Monday, June 19, 2006

Lost History

June 18, 2006

I actually have prepared blog entries since May 23rd. But unfortunately, I lost them all in a computer glitch. So to sum up the past several weeks in very abbreviated form: my bicycle got stolen, my mother came for an enjoyable one-week visit, I showed Salima Bishkek and Osh for the first time, I visited Sary-Chelek, a remote lake in the south of Kyrgyzstan, and I spent a few days in Osh, where I had a chance to spend time with the family and to catch up with some of our wonderful staff members there.

One of the most interesting events of this week is that one of my colleagues, Olesia, gave birth. She is an ethnic Ukrainian and was posted in the south of the country. I heard secondhand that she neglected to use protection when she thought a sexual partner might have good genes. And I also heard secondhand that the baby’s father is an already married man from the south – either Kyrgyz or Uzbek. She’s planning to raise the child on her own.

She was at work until just days before the deliver. On Wednesday morning, our office manager called her at the birthing house, the name for government-run maternity hospitals.

“She sounds like she’s in a lot of pain,” Kasiet told us. “She asked me if it was supposed to be so painful.”

“Can she get some medicine?” I asked.

“I told her to ask for some,” Kasiet said. “They certainly won’t offer it to her.”

I later found out that she went to the hospital alone. She doesn’t have a partner and even so, men have mixed views about attending births here. And she and her mother seem to be estranged.

A few hours later, another colleague, Janna, tried to called Olesia on her cell phone, but it was turned off. It was disturbing to be thinking of Olesia alone and in pain, and to not be able to do anything.

Finally, at 3 in the afternoon, Olesia called Janna and told her she’d given birth to a boy. We planned to visit the next morning.

I talked to some of my colleagues about support during childbirth. Our office manager, Kasiet, said she was alone. Her husband refused to go with her.

I told her I’d be offended if my partner refused me that support during a difficult time.

“They wait outside,” she said. “And it’s different here. Eastern men have a different mentality. And until just recently, hospitals didn’t let anyone at all in while women were giving birth.”

It seems to me to be too easy to stand outside and to just smile at the result. It doesn’t allow men the knowledge of what it really takes to produce a human being. And it leads their decisions on whether or not to have more offspring to be based on incomplete information.

“Some people say that when a man attends a childbirth, he can marvel at what his wife has gone through and will have even more respect for her,” my coworker, Aizhana, said, who gave birth six months ago. “But other times, they are so grossed out that they aren’t attracted to their wife anymore.”

“If that were the case, wouldn’t they then be unattracted to any woman, knowing that if they got her pregnant, they’d see the same thing?” I asked.

A male Uzbek colleague said that he’d refuse to support a future wife in childbirth.

“I heard of a guy who had served in Chechnya and had seen a lot of blood. His wife talked him into coming into the delivery room with her. And when he saw all that blood, something clicked in his brain and he went crazy. Men just can’t handle that much stress.”

I told him it was common in the States for men to be there and I’d never heard of anyone going crazy.

“And what would you prefer if you were in great pain,” I asked Damir. “To see the supportive faces of people you love and who can ensure you get the care you need, or to be alone with a doctor who wants bribes?”

“But none of our ancestors did that,” Kasiet said. “It’s not something they’ve been trained to do.”

“It’s not a genetic pre-conditioning,” I said. “Whether or not one’s grandfather was in the delivery room has no influence on how a modern man can handle the situation.”

I have a Russian co-worker, Denis, whose wife is expecting their child within the next few weeks. He plans to be in the delivery room with her, as he was for their first child. And he plans to take leave to help care for the new child. His Kyrgyz wife was lucky to find someone evidently much more caring and supportive than the average local man.

The next morning, we went to the 4th birthing house. There are 6 government run birthing houses in Bishkek, as well as a couple of private clinics. I asked Denis how people chose between them.

“Generally, people go to where they have acquaintances or where they can make a deal to ensure they’ll receive good care.”

“Is there a significant difference in quality at the private clinics?”

“My wife gave birth to our first child at a private clinic. What’s nice there is the level of service. There is more privacy, the food is better and the staff really attend to you. But the problem is that they often lack the equipment needed for problems and emergencies. So if something goes wrong, they end up transporting the patient to a government hospital anyway.”

The Fourth Birthing House was a massive, run-down, Soviet-era building. We went through an unmarked door and climbed the stairs up several floors. It smelled of cigarette smoke and overcooked cabbage and buckwheat. At the appropriate landing, we found two doors bolted shut. A small window, like a take-out counter, was open in one of them. Above the window was a handwritten list of the patients located there. We found Olesia Ovseenko there, next to her roommate’s name. Above that, a bright pink piece of paper announced that as of January 2006, by law, all services related to birth were provided free of charge.

Janna stuck her head through the window and asked someone to call Olesia. Olesia walked to the window in a blue, green, red and yellow robe. Her face was pallid, but she was good-spirited as usual. She greeted the group of 11 colleagues, then went to get her baby to show us.

She held the 3.7 kilogram, one-day old baby up through the window to show us. He was swaddled tightly, like a straightjacket covered with a cocoon. He couldn’t move his arms or legs. Only his tiny face was visible. Everyone reached into their pockets and stuffed 50 and 200 som bills into the swaddling.

There is a tradition here in which people give money or gifts to those who give them good news or show them something new. It seems to be practiced most frequently with the news of a birth. Even if someone orally tells you about a birth, you are supposed to offer a small gift to that bearer of information. Similarly, when we went to Issyk-Kul with Nigora, the taxi driver asked her for a gift since he was showing her the national treasure for the first time (regardless that we were paying him to do so). She gave him a chocolate-covered wafer.

After a while, the men left, leaving Olesia to speak to her female colleagues through the window. In the meantime, other visitors arrived and stuck their faces through the window, blocking our view of Olesia, as they searched for their loved ones.

While Olesia seems to be alone in terms of family, she’s surrounded by people who care about her. She told us that many colleagues came almost immediately after the birth and that the word had already spread as far as Jalalabat, in southern Kyrgyzstan. One group of colleagues plans to buy her a stroller. We will be buying her a baby bed.

The mothers on our team worry about Olesia living alone with a small baby. They offered to come by and show her how to give the baby a bath.

Olesia told us how she tried to change a diaper for the first time.

“I have no idea how to do anything,” she said. “It got all over the place. To be honest, he scares me a bit.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it and you’ll learn everything,” the mothers assured her.

They handed her yogurt, a banana and cottage cheese and urged her to eat.

“Drink lots of broth,” they told her. “It’s warm and it gets your milk going.”

Aizhana told her to stay warm and to keep her mouth closed to protect her teeth.

“What was that about the teeth?” I asked her, as we were leaving.

“A mother loses a lot of vitamins and Calcium and that makes the teeth weak. It’s important to not drink cold things and to try to keep the teeth protected so they don’t get damaged.”

“For how long?” I asked, surprised at this new theory.

“I tried to keep my lips closed for a month after delivery,” she said.

I remembered when she came to the office to show her new arrival, that she wore a mask over her mouth. I figured she might have had a cold. But perhaps, really, she was just protecting her teeth.

1 comment:

Vilkje said...

Thank you for your interesting diary from Kyrgyzstan. I dropped into your site by chance when i was googling for Balykchi. Your stories remind me of my visit for Issyk-Kul area September 2005 together with a Kyrgyz friend...

Best greetings from Vilkje in Northern Norway, Land of Midnight Sun.