THE AMERICAN HOSPITAL
The Bolsheviks had left to Siberia a terrible legacy in the epidemics that were spreading everywhere. Cholera that had been rife in summer had claimed many victims at Omsk, though happily fewer at Tyumen. Towards autumn, when the cholera died down, another scourge, spotted typhus, took its place. The refugees, the German prisoners of war who had been transferred to Siberia from Turkestan on account of the famine in that province, and the soldiers returning from the front had all brought the infection. Lack of disinfectants and of soap, the overcrowding of houses, and the scarcity of material which made people refuse to discard their contaminated clothing, were the chief reasons for the rapid spread of disease and made the fight against it extremely difficult. Neither the hospitals nor their staff's were numerous enough to cope with such an outbreak. They were, besides, overcrowded, for the Bolsheviks had left many of their men in them, and wounded belonging to the White Army continued to pour in as the advance on the Ural progressed. Miss Mather fell a victim to these epidemics and developed virulent enteric. Our landlady kindly allowed us to stay in the house, for it was hopeless to try to gain admittance to any of the hospitals, except to the emergency cholera barracks in which I did not like to risk her. I managed to find a good doctor, and in the last days of Miss Mather's illness a nurse from one of the hospitals volunteered to come and help me with the night nursing. I was deeply grateful to her, for before this I had done all the nursing as well as the housework alone for fear of spreading the infection. It was extremely difficult to get the things necessary for the patient. One of the medicines the doctor had prescribed, some kind of oil emulsion, could nowhere be got, so the chemist told me. Seeing my disappointment, he added that a few days previously he had supplied some people with the last bottle of the stuff he had had. As the child for whom it was ordered had died, the parents might still have some of the medicine. I went to the address he gave me, and the people sold me the still half-full bottle, glad to get back part of the exorbitant price they had paid for it. For a disinfectant I exchanged a lace-trimmed nightdress! Unfortunately, all the hardships and anxieties she had undergone had sapped Miss Mather's constitution. No treatment proved of any avail, and early in October she died. Her loss was a cruel blow to me. Her funeral was unutterably sad: a small knot of strangers at the grave, a priest of another faith to give a last blessing to the coffin as it was lowered into the snow-covered ground - it was a picture of utter loneliness and desolation.
On the day after my faithful friend was laid to rest I resumed my lessons. Only hard work enabled me to bear the silence of that empty room where the shadow of death had lingered so recently.
Soon after this sad event a large detachment of the American Red Cross arrived, and promptly proceeded to fit up the Kolokolnikoffs' commercial school as a hospital. They came from the missionary hospitals in China and were headed by Dr. Lewis, the able head surgeon of the American hospital at Peking. The matron was Miss Florence Farmer, and the staff consisted of six doctors and eleven other nurses.
I had only heard of American methods before and had never seen them. I could not believe my eyes when I saw the rapidity with which these people made the slow Siberian workmen move. In an incredibly short time the large school building was turned into a model hospital. Partitions were built; water was laid on in all the prospective wards; electric light was installed lavishly. All the fittings were of the very best; an X-ray cabinet was put up and the operating theatre was supplied with the newest appliances. I was a judge of this, for I had passed some months of training at the Empress's hospital at Tsarskoe Selo and knew what a well-stocked hospital should look like. The large rooms, well heated, with plenty of light, made ideal wards, and the beds, bedding, etc., were so perfect and abundant that it was considered the most wonderful luck to be billeted in the American hospital.It was destined for the use of Czech units, but also admitted wounded soldiers of the White Army and in that way relieved the town hospitals, in which the number of typhus patients was daily alarmingly increasing.
At the end of November came the overthrow of the Omsk "Directorate," and Admiral Kolchak put himself at the head of a new Siberian Government. The change passed quite unnoticed in our town. At Omsk there had been a spell of unrest for a few days, but the Cossacks kept order and the Kolchak era began. Though this government was not officially recognised, the Allies supported de facto if not de jure, and for that purpose some Allied units were sent down the line from Vladivostock, for by this time the whole Trans-Siberian line was clear.
