Remembering my dear father-in-law one year after he died. We are sad, but we are blessed by our memories of his contributions to others.
My father-in-law, John W. Hall, MD, was very important to me throughout my adult life. His zest for life was inspiring, and he always took many willing participants along on his adventures. He was important to so many people in so many realms. To us as Dad, Grandpa, Husband, and Uncle, to his sailing friends as Skipper, and to his patients as Doc, a urologist who led and pioneered throughout his career. He never retired, wanting to continue to serve others throughout his life.
I often wish to share a conversation with Dad, and especially during the past weeks of the Russian war on the people of Ukraine, I wonder what he would be thinking. So, in honor of the people of Ukraine, I share with you an excerpt from Dad's memoir, "I'd Rather Be Sailing," in which he describes the two medical mission trips he made to Ukraine in 2002 and 2003-2004.
Rev. David Behling started Airo Ministries as the organization to support his mission trips. He took trips to Russia, Jamaica, and Central America before we joined him for a trip. He had been denied a return trip to Russia when the Russian government prohibited any religious group except the Orthodox Church.
So, he moved his trips to Ukraine.
In late October 2002, my wife Ann and I joined David, her brother Bill Mayhew, and our friends Dr. Tom Stone and his wife Nancy Stone on a mission trip. There were about 5-6 others on the trip. We were to serve as a medical mission to the gypsy people in the western part of Ukraine. We flew from Detroit to Amsterdam and then on to Budapest, Hungary. We spent a night in a hotel and the next morning were picked up by a Ukrainian guide in a large van. He said that he was an ex-tourist guide, but he acted more like ex-KGB. We drove up to the Ukrainian border where cars and trucks were backed up for miles. We passed them all right to the border. Our “Guide” got out with all our passports. He passed a few bottles of homemade wine to the border guards and we were waved into Ukraine.
Our home was to be in a hotel in Mukachevo that once housed the Russian Olympic bobsled team. It was rundown from its glory days. We had no hot water and the weather was cold and rainy. “Heat Day” was traditionally on Nov. 1st for all government owned buildings, but due to the government’s austerity program, it was moved to Nov. 15th. After one week, we offered to pay for some hot water. Everyone got a hot shower, and being a gentleman, I waited until the last. While in the shower and soaped up, they turned off all the water on me. I had to sponge the soap off with cold water in a bucket. We had old bunk beds and just a few blankets. We wore several layers of clothing to bed. We found one small radiator and shared it on alternate nights to take off the chill. We were followed wherever we went by two men in leather coats chain smoking cigarettes.
We held several clinics for the Roma (gypsy) population. Under the Soviet Union, many Russian people moved into Ukraine and were the favored population. When the USSR broke up, the Ukrainian people took over most government positions and represented 60-70% of the population. The Russian people (30%) were now a minority, but were 1-2 generations removed from Mother Russia. They had to stay in Ukraine. The Roma people were a traditionally itinerant ethnic group before the WWII, but under the USSR, they had to stay in whatever area they were in when the war ended. They had few rights and were very poor, picking up what little work was left over. Essentially, they were camping in makeshift structures at the end of the road.
In the clinic, we offered whatever basic care we could provide. Before we left the USA, Ann had many people donate basic reading glasses or what they could buy at Walmart. She was our ophthalmologist and would sit with the Roma ladies and try one pair after another until they could read their bibles. They would hug her and cry. She was a great success.
The model of care for disabled children through eastern Europe was to place the children in a state-run orphanage and forget about them. In Mukachevo, we ran into several women who refused to give up their children to the state. They all had to work, so they took over an abandoned house and were fixing it up as a daycare center. When they found out that Bill was an early childhood specialist, he began seeing individual children with Nancy Stone’s help. She was an elementary school teacher. Soon the line was out the door and down the block as women lined up with their children to get Bill and Nancy’s evaluation. They did more good than the rest of us with our attempts at basic medical care.
Tom Stone and I decided to visit the local hospital. We were befriended by the two urologists on the staff. They had few resources. If you needed antibiotics, your family had to go out on the market and find them. They had no x-ray film, but they could take an x-ray if you found the film. They had one ultrasound machine for the entire hospital. We made rounds with the physicians, but they never let us get into the OR. I think they were embarrassed. We talked to one woman who knew some English. We asked her why she was in. She explained that she had a kidney cancer 10 years earlier, and was in for a week for her annual checkup. Obviously, they were padding their hospital census to keep their state allotments. We saw few people who needed to be in the hospital. A nationalized healthcare system is only as good as the government funding to support it. For medical care, education, the police and other public services, there were no tax revenues going up to Kiev, and there was no trickle down of money for these services. The teachers had not been paid in three months, the police were never paid and stopped people at random and threatened arrest. Our van was pulled over twice, but we got off as missionaries. Our Urology friends earned about $100/month.
Our Urology friends offered to take us out to eat, where we had a very good BBQ rib meal. Then they offered us a vodka toast to our health. We returned the toast and soon we were toasting our countries, our parents, our children, our flags, etc. The vodka must have been watered down as we all walked back to our hotel. Another woman Urologist joined us for the meal. Ann asked her why she was a urologist and she answered, “I love men!” She was also much better off than the men. She had a private practice which we found unusual until we found out that she ran a private venereal disease clinic that was visited by all the government officials, so that nothing showed up on their official health records.
