Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Katya's Health Care Woes

Katya hasn't had much luck with health care providers in Canada and, frankly, since she's been here I've been noticing glaring cracks in our vaunted system.

As pretty much everybody knows, Canada has a single-payer universal health care system provided by the government. Each province is free to set up its own system, therefore in British Columbia every resident is billed $65 a month and have no choice but to pay it, whereas in Ontario health care is completely free (although your employer pays the premiums).

The problem with this system is that there is absolutely no choice allowed to the end-user (the patient), and the heavily bureaucratic system can run rough-shod over the patient with impunity. Medical staff can get away with being obnoxious and rude, and doctors can be completely indifferent, safe in the knowledge that you'll still come back and pay their bills with your tax dollars because where else are you going to go?

Last year, in Victoria, Katya developed something wrong with her back and neck and preliminary research suggested it could be a misalignment of her spine. We went to a walk-in clinic because we were on a two-year waiting list for a spot with a family doctor to open up. The physician at this clinic didn't poke around or check her heart or anything. She asked a couple of questions and then told Katya that it's probably nothing to worry about. Thank you come again.

Katya was perplexed. We chalked it up to one bad doctor.

Then one day Katya had a sudden, searing pain in her head that caused her to lose feeling in her arm and she was seeing bright lights dancing across her vision. She was panicking and so was I, so I drove her to emergency at the hospital. Despite her brain exploding and loss of feeling in a limb, the bureaucrat "gatekeepers" made us wait in line before giving us a bunch of forms to fill out, and then made us wait longer. Katya was in tears with pain and nurses, administrators and doctors just walked right past her while we waited.

The emergency waiting room was full. One guy was bleeding from his arm. He was finally triaged after nearly twenty minutes!

We waited for four hours in that place before Katya finally saw a doctor. Her symptoms had passed by then and the doctor didn't believe that there was anything wrong with her. It was unbelievable! The next day we took her to a different walk-in clinic where the doctor diagnosed her with migraines. I asked if it could be related to a spinal problem and the doctor said "Maybe, but that's a different issue and we only deal with one issue at a time here." So long for whole-health.

That's what $130 a month gets you in BC.

Since we moved to Ontario the situation hasn't been much better, although at least it's free here.

Thanks to help from my uncle and aunt, Katya was able to get a spot with a family physician. The only problem is that the people who run this particular "medical center" are snotty a-holes. They hung up on Katya twice because she didn't call during acceptable hours (which are between 10 am and noon, no exceptions). Katya's family doctor, who she met only once for an initial interview, was uninterested and more concerned with texting on her cell phone during the meeting. Katya still has a migraine problem and the walk-in clinics don't seem to care. They just keep throwing prescriptions at her and ushering her out the door.

The other day Katya was in tears with the frustration of Canada's health care system. Although Russian health care is a couple of decades behind in terms of technology and medical training, at least it is possible to see a doctor when you need one, and the doctors and staff really care for their patients.

Russia has a two-tiered health care system, whereby individuals are free to purchase private health insurance if they want, or can use the public system. Katya, not being wealthy, used the public system and didn't have problems with service. When I was in Russia I was insured by my employer and used the private system, and my doctor was responsive and caring and provided service in a timely manner. South Korea has an excellent two-tiered health care system, and I used both the public and private doctors there (having been surprised by a strange allergy to Korean fruit juices) and it was top-notch.

Here in Canada people go hysterical when anybody suggests an overhaul of our system. There are literally protests and ranting editorials and a lot of America-bashing whenever somebody might bring up the fact that maybe our system is outdated and top-heavy and unable to meet the needs of a modern society. I strongly advocate a two-tiered health care system, as not only will that ease the pressure on the public system but also bring back some professionalism and decent human courtesy to a stagnant and self-entitled health care system that cares nothing for the patients.

Katya is proof of this.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Katya Arrives In Canada

On Christmas Eve, 2011 I arrived back in Moscow to escort Katya home to Canada. She had just received her visa the month before after 10 months of processing and $3,000. We didn't celebrate Christmas, because it's not celebrated in Russia, but I went to Katya's employer's New Year's party and we did have a nice New Year dinner with her mother and grandmother and exchange a few New Year's gifts.