The sick of the Allied forces were also sent to the American hospital. I offered my services as interpreter there and went as often as I could between my lessons, generally staying to dine with the staff. I had great difficulty in hiding how much I enjoyed those meals. It was so long since I had sat at a civilised dinner-table on which there were actually four- pronged forks in use! There was excellent real meat, not tinned or miserable shreds pretending to be nourishing; hot vegetables - things I had forgotten the taste of, for except cabbage the market produced nothing - and the meal actually wound up with coffee! I felt I was a kind of Santa Claus when Miss Farmer sometimes gave me biscuits or chocolate to take home to the others. Our evening meal on those days seemed to us an echo of former palace life!
It was equally refreshing to see and talk to people who came from other countries, whose mentality had not been affected by any awful experiences, who had led normal lives and had kept normal interests, and they were most discreet in never touching on the past in talking to us Russians. There were American and European papers in the hospital reading-room. A piano had been unearthed, and as I walked down the long corridor which ran through the whole building I often heard some very good playing in the distance. Several of the patients were fine musicians, for the Czech soldiers had been mostly volunteers, and many were educated men. There was a great camaraderie between the Czech privates and their officers. There was scarcely anything in their dress to distinguish the one from the other, and often they were on the same educational level, as there were university men and former school teachers among the soldiers too. The nurses flitted about in the neat pale blue dresses and pretty white caps that I thought so much more attractive than our nursing uniform. These nurses were wonderfully good at their work and were most untiring in their ministrations to the wants of their patients. It was sometimes a difficult matter for them to understand each other, as the nurses spoke only English, of which the majority of the men did not understand a word. The matron. Miss Farmer, could talk Russian, as she had been at the head of a Red Cross unit with the Russian armies in Galicia, where her work had been much appreciated. She was a born organiser, young, active, and absolutely indefatigable. She seemed to be in every ward of the vast hospital at the same time, always cheerful and ready for any emergency, and issuing orders right and left.
Most of the Czech patients knew some Russian, but, though the ambulance men were mainly Austrian or German prisoners from the camps, German was not allowed to be spoken in the hospital, broken Russian being the usual means of intercourse.
This gave rise to many difficulties. I was in a quandary once, not knowing to what language I should have to resort in order to make myself understood. A French soldier who lay in one of the wards asked me to tell the ambulance man to bring him something he needed, for nobody could understand French. This particular ambulance man was a new arrival whom I had not seen before, and when I addressed him in Russian he gave me a blank look. I hesitatingly tried on him the few words of Czech I knew. The Czech language resembles Russian, but sometimes, I had learnt to my cost, the words had a totally different meaning. The man's face showed absolute lack of comprehension. I hesitated to continue in Czech, for fear of being totally misunderstood, and in my confusion my brain involuntarily produced the language I knew the least of all those I spoke. "Hvad hed -" (what do you call -), I began in Danish. The likeness to a familiar sound brought a cheerful smile to the man's face. "Zu befehl" (at your orders), he said in German. He happened to be a German prisoner of war who had drifted into the hospital, so I explained to him what I wanted in his own tongue. The Czechs, I believe, also resorted to German when both parties got stranded in Russian, for, of course, all the Austrian prisoners, as well as the Czechs, had formerly used German as their official language.
