Russian kids with cancer must make way for country’s top judges

January 21, 2013

Russian health care is getting a jolt of Soviet-style management in the northern city of St. Petersburg. The prosaically named Hospital No. 31, once reserved for the Communist Party elite of Leningrad, is to be closed to the public again after more than 20 years, on orders from the Kremlin — this time, to become the exclusive medical center for the nation’s top judges.

But doctors and supporters of the hospital are furious and are vowing to fight its closure every way they can. They point out that it is among the top hospitals in the city and that it is home to a children’s oncology unit that treats 40 percent of St. Petersburg’s pediatric cancer cases.

“Who cares about doctors who will lose their jobs?” said Alexandra Slavyanskaya, head of a charity called Happy World that raises money for children’s health care and has been a donor to Hospital No. 31. “And who cares about sick children who will not get treatment and will die? They just don’t care about people. It’s our traditional lack of respect for people.”

Open letters have been sent, and more than 3,000 people have signed a petition. A public protest is planned for Wednesday. City officials were told by the office of President Vladimir Putin in mid-December that they had two weeks to propose alternate locations for each of the 405-bed hospital’s 10 major units but so far have come up with nothing. A suggestion to shoehorn the children’s oncology center into another, larger hospital, built in 1968, has been dismissed by critics.

“Not enough space, not enough anything,” said Olga Kuznetsova, whose daughter Yelizaveta was successfully treated at No. 31 for a form of leukemia that she said other hospitals could not even diagnose.

Restricting hospital access to the leaders of a particular government agency strikes opponents of the move as a strange and troubling anachronism, a throwback to Soviet practices that would seem to have no place in modern-day Russia. The 340 judges of the Commercial and Supreme courts are moving to St. Petersburg under a Kremlin plan that has attracted a fair amount of hostility there.

Hospital No. 31 had prospered under Putin’s rule. Two years ago, he took part in a now-notorious fundraiser for children’s medical care, at which he sang “Blueberry Hill” in English while a crowd of foreign celebrities — including Gerard Depardieu, today one of Russia’s newest citizens — looked on appreciatively. For months, none of the money raised that night made its way toward medical care, but finally — after press reports raised the specter of a scandal — the sponsors, the Federation Foundation, made at least three bequests, including one of about $4 million to Hospital No. 31.

Government money for new equipment and upgrades has also been generous. New operating-room equipment was installed three months ago.

“Now we’re talking about millions of dollars, just being thrown away,” Slavyanskaya said.

“Transferring the hospital is unjustified — financially and ethically,” Yelena Gracheva, who runs the Advita Foundation in St. Petersburg, said in a telephone interview.

Slavyanskaya, who is in Moscow, said she first became aware of No. 31 seven years ago, when a boy who was having complications from surgery at a different hospital was discharged because the hospital was closing for summer vacation. Other hospitals in St. Petersburg refused to admit him because he was in poor shape and, in their view, someone else’s problem. (His circumstance was not unique; Russian hospitals have no incentive to treat difficult cases.) But in the end, No. 31 took him in and eventually arranged for him to get a successful bone-marrow transplant in Israel.

“I cannot even imagine,” Gracheva said, how the idea to transform the hospital for the sake of judges came about. Then she thought for a moment: No. 31 sits on nearly 20 acres of nice parkland on Krestovsky Island, in the north of the city. This being Russia, she suggested, there’s probably someone who wants the land.

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