We visited the public markets and bought carved spoons sold by the Roma women. We went to the large GUM Department store. It was really just a large building with many private stalls, a marketplace. Ann found a full-length leather coat that would probably cost $800-1,000 in the US. It was priced at $200. We asked David if we would be the ugly Americans if she bought it. He said no, but we only had a few Ukrainian hryvnia. Ann offered to pay in US$ and the salesladies began laughing and crying and hugging. We guessed that the exchange rate was very good for them.
David had made arrangements to have a well dug in the gypsy village, so the women would not have to walk through the snow to the stream for water. After we left, a well was dug, but the pump that was used leaked oil and the well was unusable.
On our way home, we spent an extra day in Budapest. Although only 10 years separated the Hungarians from the USSR, they had a booming economy, the shops were filled and the people well dressed. There were a lot of automobiles and the people would even smile. A stark difference across borders.
Ukraine II - 2004
Tom Stone and I decided that we wanted to return to understand more about the urology care in the country. We returned with just David in the winter of 2003-4. We carried some sample medications with us. This time we stayed in a hotel which turned out to be owned by the Italian mafia. We saw a guard with a gun sitting in the hallway across from our room. The “don” was in town. This time, the room was so hot that we had to open the window at night. We had plenty of hot water. In a socialized system, there are the haves and the have nots.
We spent more time with our urologist friends. We only saw their name written in Cyrillic and have forgotten how they were pronounced. We learned that they were totally dependent on the hospital ultrasonographer for diagnosis, and with no hard copy of what he saw, they could never question his diagnosis. In addition, the other services seemed to get the best service. So, we decided that we would get the urology service an ultrasound machine.
We travelled to Uzhhorod, the site of a university and the regional medical center. We made rounds and went to lunch. We were made honorary members of the Transcarpathian Urology Society. We travelled in our friend’s Lada car. The four of us were wedged in, and with our weight, it was terribly underpowered. We once pulled out to pass a truck and couldn’t make it and had to pull back in.
One memorable experience occurred when we were shopping for a new printer. The daycare center had their computer and printer stolen. They were able to get a computer, but they needed a printer to copy educational and art programs for the kids. Tom and I bought them a printer, and while in the store, a lady approached us because we were speaking English. She explained that she was privately tutoring ten students and she had never been out of Ukraine. The students had never heard a native English speaker. We asked our interpreter if it was okay and then followed the lady out of the store, down an alley, up a fire escape to a small second-floor room. We had agreed to speak to the kids for 15 minutes and ended up spending over four hours. There were the quiet types who were speaking pretty well, and the aggressive types who needed a lot of help. But, they were good kids whose parents were giving them a real economic opportunity if they could learn to speak English. I remember they had a newspaper with a typical real estate ad. It showed a brick ranch-style house and a nice green lawn. They asked, “Is this how you live in the US?” We said that it was typical middle-class housing. They then asked, “Why do you have all of that grass?” We paused to realize that every inch of land around every house in town was devoted to a victory garden growing vegetables or a vineyard. No grass to cut isn’t a bad way to go.
David was off in Kiev most of the time, but met up with us for the return trip. Once again, we headed back to Budapest, but stopped first in the Tokaj wine region. The wine is famous because the grapes become covered with a gray fungus just before picking and it produces a lovely sweet wine. The vineyard we visited keeps their wine in a cave and we went down multiple levels. The casks kept getting older and the wine more expensive. The vintner would uncork a huge cask, place a long hollow glass tube into the cask and then trickle a small amount of wine into our mouth. We had lots of tastes and almost had to carry Rev. Behling home.
On our return to the US, we asked around at various hospitals and found an ultrasound that Hackley Hospital in Muskegon was willing to donate. We took it to International Aid in Spring Lake, Michigan. They reconditioned the unit and changed the power supply to make it compatible with the 220-volt current in Ukraine. They even found an instruction manual in the Ukrainian language in the Cyrillic alphabet. They crated it up for shipping. It weighed close to 600 pounds. International Aid said that we would have to fly the unit to Kiev and that if we shipped it by boat and truck, it would be “lost.” We told the Urologist to get ready and we would let him know when it got to the airport in Kiev. He rented a large truck and drove 250 miles to Kiev only to be told that the paperwork was wrong. They would only release the unit if we sent a letter stating the US machine was for humanitarian purposes and a second letter apologizing for not sending the HP letter in the first place. We did so even though International Aid said the HP letter was with the shipment. The government in Kiev was just playing games with us.
Our friend went a second time to Kiev and returned to Mukachevo with the unit. The US machine was then impounded by the mayor who was the CEO of the Mukachevo City Hospital. The mayor was having an argument with the CEO of the Uzhhorod Hospital who wanted the US machine shipped to him. Somehow, the argument was resolved and the US machine was placed in the Urology area. They had renovated a whole room for its use. One of the urologist’s wives, also a physician, had taken a course in Ultrasound and became the ultrasonographer for the unit. It took us almost six months, but it made us feel good that we had helped our new friends in Transcarpathia.
In memory of John W. Hall, MD - his memory is a blessing.
Blog: Stories from Behind the Lens
As much as I revel in the final image and love returning to look at them again and again, the process of making a photo is also a treasured experience.