Thursday, August 17, 2017

Lessons I learned in Ukraine

For most people, living in Ukraine is not an easy life.

As such, many Ukrainians are not happy people.

I struggled with this as, in my profession, it is my goal to always be polite and courteous and kind (as I can be) even when things are awful.  When people come to me their lives are not going well, so it is my goal not to make people's days worse because I'm having a rough day.

That is not always how it was in Ukraine.

Keep in mind, I do not know Ukrainian or Russian.  I can count to 13 in Russian.  I know "hello", "goodbye", "thank you", "please", and "excuse me". I can say "milk", "apple", and "latte". (Hint: it's latte) But, other than that, I am useless.  Without Google Translate on my phone, I would not have survived.

My view from a coffee shop of the bustle below

Many people in shops that I went into were kind and patient and encouraging. But there were some people...

I struggled with those people.

One Apteka worker in particular was awful.  She would harrumph and roll her eyes.  She would mutter and bang her hand on the counter.  She treated me as though I was the stupidest human ever to be in her way.  There were others who were similar (although there were  more that were entirely lovely humans) but this dark haired horrible woman was the worst.

After 3 weeks of dealing with people like this worker, I learned two things:

    It is hard to not understand a damn thing that is going on around you.  To be incredibly smart and capable in your own country but to be a raging moron in a different language is incredibly frustrating and disheartening.

    We have so many new people coming to our countries.  Some will know a bit of the local language.  Some will know none of it.  No matter what, they are likely overwhelmed and exhausted trying to constantly translate things in their heads all day long. Because, for newcomers, nothing is like home and everything is hard.

    It does not take much to be kind to someone. Be kind.


    In Ukraine, things there are often harder than they need to be.  Every day is the same.  People get up, travel a long ways to go to work, work very hard, make very little, do it for a huge part of the day, travel a long way home, make supper, and then go to bed.  Then, they do it again the next day.

    People might say, yeah we do that here too, but it is so much easier for us.  We have conveniences they do not. Our systems (while flawed) are not so deeply messed up that everything takes 10x longer to get anything done.

    For me, after 3 weeks of struggling EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. to do what needed to be done and then doing again the next day, I was grumpy as hell too.  It taught me to be a little more understanding of people who might not have had a lot of extra f*cks to give when they were dealing with me. 
I am grateful for the lessons Ukraine taught me.  The hardness of the Ukrainian life experience humbled me.  The kindness people showed uplifted me. The beauty of the land inspired me.

But God knows, I was ready to go home.

Past excerpts from Ukraine

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

I spent a year in Ukraine one month: Part 2

As part of dealing with the stress of this summer, I have decided to write about it.  

Part 1 of the story is here and the story of how I locked myself and my sister in the bathroom is here

View from the top floor of the hospital in Dnipro

I had to start this post with a beautiful picture to remind myself that Ukraine is a lovely country with some really good people.  Many of the people I adore are in Ukraine, from Ukraine, and fight for Ukraine.  But this month in Ukraine, for me, was very difficult and so I found it hard to separate the stressful from the good at times. 

When we made it to the hospital to see Dad for the first time, I was instantly transported to the last month of my mother's life.  My big ol' lumbering Dad did not look the same.  He had hoses and pic lines and monitors all over the place.  He breathed the rattling sound of the very, very ill.  He was lucid-ish when he was awake but slept at the drop of a hat for hours and hours.  He was uncomfortable and ill. 

The hospital ward (ICU for sepsis patients) reminded me of an old building from the 40s.  At our church camp, we have old airforce barracks made of concrete with ad hoc wiring and cracking walls, so in some ways, the building was reassuring and yet not so much because I know what mould and scary things live in them.  Most of the nurses were kind, but spoke no English, and were very busy with the other urgent care patients (most of whom were Ukrainian soldiers from the front line). 

It was days before we knew if Dad was going to survive. We had connected my brother by phone so he could talk to Dad (my brother has health issues himself, so we refused to let him travel because one of our family members in Ukrainian hospital at a time was enough).  When my youngest sister left to go back to London, we wondered if she would get to see Dad again.  

Until then, we settled into helping provide care for Dad.

Ukrainian hospital is very different from Canadian hospital.  While I thought I understood, there was no way I could until I was there.  I thank God for Tanya who helped us learn the system and walked us through so much.  She explained that all supplies had to be provided by the family.  The nurses were there to deal with the wounds and the medication, but family did all the rest. 

Each day, we had lists of items to purchase including: gloves, syringes, bandages, medications, etc.  These items were often written on a scrap piece of paper we would take to the pharmacy (Apteka in Ukraine).  We would trundle off to collect things, going from store to store in order to get everything on the list.  It never ceased to amaze me that I could get multiple bottles of morphine by just handing a scrap piece of paper to a technician.  

Tanya spent each morning with Dad and then left the hospital to run errands around the city and buy things Dad would need.  She worked from 6 a.m. every morning until well after 9 p.m. every night. My sisters and I spent the afternoon with Dad.  One of us running errands while the other two visited with him, fed him yogurt, held his water cup, and held his hand.  The only thing that helped any of us get some sleep was that, while Dad was in ICU, we were not allowed in the building after 8pm. 

