Dutch nurse caring for terminally ill in Moscow
Care for the terminally ill is relatively new in Russia, but a Dutch nurse is working as a volunteer in Moscow’s first hospice.Care for the terminally ill is relatively new in Russia, but a Dutch nurse is working as a volunteer in Moscow’s first hospice. Though Russian health care generally has a bad reputation, and patients are often treated rudely, several hospices offering palliative care for the incurably ill have recently been opening across the country.
The hospice is a peaceful oasis close to Moscow’s roaring city centre. Freke de Graaf has been working there for the past ten years, helping people through the final days of their life. “There are seven now in Moscow, I think. The first one was in St. Petersburg. But this one was the first in Moscow.”
The main building is surrounded by a well-kept garden and though it’s late autumn, flowers are still blooming. Relatives walk about with their loved ones. A smallish Russian Orthodox church stands to one side, though the hospice is secular and takes in people of all persuasions, whether religious or not.
After graduating in Slavic languages, De Graaf received a scholarship to study one year at Moscow’s State University. During her stay, she came in contact with the Russian Orthodox Church and, despite her agnostic background, converted.
When she met Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom), the Russian Orthodox leader of Britain and Ireland, she decided to move to London, where the charismatic metropolitan had built up a flourishing community. “I wanted to live close to the church and the parish he led. In the end, I stayed there for 25 years. While training as a nurse, I became acquainted with the hospice movement. I saw how doctors and nurses had a certain fear for people who were dying, something I found hard to understand. Later I specialised in oncology and worked in several hospices in London.”
Back to Moscow
After her mother died, she decided to return to Moscow. She began working immediately, as a volunteer in the capital’s first hospice. “I’ve been working here since 2001, I think, five days a week. It is a lot of work but it suits me.” A corridor in the hospice is decorated with drawings of butterflies. There is a large aquarium and soft music. “It’s important people enjoy being here,” De Graaf says.
The hospice is quite unlike other Russian health care institutions, she says. “Staff here sees patients as individual people with individual needs. They’re not a number. Many patients and their relatives say it’s the first time no one barks at them and they can ask for things and get them. Above all, they get attention.”
The hospice also stands out for having banned corruption. Whoever is caught taking money is sacked on the spot. “Hospitals are only after the money,” De Graaf says. “One mother told me how she had scraped together RUB 20,000 [EUR 500] so her son Archom could be treated. They just flung the money at her face. ‘Not enough’, they said. When she told them that was all she had, they told her: ‘In that case, he’ll just have to die.’ You get used to all this, too. You hear it so often. This is a society where there’s a lot of cruelty.”
It doesn’t make living in Russia any easier, De Graaf admits, but she has no regrets whatsoever about the path she has chosen, hard as it is to develop a bond with people who, after a short while, all die. Once every two or three months she needs to get away, to England or Holland, to relax and to recharge for the next stretch. “At the hospice, you give all you have. But there's only so much you can give.”