I spent nearly a month in Russia with Katya and her family and then, on January 21st 2012, we went to Sheremyetova International Airport with her mother and checked in to our Aerosvit flight to Toronto. Katya's mother was visibly upset but remained stoic. Katya was too busy fussing about check-in times and luggage and all those stressful airport things to really worry about the fact that she was leaving her home permanently. 

After an hour or so of goodbyes, we went through security and boarded our aircraft. 

Katya's office party. There was a balloon-blowing competition for some reason, and I won a screwdriver.
Like all company Christmas parties, eventually the boss gets hammered and tries to speak in French with his employee's spouse (in this case, me).
Like all Russian parties, eventually a stripper becomes involved...

Our flight had a connection in Kiev, which made sense considering we were flying a Ukrainian airline (hey, I bargain shop. What can I say?).

We were scheduled to spend an hour in Kiev and then 7 hours to Toronto. I had pre-purchased Toronto airport shuttle tickets to the Toronto Greyhound terminal, and then two Greyhound tickets to Kitchener where we would stay with friends for two days until our connections onwards to Victoria. Unfortunately, things didn't turn out that way.

At Kiev Borispol, they loaded all us passengers, in full winter outfits, onto a bus that drove out to the tarmac where our 767 was waiting to be boarded. Then they left us there, in the bus, with the heat on. The bus was jam packed with passengers and their carry-on, and the heat was rising, and for 45 minutes they didn't open the doors and the windows were sealed shut. People were panicking and banging on the windows but the groundcrew outside and the bus driver just ignored us.

Sweat was pouring out of every one of my pores. Katya and I hadn't been able to get a seat so were stuck standing, wedged in between a big guy in a parka and a rotund babushka in a big fur coat. One lady near the front of the bus passed out from heat exhaustion.

Finally, after nearly an hour, they opened the doors and a big gush of cool, beautiful air washed into the bus. There was a violent stampede of passengers off the bus, and thankfully our spot had been right next to the middle doors, so we got off without any of the pushing and hair-pulling that's usually involved in a Russian lineup.

We boarded the Aerosvit jet that would take us to Toronto, and thankfully we had a great seat at the very front of the economy cabin (so no seats in front of us!). We were excited to go. It's really happening! After nearly a year of waiting and wishing and dreaming for this moment, Katya was actually flying home with me to beautiful Canada!

The seatbelt sign came on, the pretty Ukrainian stewardesses went through the oxygen-mask pantomime, and the engines revved up. And then we sat there. For the next 4 and half hours.

Seriously. The damn airplane didn't move an inch. No announcement came on telling us what was happening or when we could expect some type of travel in an westwardly direction. No beverages or food were served. The seatbelt sign was never turned off. And still we sat.

Finally, once the sun had set and around the time we should have been nearing the coast of Newfoundland, the plane began to taxi to the runway. It took off without incident and finally we were off, all the excitement turned into pure hatred for this crappy garbage Ukrainian airline. I will never fly Aerosvit again. Especially when they served microwaved fish for supper, and had no other options.

After five hours we neared the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador in the middle of the night, and opening the little plastic airline curtains, we gazed out at a clear northern night sky. The Northern Lights were dancing around the entire sky! Katya was ecstatic and tried to take photos but nothing turned up. A couple of hours later we started our descent and Katya was jumping in her seat as the bright lights of Toronto and the CN Tower lit up the entire horizon.

We landed at Pearson International without incident. Katya asked a stewardess if an airline representative will be available, because we had missed all our connecting buses and were now stranded in Toronto, as well as out a hundred bucks. "Oh yes" the stewardess cooed. Of course there were no damn Aerosvit representatives in Toronto. Oh well. Money lost.

Our first call was at the CBSA queue, more commonly known as "Passport Control". A young blonde guy in an impeccable uniform welcomed Katya to Canada and kindly showed us to the immigration office behind him. We went in through the door he had pointed out to a room with a long counter and several windows, not much different than an old-school bank. An older CBSA guy with white hair called us over and went through Katya's documents. He was super-friendly and joked around with her, putting her completely at ease. Finally, after he had entered all his relevant info into a computer, he stamped her passport and said "Welcome to Canada!" My hat goes off to the Canadian Border Services Agency for their professionalism and experience.

