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Painting the Polyclinic 3/20/06

Therapy clinic before we started.

Celebrating the newly painted (in pink) Polyclinic.

"It's pink," I said of the brightly colored walls, trim, doors and ceiling - indeed everything - in the freshly painted Orlik Polyclinic.

"Yes," said Doctor Ardan beaming with pride. "Your ideas and the our work in the Children's Hospital inspired this."

"It's different - and bright," I said, thinking, 'Not the color I'd have chosen, but certainly more colorful and uplifting than the dark space it had been before.'

My being in this remote Sayan Mountain village hospital near the Tuvan and Mongolian borders started with a call Friday morning, five days earlier.

"The Orlik Hospital has sent a van for you," said Darima, Doctor Ardan's daughter Friday morning.

"Today?" I said.

"Yes, where are you?"

"I'm heading for a meeting at the Academy," I said. "When do you think it will arrive in Ulan Ude and head back up to Orlik?"

"Oh my dad thinks it may already be there. It could leave tonight. Better get ready. You never can tell."

"Tonight? But I haven't gotten any paints yet. They said they'd give me at least three days notice," I said.

"Well, you know Orlik. Things change. The electricity goes out and the van may not leave for three days. A patients needs to go to a hospital in Ulan Ude and they leave soon. Better get the paint and get ready. They may not leave until tomorrow or even Sunday. Dad doesn't know. The driver will call you."

"The van from Orlik is here," I said to said Olga Kuznetsova, vice president of academics at the East Siberian Academy of Culture.

Olga said, "The decorative arts students want to go to the Republic Children's Hospital tomorrow. They have finished the templates for the in-patient cafeteria. And Erzhena wants you to coach the Academy's English Olympic Team."

"I know about the Olympics," I said. "I have a meeting with the Foreign Studies faculty at noon. I didn't know the students had started work on the templates, but the Orlik van normally doesn't leave until evening, so we should be able to squeeze in one visit to the Republic Hospital on Saturday, assuming it doesn't leave today. First I have to go to a meeting with the publisher of a paper, then present a budget to the director of the Maternity Hospital and get back here by noon. And this afternoon I have to purchase paints and some frames for Orlik."

"What for?"

"Their Therapy Clinic."

"Can you say no. You have three hospitals, no four in Ulan Ude, expecting you to bring the arts into their hospitals in the next three weeks. Going to Orlik is too much."

"I don't see how I can say no," I said. "They were the first hospital to open the doors to the arts. Last September I promised I'd come back and agreed again in December. About ten people, from the governor of the Okinsky Region (where Orlik is located), to the mayor of the neighboring hamlet to the head of education to a local electrician and the local lama, came up to me last weekend at the Roots Games in Tunkinsky and said, "The Orlik Hospital is waiting for you." It is just that people have finally realized I'm leaving soon and, instead of making decisions earlier, they are making them now. Maybe this is for the best. The Children's Hospital No 2 doesn't have its paint yet, Maternity will have to make decisions about its budget, and if we squeeze in a day at the Republic we should be OK. I'll be back Wednesday late - I hope."

"Wednesday? Not Monday?" said Olga.

"It's about eighteen hours by van. If I'm lucky we'll arrive around 11:00 AM on Sunday and I'll get in a half-day's work. If I push hard I should be able to finish either late Tuesday or Wednesday noon, and then head back."

At two thirty that afternoon, while ordering paints with the help of Darima, my cell phone rings. "Hello."

"Naj, it is Olga. Bier, the medical director of Children's Hospital No 2 called. They have the paints and are ready for you to start tomorrow. What shall I tell him?"

"That I have to go to Orlik, but I'll start on his hospital at the end of next week. That's we'll call him as soon as I know when I'll return."

Two forty Olga calls again, "They'll be waiting for you. Have you heard from the Orlik driver?"


"Let me speak to Darima." I pass her my cell phone, they confer and Darima passes it back. "Darmia will call her dad and make sure that the van driver calls her to give her an update. I told her you can't leave until 6:00 PM tomorrow as you have to teach a class first. She said she'd pass that on. She will call you first thing tomorrow or earlier if she hears anything. Please keep me informed of your movements."

"OK," I said. At 11:00 the next morning I called Olga. "Olga, I heard from Darmia," I said. "The van will be picking me up at noon today and they cannot delay. They have too many others going up on the van have set a schedule. I am in the Decorative Arts building now and have the two students standing here with me. Please explain that we will have to delay going to the hospital until after I return as we can't have students going there without either myself, or their teacher Galina. It is no reflection on their abilities or maturity, but maintaining good relations."

They talk, they nod, and Olga and I bid our farewells with my promising to call her as soon as I know my return schedule. As it turned out by the time we picked up everyone, which included being stuffed into the back row with two very drunk young men who seemed barely out of high school, one of whom kept trying to converse with me in exceedingly poor German, it was three thirty before we rolled out of Ulan Ude. "Hmm, takes an average of 18 hours, maybe an arrival time of 9:00 AM," I thought, assuming I didn't get jailed for tossing a drunk out of the van. Surprise, (a) they slept the entire way, (b) we arrived at 2:30 AM, a track record for me. Once we reached Tunkinsky, our driver exploded up the winding mountain (now frozen gravel) roads, a benefit of having (the unexpected pleasure) of the Orlik Hospital's medical director Zoya Samaeva as a passenger. I was in bed at Dr Ardan's house by three, this after unloading all my paints and supplies at the Children's Hospital.