It was rather touching to see the way in which one of the German ambulance men, a tall, bearded fellow, looked after a French soldier who was dangerously ill with typhoid fever. (The Frenchman belonged to one of the Allied units that had been sent to support the Czechs.) The German lifted the Frenchman like a baby in his strong arms, and watched over him for hours, pouring spoonfuls of liquid into the mouth of his patient whenever the half-conscious man could be aroused from his torpor. The nurses said that his former enemy practically saved the Frenchman's life. In the same ward lay another French soldier, a pale, fair man from the Northern Provinces. He also could only talk French, and seemed to enjoy my visits, as I was the one person who could speak his language to him. "Ah, Madame, it cheers me up only to hear French again," he used to say. In the cot beside him lay poor "Jaunet" (the little yellow one) as they affectionately called him, an unfortunate little Tonkinese soldier whose sad eyes reminded one of a friendly dog. Towards evening those eyes were often bright with fever, for "Jaunet" was slowly dying of pneumonia. A racking cough shook his wasted frame, and his small yellow face got thinner and thinner. To this lonely being no one could talk, for he had not even French! The pale-faced Frenchman could sometimes make him understand a few simple things, but the Tonkinese usually lay silent, his eyes fixed in patient despair on some imaginary picture that he saw in his fevered fantasies. Tonkin is far from Siberia, and the poor fellow, used to his tropical climate, shivered even in the warm hospital rooms, heated to true American temperature. The nurses always gave him a double supply of blankets and he wore several layers of jackets. No amount of nursing could save him. I believe "Jaunet" never saw his native Tonkin again, but was buried in snow-covered Siberia.
The American hospital was of great assistance to the population. The matron, Miss Farmer, took the greatest interest in a settlement for delicate Russian children that had just been opened, and it was generously supplied from the hospital stores. Dr. Lewis often sent medicines and disinfectants to the local hospitals, where the supplies were running out. One of the American doctors, an oculist, proved a boon to the town, as he had all the newest instruments, which the local specialist lacked.
The hospital staff impressed me by their simple and kindly manner. They seemed so sincere in their desire to help their neighbour wherever they found him, and it was all done so quietly and without any reclame. All the hospital grieved when one of the nurses fell ill with typhus and died after a few days' illness. There were no typhus patients in the hospital, as infectious cases were not admitted, but it is probable that the ambulance men brought the infection from the town in their clothes. Poor Miss McBride worked gallantly as long as she could. She took to her bed, with what was at first believed to be pneumonia, only when her strength completely failed. All hearts went out in a parting homage to this noble woman who met her death in working for those ideals of charity and self-sacrifice to which she had devoted her life.
At Christmas the staff gave the patients and themselves a real treat. Gaily decorated Christmas trees were put in the wards, in which the patients hung up all the Allied flags which they had themselves made with great ingenuity. A real Anglo-American Christmas dinner was produced by the Chinese cook. He surpassed himself on this occasion, though he was always an artist. He and the boys under him gave a quaint touch to the hospital when they noiselessly flitted about the kitchens in their felt shoes, their neat blue clothes being the perfection of Chinese elegance. They added to the heterogeneous jumble of the hospital's population, and with them no one but the American staff, who all spoke Chinese fluently, having learnt it at their Missions, could communicate. Still, the chef managed somehow to do his own marketing. I often met him coming back from town drawing a little sleigh filled with his purchases, with a curious and admiring crowd of women and children around him, of whose presence he seemed loftily unconscious.
After Christmas I made up my mind to leave Siberia. I realised that there I had no chance of learning if the Empress and her children were still alive, or if the reports of their death had any foundation. I hoped somehow to reach England, and thence to try to join the Empress-Mother in the Crimea. The plan seemed impracticable at first, on account of the difficulties of the journey. Although trains in which passengers could travel were now running, a journey in a cattle-truck in winter would be no joke. I resolved to don a nurse's dress and to volunteer to join the American Red Cross unit that was taking consumptive Czechs by sea to Europe, offering my services in pay for my transport. In view of this, I went up to Omsk in the beginning of January 1919' Some of the Czech soldiers from the hospital were going up in a special car and offered to take me with them. Monsieur Gilliard accompanied me, as he wanted to see some friends in the French Military Mission at Omsk.
A special thank you to firstname.lastname@example.org for scanning the text for this online edition.
Contact Bob Atchison for comments on this site.
Other books on Russian History from the Alexander Palace Association:
The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna by Sophie Buxhoeveden | Memories of the Russian Court by Anna Vyrubova | Thirteen Years at the Russian Court by Pierre Gilliard | Last Days at Tsarskoe Selo by Paul Beckendorff | St. Petersburg - Imperial City | Charles Cameron - Imperial Architect by Georges Loukomski | Tsarskoe Selo in 1910
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