After 5 days, Dad was moved to the surgical unit.  He had to have another operation in the days to come, so he would wait on the unit to free up an ICU bed as he had improved enough. 

The ward upstairs was quite nice in a lot of ways.  The common spaces had beautiful marble (or what looked like it to me) tiles on the walls and floors and dark wood accents.  There were more nurses, but there were also many more patients.  In fact, there were 4 patients to a room.  The beds were tucked up end to end so that two were along each wall with a narrow path up the middle.  There was no air conditioner, no fan, and it was 30+ degrees Celcius many days. 

It was also at the top of 5 very long flights of stairs with no elevator for anyone who wasn't old, needing extra help, or in a wheelchair.  

For me, that might have been the worst part.  I often had to count the stairs in units of 10 with a "you can do it" in between.

Me and exercise are not good friends.  Me and stairs?? We aren't even on speaking terms. 

But let me tell you, we spent a lot of time together.

*** to be continued ***

Monday, August 14, 2017

I spent a year in Ukraine one month: Part 1

A few days into July, I received a call from my father.  Normally a loud and forceful kind of guy, this time he sounded groggy, elderly, and in pain.

Dad explained he had a stomach attack of some kind and was in hospital in a city a few hours from where he stays in Ukraine.  He said not to worry too much, but that I should tell my siblings (including the brother he had just talked to and forgot to mention this to!!).  He said he would have his wife, Tanya, call me with more details when she could.

My siblings and I have always dreaded the day when we would get a call that something had gone wrong with Dad on the other side of the world.

After my mom died, Dad remarried Tanya.  Tanya is a powerhouse of a woman and just what Dad needed.  This was over a decade ago and they have since lived their lives straddling Ukraine and Canada.  Dad speaks limited Russian and even more limited Ukrainian and it is only because of his wife's tenacity and dedication to learning English that they have communicated at all.

They really are the cutest.

Once the siblings had been informed, we all just waited.

We didn't panic.  Dad's had stomach issues for a long time and we aren't the type to overreact for his health issues.  The closest sibling to my father is my youngest sister who lives in London, England.  She is only a 3 hour flight away (fixed because she says I'm crazy to think it was 8 hours), but, of course, she has a busy life as a teacher librarian in a large school that doesn't have "summer" break until August.  We figured it would fine, but if needed someone could make the trip.

We may have under-reacted on this one.

Two days later, Tanya called.  She isn't one to cry, so I knew it was serious.  Dad had surgery and wasn't doing well.  Tanya asked us to come as soon as possible.  We agreed someone would be there right away.

Of course, it wasn't that simple.

My middle sister was done with her semester (a professor of English) and I had just completed mine (taking my Masters in Social Work).  However, she had just flown to England where she was presenting at a conference.  She would be there for a few days, carry on to do research at the British library (the only place she can research a specific topic she is working on) and then would head to Boston to speak at another conference.  Getting her there meant cancelling trips and moving tickets and cancelling speaking and still getting the paper for someone else to present on her behalf.   We arranged to meet each other in London in 2 days and I made my plans.

I got the call that morning around 8am from Tanya.  I talked to The Guy about it and we looked at flights.  We couldn't find anything reasonable so decided I would fly to London and my sister's travel agent would make arrangements while I was in the air.  (Shout out to Amanda at Marlin Travel in Saskatoon.  She is awesome!)

We booked my one way ticket to London at 1015am.  I was packed by 10:45 a.m., went to the bank at 11:15 a.m., and was in the airport by 12:00 p.m.

I landed in London at 10:30 a.m. and met both sisters.  After supper, we got back on the train to catch our flight to Ukraine.  By 9:00 a.m. (Ukraine time) we landed.

Less than 36 hours from the time I bought my first ticket, we were in Ukraine.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Trapped in Ukraine (a mini story)

I am in the process of writing the story of our time in Ukraine and Dad's illness.  It is taking me some time to process, so I thought I would publish this in the meantime.


The first few hours in Ukraine did not go very well.

We needed to freshen up after our flights before we made it to see Dad.  It had been 36 hours in the same clothes and we all needed a moment.  We went to the hostel where Dad's wife and daughter-in-law, Leina, were staying.  I had to wash my face and hands while my sister was showering, so I snuck in to the bathroom behind her and closed the door behind me.

It stuck.


True to form, we had been in Ukraine for less than 2 hours and some how I had trapped us in the bathroom of a hostel.

We tried to pry the door open.  We pulled, we banged, we cursed.  We got a hold of our sister-in-law and tried to communicate that we were stuck.

However, she does not speak English and we do not speak Russian or Ukrainian.

We had no phones for translations or help.

We had no way out.

I was sure I had been able to communicate with our SiL and she was going to get help.  I was content to wait while my sister got more and more agitated.  She attempted to climb the 3/4 wall to no avail.

Finally, our SiL realized we were not just taking an inordinate amount of time to get dressed and came to rescue us.

With a kick that would make a SWAT team member proud, Leina opened the door.

Leina promptly told the story to every one we saw after that and we all laughed ourselves sick.

Welcome to Ukraine.