Hunting for Health in Karakol

On our first morning in Karakol we had to find medial care for my friend. “Let’s tell him ‘Take us  to your finest hospital!‘” I joked as we walked to the taxi.

It was April 7th, a holiday commemorating the 2010 revolution. As we walked to the first clinic, a private hospital, we saw there was a ceremony in nearby Pushkin park. A girl read a poem, people stood around with huge flags.

We entered the building. Women were mournfully wailing. Not the best music to play in a hospital, I thought. A nurse informed us there were no doctors today because of the holiday. We should try the city hospital.

The event in the park had ended and we walked together with a large group of people towards the center. Two notices had been put on the doors of the city hospital. “April 6th – Open Day” and “April 7th – International Day of Health”. Inside we met a guard who said there were not doctors today. Apparently they had taken the International Day of Health off. He recommended trying the regional hospital.

We drove by taxi through the dusty streets. I noticed they were much broader than in Bishkek. Karakol is only the fourth-largest city of Kyrgyzstan but it seems to take up a lot of space. We passed two newly built mosques and a bust of Felix Dserschinski in front of an administrative building. That shocked me. I understand they still have Lenin statues around. Nostalgia and so on.  But Dserschinski? He founded the Tscheka, the Soviet secret police and was responsible for killing thousands in the Red Terror.

The regional hospital in Karakol.
The regional hospital in Karakol.

Several taxis stood in front of the hospital when we arrived so it seemed to be open. Inside my friend asked where to go and a nurse told us to go to the third floor. I had never been in a Kyrgyz hospital but had heard they are horrible. What struck me where the light blue wooden door frames and windows. We went into a canteen in the children’s department and asked another nurse. As she pushed us out of the room she told us to go to the end of the corridor. There, another nurse told us there were no neurologists today and told us to go to the emergency room.

We walked downstairs again and came into an area that was completely dark. “Why does it have to be so difficult,” my friend said.

While we waited at the emergency room I read the information boards on the walls. One claimed there was absolutely no corruption in this place. Another told about the basics of health care:  “Point 1: Always inform the patient about his/her rights”. Yet another showed with little paintings how to recognize symptoms of tuberculosis: A thin little man coughed and spat, he didn’t want to eat fish and woke up at night. I started breathing through my nose.

The doctors told my friend to get something from the pharmacy, several of which were in front of the hospital entrance. In the first pharmacy, the woman was chewing something and told us she didn’t have what we needed. The second smelled like burned archa, juniper twigs. Kyrgyz disinfect their houses in this way and it was reassuring to know this pharmacy had been thus treated. However, the woman didn’t have the right quantity of what we needed.

The third one had it and while my friend went back into the ER, I sat on a bench under a dirty blue-green plastic roof. The uneven concrete floor was strewn with the husks of sunflower seeds. When you see these husks in Kyrgyzstan, you know people have waited there.

Then my friend told me I could come inside. She was lying on sheets with a blue flower pattern, hooked up to an infusion in a wooden bed that looked like it had been bought at IKEA.

A young man in dirty clothes and with a desperate face lay on another such bed. My friend said he had been drinking for sixteen days in a row. When he sat up I saw he was heavily shaking. His mother came in and brought him slippers in a plastic bag.

A pair of baby socks was drying on the radiator.

Two nurses and a doctor appeared and discussed what to do with the shaking man. They constantly switched between Kyrgyz and Russian, but I understood they didn’t know what to do with him. The doctors on holiday were not answering their phones. “If nobody cares I also don’t care!” one of the nurses shouted.

Another, younger, nurse came in to check on my friend. She wore a black Adidas jacket over her dark red ambulance overall. “Where can we eat Ashlamfu?” my friend asked. Karakol is famous for this cold spicy noodle dish. She told us to go to the bazaar, and then there was one special place.

U Zaida! They have the best!” the young alcoholic said.

Yes, u Zaida,” the nurse said. “Go to the bazaar and then ask. Everyone knows it.” She put a pillow behind her back and lay down on the third bed. “Is that your fiancé? Do his parents know about you?” she asked my friend about me. She took a handful of sunflower seeds out of her pocket, started popping them and told us she had been working for almost 24 hours.

The public restroom of Karakol regional hospital.
The public restroom of Karakol regional hospital.

When we left the hospital we needed a toilet. The one for visitors was a small brick building next to the entrance. It didn’t have doors, heating, running water. Nobody seemed to ever clean it. It did have six holes in the ground, three for the men, three for the women.

After seeing this toilet the horror stories about Kyrgyz hospital started to make more sense.