Next stop was customs. We were shuffled down a corridor into a big open hall with many inspections desks where a dozen CBSA officers were tearing apart people's luggage. One Jamaican lady was watching wide-eyed as an officer confiscated bottle after bottle of alcohol, poorly  hidden inside socks. There must have been at least 30 bottles!

Our turn came next, where a friendly young woman inspected Katya's passport and her declaration card, as well as the import declaration form we had printed off and filled out back in Russia, a necessity for all immigrants to Canada. It basically exempts everything on the list from duties, as they are personal items.

We had watched everyone else's dirty laundry flying through the air as officers tore apart their luggage, but for us, the friendly CBSA officer smiled and said "Welcome to Canada" and eased us through!

We walked out an automatic door into the main terminal, and Katya was officially in Canada!

I called ahead to a friend to come pick us up, and while we waited I found a little pub in the airport and we settled down for a Molson Canadian. Katya took a few sips and the said "Ew" and ordered a tea instead. Welcome to Canada!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Chicken Kiev..In Kiev!

I didn't leave off Mission to Moscow very well; my last posts talk about living in Halifax, and then, two years later, this blog appears and I'm discussing moving from Victoria to Edmonton to Guelph.

Well, I did land in Halifax after returning from Russia, and didn't like it. Jobs pay little and the city is a bit of a trashy dump. When an old friend, Shanana, from British Columbia called me up and offered me a job as an At-Sea Fisheries Observer with my old company in BC, I jumped at the chance. They offered me top pay and lots of work, so I went out to BC after all.

Katya and I had to be apart for almost a year as part of her visa process. I had to show Canadian immigration authorities that I had a job with a stable income in Canada, and she wasn't allowed to enter the country during the processing of her permanent resident visa. We ended up apart for nearly a year as a result.

I got down to business in British Columbia, working hard and earning money. In the summer of that year Katya and I met up in Ukraine!

The Ukraine was perfect. Neither Canadians nor Russians require a visa to visit as tourists, and it was affordable for Katya to get there on the train (not so much for me to get there at the height of tourist season, but what price can be put on love?).

Katya met me at the airport, having arrived a full day before me. Kiev Borispol International is a small airport but the Ukrainian authorities are serious chaps, combing through my passport carefully and asking me what my purpose here was (my Russian work visas aroused their suspicions that I was coming to work illegally). Finally, after a ten minute interview I satisfied the officer's queries and was allowed into the Ukraine.

My reunion with Katya was exciting and awkward at the same time. We had been apart for six months at this point, staying together only via Skype. Nevertheless, we got over it and took the train to her grandparent's home in a small village east of Kiev.

Katya's father is Ukrainian, and grew up in the village of Bobrovitsza. Her grandparents still live there. Our train arrived late at night and we hiked along dirt roads for a couple of miles until we made it to the walled-off and gated home, typical of all houses in this part of the world. We went in and Katya pounded on the door of the house. Lights came on and a friendly-looking elderly couple met us. Within minutes they had a feast of black breads, salt, cheeses, pickles and vodka spread out on the kitchen table!

Her grandparents were obviously overjoyed to see Katya and were very curious to meet me. They have a brother and a cousin who live in Canada, part of Canada's Ukrainian heritage (it's a joke in Ukraine that everybody knows a relative in Canada).

We ate and drank and made merry and then went to bed. I was exhausted, having flown for nearly 24 hours from Victoria, BC to Kiev, Ukraine, with layovers in Toronto, London and Frankfurt.

Katya's grandparents' home in Bobrovitsza, Ukraine.

The pretty street they live on. 

Me and Katya's grandparents in their yard
Katya's grandparents' home is a self-sustaining mini-farm. In traditional Ukrainian manner, subsistence is the name of the game. They live a life that obnoxious west-coast hippies here can only dream of! They grow all their fruits and vegetables, including pumpkins and grapes, make their own pickles and jams, and raise chickens and rabbits for eggs and meat. The only things they buy at the store are dairy products and sausages and the odd canned good. Her grandfather even goes so far as to make his own vodka, which he spent five days shoving down my throat.