By 8:30 AM, we had had two breakfasts, the first at his house and the second thrust on us at the Children's Hospital. After our second, Dr. Ardan got the nurses and orderlies to carry all my supplies around to the Therapy Clinic, made introductions, passed my list of needs on to the "Big Sister,' (aka head nurse) and left me to discover they had breakfast waiting, my third kasha (hot cereal) within an hour. They sat and watched me eat, me in my long cotton underwear, formally owned by the late Bill Gregg, and a Paul Smith's College tee-shirt; my painting outfit as I didn't have time to purchase any cheap pants to use as painting attire. As most of the patients were wearing robes and it was a brisk - 26 outside, I fit right in.

Hospital staff member stripping the walls of old paint.

I was a bit taken aback by the all white walls. Not the color, but the condition. To touch them was to let sheets and flakes of paint fall off, some thick layers going back to a cement layer underneath. The wall bowed in places three to six inches. So step one was scrapping off 80% of the paint filling two large cardboard boxes with the refuse, an effort aided not only by nurses and orderlies, but several patients. We accomplished all that and putting down a layer of clear primer (as is how primer is sold in Russia) by 8:00 PM that evening, nothing short of a miracle with over 50 square meters of wall to cover and meeting the requirement of constantly cleaning so paint dust would not be tracked throughout.

My being taken aback was modest to the expression on the Therapy Clinic's head doctor when she arrived Monday morning. Her white walls had been replaced by exposed plaster, cement, blue paint and wood - in short, it looked like a demolition site. I used a few places we hadn't touched, behind the nurses station, to show her the fragile conditions. She understood, but still didn't look too happy. By noon we had it back to white (there went the white bought for the doors and trim) and by day's end (8:00 PM) got in our first coat of pale orange throughout. My evenings were spent recovering in Tatianna and Alexander Pronteev's banya, he the head of the Orlik music school; that and enjoying lots of vodka toasts, food and song.

Naj with a patient who helped paint the halls.

Tuesday morning Dr, Ardan said, "I have a patient that must leave today for Ulan Ude. Will you be finished by five?"

"Yes," said. "That's when Alexander agreed to launch an at least month music program in the patient's rooms. We'll be ready."

So we were. The walls were finished, prints hung and the nursing station given a bright finish, as an accent of color, as were two exposed vertical structural beams. And right on time, in exploded Alexander who gave a spirited performance on the accordion leading many of the patients in song. Into this arrived Dr Zoya Samaeva, the hospital director, dressed in her bright traditional clothing leading staff and patients in a Buryiat circle dance and adding her own clear voice to the festivities. It was a rousing launch of the newly painted Therapy Clinic and its new performing arts program, celebrated by a feast in the cafeteria. Vodka toasts. Much food and more songs followed suit. "So much in so few days," I thought.

Alexander and hospital director Zoua launching the music program (in a patient room).

"Now we go to the next table," said Dr. Ardan.

"Next table?" I said. "I thought we to leave now."

"Departure has been rescheduled to seven," he said. "First we want to show you and celebrate the new colors of the Polyclinic you inspired."

"New colors?" I said.

"Yes," he said taking me outside and, following a small parade of doctors and hospital administrators carrying remains of our meal that included a meat and mashed potato dish made to resemble a live volcano complete with flame (burning vodka set in a half eggshell in the top), into the blast of pink and to not one, but two parties; the first to organized by many women throughout the hospital to celebrate International Women's Day, and the second to celebrate the newly painted Polyclinic. There I was introduced to by the clinic's director to their newest (and freshly minted) doctor, none other than one of the inebriated young men in the van, indeed the one who had pestered me so much with his attempts at poor German that Zoua had been forced to shift him to trade places with another where he promptly passed out.

"He's a doctor?" I blurted out. "Sprechen zie Deutch?" I said to him. He turned as pink as the walls. However, he was the model of propriety throughout the clinic celebration and no doubt as surprised to find me as the guest of honor as I was to see him.

As for the ride back, another record of sorts. Finally starting at 9, it took a bit over twenty-two hours as it included a breakdown at 1:00 AM that required our driver, and a friend he flagged down an hour later, to drive back, possibly to Orlik for all I know, to get a replacement brake drum, and return by 8:30 A.M. so we could continue our way home. Most of us, patient and mother, a reporter, Dr. Zoua, another woman, and me spent the night at times freezing in the very uncomfortable van as temperatures plummeted to the mid minus twenties. Once we got going we also celebrated International Women's Day at various cafes and sacred sites en route adding to the hours on the road.

When I got back I called Olga. "Hospital No 2 is waiting for you," she said. "They expect you tomorrow."

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