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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: 18 Minutes or 8 Hours, It's Just an Ambulance




A few years ago I lived in Ashland, Oregon, a town renowned for its Shakespeare festival and its latter-day hippies who liked to bathe in fountains and beg the price of a tofu burger from tourists. But one day, a crisis befell this corner of paradise.


The city council discovered that a private ambulance company was dangerously slow in responding. True, they showed up in vehicles large enough to transport a rhino and filled with enough defibrillators and heart monitors to equip a Russian polyclinic. But they were taking as long as 18 minutes to get to outlying homes. Scandalized, the city council shut down the dilatory company.


I thought of all this last week when my girlfriend Nonna's son Seryozha became sick. Seryozha first fell ill on Wednesday, and he spent the entire night vomiting. After stabilizing on Thursday, he started throwing up again that evening. At 5:15 p.m., Nonna phoned for an ambulance. But no one showed up. The delay dragged into an hour, then two.


Periodically Nonna took a break from fretting over her bleary boy and called the dispatcher. "When are you going to get here?" she demanded. "My son is really sick."


"We've got a lot of cases in town tonight. You'll just have to wait."


"How long?"


"A few more minutes."


Neither of us has a car, and whenever I offered to walk down to the road and flag down a driver, Nonna insisted that we should wait for the doctor to examine Seryozha. We didn't even know which hospital to take him to, she said.


It wasn't until 1:30 a.m. f eight hours after Nonna first called f that the doorbell rang. An ambulance doctor shuffled in wearing slippers, shabby trousers, and a sleeveless army undershirt that was visible through his lab coat. The nurse was a stout woman in clunky shoes carrying a box that opened up into something like a child's chemistry set. "What took you so long?" Nonna asked.


The doctor dragged his hands down his face, exhausted. "We've got food poisoning cases all over town tonight. There's a lot of bad watermelon from China." Bad watermelon? Instead of berating them, we served them coffee.


They decided to transport Seryozha. The boy would require five bottles of intravenous fluid just to get back on his feet, and he spent two days in a hospital infested with cockroaches and mice. In any case, he survived.


I wanted to complain somewhere, but the doctor and nurse were doing their best. Considering that the city's ambulance workers have gone at times for a year without pay, their dedication was impressive.


As for the city pooh-bahs and politicians who let this situation develop, I have a proposal. Let's form a task force and study the problem. And don't worry about snacks. I'll bring the watermelon.