A comparison of two maternity hospitals in Belarus

Marina with daughter Albina at the Ostrovets hospital. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Marina with daughter Albina on the grounds of the Ostrovets hospital. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Toward the start of Marina’s pregnancy, a news story came out through the state-run television station that featured the hospital at Ostrovets, asserting that it was rated the third best hospital in the country for its size. Looking back, the story was probably targeted to the Russian workers who had come to town to work on the nuclear plant, but my wife looked into it, and there were enough improvements, in her opinion, to justify staying in town on her due date, rather than trying to be in a different town with a better hospital at the time the baby was scheduled to come out into the world.

So, while our baby boy is still deciding whether or not to dive into the unknown of the outside world (a choice that nature will soon decide for him, whether he wants to or not), this seems like a good opportunity to briefly compare the care given at admission to the hospital to my wife, between what was provided in 2009 in Lida and in 2013 in Ostrovets. To get a sense of what could reasonably be expected, it’s probably best to start with a comparison between the two towns.

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Marina in Lida, late February 2009. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Lida is a town with 97,000 people, situated along one of the main thoroughfares between Minsk and Grodno in the northwestern part of the country. As with most towns in what was once “Black Russia” (that part of Belarus that was occupied by ancient Lithuania when it was still the last pagan country in Europe), it is of Lithuanian origin, dating back to the 12th century. It contains the walls of a fortress that was upgraded from an old wooden fort by what was perhaps that country’s greatest military leader, Gediminas, as part of a protective chain of strongholds protecting his inner empire. It was the home of one of World War II’s greatest unsung heroes, Witold Piletski, a Pole who actually infiltrated the concentration camp at Auschwitz with an intent to carry out a mass escape of prisoners there (his report made after exfiltrating alone was one of the first to detail the atrocities that were ongoing there). Today, it serves as a railroad junction and district center, and is home to my wife’s cousin Svetlana and her bus-driver husband Valera.

Marina in Ostrovets, winter 2009. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Marina in Ostrovets, winter 2009. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Ostrovets is a town that as of the last census (2010) held some 8,300 people, a district center serviced by the last train station (named for the church at Gudogai) of the Minsk-Vilnius line on this side of the Belarus-Lithuanian border. It is the furthest east district center, the farthest from Grodno within its oblast, and its history was first chronicled in the 15th century. It sits 30 miles away from Vilnius, but as there is a border between it and the Lithuanian capital, it can hardly be called a suburb, or even an exurb of that city – it’s just a Belarusian town sitting close to another nation’s capital. Its greatest attractions are the churches in the area, many of which, like the Cosme and Damian Church where our daughter Albina was baptized, date back to when the area was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This small town presumably will soon host Belarus’ first nuclear power plants (presuming Russia doesn’t pull its workers in the current international spat), most recently said to be scheduled to open in November 2018. It has been home to my wife’s family since back in the Brezhnev era.

In Lida, the hospital resembles something of a campus, with different buildings serving different specialties. The maternity wing is relatively new, with at least three levels of wards and a receiving area, and most of its patients seem to come from in-town. In Ostrovets, the hospital is basically one building with a couple of annexes (one with “Slava KPSS,” a statement of gratitude for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and “Miru Mir,” or “Peace on Earth,” written in colored bricks on the side – it is connected to the main building by a second-floor bridge), with one floor serving as the maternity ward. Most of the hospital’s patients appear to be from the nuclear plant construction population or from the many outlying villages. The original in-town population today seems dwarfed by these two other constituencies.

In late February and early March 2009, Lida was undergoing a flu epidemic and the maternity ward was locked down in a quarantine as a result. Despite this, we opted to stay with Sveta and Valera in the latter ten days of February in order to avoid the Ostrovets hospital, which had a considerably less appealing reputation at the time.

These were some of the thoughts I documented at the time, written for our daughter (who is now 4-1/2 years old):

“Your mother is a bit scared, but that is normal for expectant mothers. It was not too many years ago that birth carried an extraordinary risk with it. Today, we think we are closer to having childbirth be less risky. But it is still nerve-wracking for new parents to bring in a new life into their own. A lot of my nervousness is whether we will do everything correctly. I think we will. But it’s hard to say how all this will turn out (I’m still confident it will turn out fine, that this is just nerves).”

“Apparently the international spread of salmonella in baby formula (if memory still serves me, first detected at hospitals in Britain) has reached hospitals here and in Grodno, meaning that we will have to be certain of how your feed is cared for, if it does not come from your mother’s breast. But we will do all we can to protect you.”

“Tonight, we had galubtsy (cabbage stuffed with a mix of rice and hamburger). When your grandmother had your mother, she ate the same thing on the night before your birth. I figure you will come out when you come out. Any time is a good time to do so.”

“The days pass here in Lida much as they did in Ostrovets while we wait for your arrival. Your little legs are pressed against your mother’s belly, making moving bumps that sometimes force your mother’s belly button to be an innie, and sometimes an outie. False contractions are common, and we are left to calm our own excitement while waiting for you.”

Jumping the gun, we called for the ambulance at the first signs of imminent labor, a panic which separated us for the last four days of her pregnancy before the actual birth. This was what I recorded about her admission to the hospital, which also took place on a Friday:

“At around 5:30 p.m., a drunk guy attempted to get someone to answer the door. The ringing of the doorbell woke your mother and at that time she found what we thought was the mucus plug emerging, a signal that her waters breaking could be imminent. By 5:45 p.m., a call was placed to the general practitioner and your mother again began packing, this time with the idea that she will be leaving the house soon.”

