And maybe, I thought, somewhere deep in their souls the murderers can’t forgive themselves? So, what if their bodies just kill them slowly as a manifestation of hectic coincidence? Who knows?
That night the phone number of our resuscitator was not needed. However, everybody had been expecting death, so Olga’s prediction came true. My first night of duty here — and my first patient’s final gasp. Was death here simply a roulette wheel, a deck of cards, or had somebody, one of the “team”, helped him to go to the better world just to see my reaction? I didn’t know what to believe…
To be continued