Seventh Hospital of Kazakhstan
My hospital room is a sad affair, a blank cell of alabaster walls and rusted metal beds. I share it with an old, dying man named Sergei, who has a huge kidney stone lodged inside of him. He occasionally brings out his ultrasound pictures to show me, as if to make sure I’m duly impressed by it. “Biggest one here,” he often reminds me, as if that’s what it would naturally take to send him to the hospital.
I am lucky to be here, I remind myself, in the seventh largest urology ward in Kazakhstan. I had to hitchhike here while my body tried but failed to pass a slow-moving kidney stone. The worse pain I have ever felt no doubt, but it in some ways it came as a relief, a welcome interruption of the mind-numbing repetition of life in a village. For some reason, I feel guilty about it, that such an obviously bad thing could leave me with such a good feeling.
Each morning I get woken up by a nurse who shoves a shot the size of a howitzer into my ass. “It’s for the pain,” she says. I nod thankfully at her, making a mental note not to sit down for the rest of the day. The nurse moves so briskly, I can never get her name, but I can guess the reason for this. There are about a hundred people on the ward, all of them contending with the pain of having small rocks move down a tube the width of a sewing thread inside them. This means a hundred sad, bed-worn asses that require her indelicate brand of care each morning. “She probably knows our asses better than our faces,” Sergei likes to joke, often.
The ward itself is shocking for the size of its population alone. I read that nine percent of Americans get a kidney stone in their lives, but wonder if the number is higher here. At any given part of the day, about twenty people are walking up and down the hallways, encouraged by their nurses to stay fit and active in their recovery. About half of the people have plastic bags with tubes sticking out of them as they stroll. The tubes are their new urinary tracks, and the bags are their new bladders.
During one of my strolls, I notice a very old woman hunched toward the wall, her arms struggling with something. I approach her and ask if she needs help, and she hands me a cloudy jar full of grease and horsemeat. She makes a point not to fully turn, as if she was afraid of me. I open the jar, holding my breath against the inevitable gaseous smell of old wet meat as it gets released. She turns to thank me, and also to apologize for her initial aloofness. Her face is worn but kind; I guess she is a grandmother to someone, and a loving one at that. She explains apologetically that she doesn’t like people to see it. “See what?” I ask. She points down to her side; her bladder bag is full of blood. I don’t know what to say.
I don’t go out of my own room very much after that. This often leaves me hungry, because the morning nurse is also the lunch nurse, and she approaches the task of handing out free meals with the same begrudging sense of duty she brings to shoving needles all morning. She never stops and goes into any of our rooms. In fact, she barely stops the lunch tray as she swiftly maneuvers it down the hallway. Twice I’ve hungrily patted my belly and asked Sergei when lunch was coming, only to be told it had come and gone twenty minutes before. After my third day of missing the tray, Sergei decides to stop it himself and takes two bowls in spite of the nurse’s loud protests. He leaves one beside my bed. I tell him that it was a silly thing to do, that she will probably leave giant bruises on both of our asses the next morning, but secretly love him for it.
Sure enough, next day the nurse leaves Sergei and me with giant bruises on our asses. Neither of us much feel like getting out of bed for a stroll that day, so we lie in our beds and talk. He tells me he has been here for two months now. The stone he has is too large to pass. The doctors don’t seem to know what to do about it. He thinks that eventually they will try to cut it out of him. I nod solemnly, unsure whether to express shock, sympathy, or firm acceptance of this. The next day, he tells me that he thinks he is probably not going to leave the hospital alive. I nod blankly. I already know I will miss him more than he will miss me.
On the day I leave I wake up even earlier than the nurse. Sergei is still snoring across from me, and I see his tubes are tangled together. Despite what he predicts about his future, he seems to go about his usual business casually; hawked an extra piece of bread for himself the day before to go with today’s fish soup. I sit up, starting to collect my things to return to the village. I think how relieved I should be to leave such a morbid place and go back to my routine, but can’t muster so much as a spark of happy emotion. I even feel a twinge of sorrow at leaving behind the anguish of the last two weeks, if only because I will miss feeling anything at all. That’s me, I think, partially thawed and about to reenter the freezer. I touch my side, a part of me hoping to again feel the familiar quiver of something gone horribly, wonderfully wrong.
David Whitsett is a former Peace Corps volunteer in Kazakhstan.