Marina checked in at the Lida hospital in 2009. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Marina checked in at the Lida hospital in 2009. Photo by Ben M. Angel

“At 6 p.m., the ambulance was called. We braved the hallway and got out the front door when we found the police had arrived to take care of the drunk. Shortly after, an ambulance arrived. We thought it was the one to take your mother to the hospital but it turned out to be for the drunk. At about 6:15 p.m., another ambulance took you and your mother, as well as your Aunt Svetlana and your father, to the hospital. We arrived there after a 15 minute drive. Another 45 minutes passed sitting and waiting while they checked her in and looked her over. She wasn’t in labor yet, but it could begin any time, so she was checked in. By 8 p.m., Aunt Svetlana and your father returned to your Aunt and Uncle’s home.”

“At 8:15 p.m., your mother called one last time for the night. Everything seemed to be in order. The birth canal was slightly dilated but labor hadn’t started yet. Your mother had lots of phone calls to make, of course – lots of girlfriends and family to contact and talk with. So it was safe to say she was doing well. If you decide to stay in her tummy through the weekend, the doctors will induce you to come out on Monday, your mother’s and my first anniversary of being married in Hong Kong (March 2). That was the original date you were expected. Now the wait begins.”

Today, in late August early September 2013, Ostrovets is not facing any flu epidemics. There is a problem with an African virus that is plaguing pig farms in the area, which the Russians have elected to exploit in the latest economic spat (even though it apparently came through Russia before reaching this country), but that is not being transmitted to the human population anywhere. Marina’s mucus plug started to pass about a week before her due date, but we didn’t try to get her in to the hospital at that point. Indeed, she tried to stay out of the hospital for as long as possible – we live only four blocks from the facility, and there was hardly a chance she would deliver on the way over the Losha River, even if she walked the distance (which was not likely to happen – the ambulance drivers usually look bored sitting around on the hospital’s first floor).

So in comparison, the trip to the hospital this time was not as dramatic. She went by foot to her 40th week appointment during the morning and consulted with a maternity assistant, who insisted that it made perfect sense to come in to the hospital on a Friday, even though there was no reason to believe that any doctor, even the one with “international experience” (on duty at the time), would find reason to induce birth on a weekend. The argument that my wife lived only four blocks away from the hospital fell more or less on deaf ears.

At home, Marina’s mother attempted to prepare fish for lunch, the traditional food for European Catholics on Friday, but the doctor wanted her at the hospital as soon as possible. There would be no lunch for my wife on this day. After the four block walk, we got her records from the woman’s consultant in the annex, then met the attendant on duty in the main part of the building, where Marina changed her clothes and got ready to head upstairs to her bed. Then with a kiss, we parted at around 2:15 p.m.

Swans on the Losha River in Ostrovets. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Family of swans with four babies on the Losha River in Ostrovets. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Nature provided some reassurance to me as I crossed the new footbridge near Albina’s nursery school to get back home. A family of swans that had taken up residence on this section of river were out, and all four of the fuzzy gray babies were still alive and learning to hunt for food behind their parents.

At 6 that evening, Albina and I took fish to her mom, and some old bread for the swans that we intended to feed on the way home (we instead fed ducks as the swans had gone back into hiding for the evening). Marina was appreciative of the food, as the hospital would serve her none that day – she hadn’t spent a full day in the facility yet. The doctor on duty apparently wasn’t in such a good mood, and became insistent on being paid in advance for any request, even for things that are generally expected of a doctor on duty. It felt to my wife as if the ladies in the ward were being held for ransom – if you paid enough in advance, you could get anything you requested. If you didn’t know you were to pay, or if you had no money, or were simply not interested in paying in advance, you were ignored. And of course you couldn’t go home after being admitted. This wasn’t exactly the ideal model of socialized medicine. I had to wonder if her doctor’s “international experience” came from a big city hospital in the United States rather than northern Africa.

At home, Albina played computer games and watched cartoons on YouTube as her father stayed busy writing. Babushka, Marina’s mother, worked in the garden and at times watched over Albina. At night, our daughter chose to sleep with me, rather than with Babushka, a change from the last time that Marina had to spend time in the hospital, a little over a month ago.

In Lida, the doctors had an intravenous (IV) needle placed in the day after Marina’s arrival, and they carried out a number of tests, from blood to urine. In Ostrovets, they forewent the IV, but still carried out the tests. The weather on the day after admission in both pregnancies was sunny. In Lida, the day after Marina was admitted, I had texted my wife that it was time for our daughter to come out and play. We were both impatient to be parents back then. This time around, we know a little better. We’re patiently waiting for nature to take its course.

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One Response to A comparison of two maternity hospitals in Belarus

  1. Hugh Hudson says:

    Ben:
    I am interested in finding out about Phineas (Archibald) Preston, 1660-1703. I saw your post about Cromwell. Tentatively, I am connecting my Robert Poage and Elizabeth Preston, who had Augusta County, Virginia connections, to Phineas Preston and his wife Mary Stewart.

    Thanks,
    Hugh
    Frankfort, Kentucky USA

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