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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'They Don't Get Paid for Carrying People'

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A small party last week at the apartment of a friend who lives in the city center ended up with me and three other guests carrying an old woman from her apartment to an ambulance downstairs.

There was no elevator, and the medics refused to carry the patient, demanding money from the woman's relatives that they did not have. Her daughter had to ask neighbors for help.

This behavior, as I later found out, is typical of the state-financed medical system. But all the same I was shocked by it.

"Does this happen often?" I asked a female nurse. Beside her were standing two men, the ambulance driver and a medical assistant.

"It happens every time," she said. "Who else should do the carrying?"

"What about these two guys? What do they do here?" I said.

"Hmm," the nurse replied. "They don't get paid for carrying people."

An hour earlier, when I was smoking outside my friend's apartment, I had thought the neighbor was joking when she offered to pay 50 rubles to anyone who would help carry her mother down the stairs. We guests were totally confused at first, but once we understood her predicament, we agreed to help at no charge.

"This is an everyday occurrence," another guest said. "I remember that when a relative had to be delivered to a hospital a couple of years ago, the ambulance staff arrived and told me to find some other people to carry her down from the ninth floor. I had to run around until I finally found some homeless people who would do it."

When we entered the neighbor's apartment it seemed to be part of a communal apartment. The stink hit our noses in the corridor even before we went inside. The woman, who was 87, was moved off the sofa onto a piece of material spread on the floor and she was covered with a dirty blanket. The corridor was too narrow to use a proper stretcher, a nurse said.

One guest appeared to be quite experienced. "Let's turn her around," he said. "It wouldn't be good for her circulation to carry her headfirst down the stairs."

Despite having been born in this country and having lived here all my life, this all looked completely crazy to me. The whole attitude of the medical staff toward another human being and the way ambulance workers treat emergency patients seems out of keeping with the year 2004. On the outside, there is a new century, but inside people's minds they appear to be still in the Soviet Union or maybe something even older.

The salaries of medical workers in St. Petersburg are low, but not so dire that they have to stop being human beings. After speaking with medical staff at the Mariinsky Hospital, I learned their salaries are between $200 and $300 a month, which is average for this city. It is hard, but possible, to live on this amount of money, so I would not have imagined that these people would need to extort cash from patients who have no choice.

Teachers in St. Petersburg, who also have extremely low incomes, also find ways to earn money on the side, but I have never heard of a teacher refusing to teach a child if his parents are unable to pay an additional 1,000 rubles.

I was stunned that moral standards have dropped so significantly and especially in the medical sphere. I would be more optimistic if this had just been an isolated incident, but the problem is that this is the system. Many people I talked to told me that exactly the same thing had happened to their relatives.

I remember the expression on the ambulance driver's face, which said it was not his business to move patients unless he got paid extra for it. In the Mariinsky Hospital, by the way, I was told that part of the drivers' job description is to assist in carrying patients.

Vladimir Kovalyev is a Staff Writer at The St. Petersburg Times.