Every morning at breakfast he would bust out a bottle of homemade vodka and pour a shot for me. "Pyat gram" he would insist (five grams..the size of a shot of alcohol). "Nyet, nyet" I would say, waving my hand over the glass and indicating that I was still hung over from the entire previous day of drinking his potent vodka. "PYAT GRAM!" he would shout, lifting the shot glass and thrusting it at me. "Davai, davai" I would reply ("Okay, okay") and pound back the shot of vodka. Then I would offer him the glass and he would pour a shot, and then thrust it back at me. "Pyat gram!" Most of the time  he wouldn't drink, but he took great pleasure in testing how much this Canadian could hold. Apparently not too much, because I spent the entire five days at this farm pissed out of my tree.

Finally, after a week of drinking and hanging out in rural Ukraine, we said our goodbyes and took the train to the capital city, Kiev.

Kiev is beautiful. It's a lot more run-down than Moscow, and the relative poverty of Ukraine can be seen with every bus and police car that passed. But the city is so historic, being one of the older metropolis' of Europe. Here was the founding site of Russia (Kievan Rus), the center of Slavic culture and Orthodoxy for centuries, and the site of massacres during the Mongol invasions and later the Soviets and then the Nazis.

Katya had booked us a hotel room near a University for a great nightly rate. I never learned the name of it, but it was in a tall building. We had a suite with air conditioning!

Our first day in Kiev was spent meandering around the neighborhood we had booked our hotel in. It was in the northern part of the city; or maybe it was the western part. Might have been east. Definitely wasn't south. I don't really know where it was! Like the rest of Kiev it was hilly and filled with trees and creeks and ravines that the buildings and traffic-packed roads climbed in and out of. A trolley line with some rough-looking shanty stores ran along a fairly main street nearby.

By this point in my trip to the Ukraine I had become a bona fide alcholic, so we went for sushi and a buttload of drinks at a local restaurant. I don't remember the rest of that night too much.

The next day we took a cab to the Independence Square in the center of the city, where the Orange Revolution had happened a short while before. We walked around the old architecture and got scammed by a guy with a camera and a pigeon. Then we made our way to the Dnieper River and the famous Lavra.

The Lavra is a thousand-year-old monastery still functioning today as a religious pilgrimage site for Orthodox Christians. Built on giant bluffs overlooking the Dnieper, a series of churches and convents hide the labyrinth of caves and underground chapels dug into the actual hill. Here the monks rode out the 400-year Mongol occupation, and devout Christians secretly built underground chapels when religion was punishable by death under Lenin and Stalin. The tombs of saints and priests are also down here.

We paid for a guided tour (only religious pilgrims are allowed unguided access) that required me to wear pants and Katya to cover her head. Despite being underground, it was friggin' hot down there. I would have enjoyed the history and spirituality of the caves and tunnels were it not for the oppressive heat. Even the stone walls were sweating!

After an hour we were led out and I breathed in great big gulps of cool, +35 centigrade air.

After all that exercise we went to a local bar and got drunk (again). An awesome Kievan blues band was playing Beatles' covers, so to remixes of Abbey Road and Hey Jude, we drank Czech beer and ate Ukrainian sausages and somehow made it home.

Downtown Kiev on the River Dnieper

Independence Square, Kiev

The conquering pigeons that cost Katya and I ten bucks

Our Kievan hotel room. No idea where it was.
The next day we had breakfast in a bar (figures) that was, conveniently, playing Avatar. Washing down our eggs and sausages with big mugs of Czech beer, we paid up and went on a pilgrimage of our own.

In 1941 the Germans took the city of Kiev after a ferocious battle that saw the Soviets lose 600,000 troops. The conquering nazis then proceeded to round up all the Jews of Kiev and the suburbs. Over the course of a few months they forced the columns of Jews to the edge of a ravine, Babi Yar, where they had to undress. Then men, women and children were machine-gunned into the ravine. It is estimated that nearly 100,000 innocent civilians, from babies to the elderly, were massacred at Babi Yar, the vast majority of them Jewish. It was the Holocaust By Bullets.

Katya and I went to Babi Yar. The Ukrainians decided, after the war, to leave the ravine as is rather than disinter the tens of thousands of bodies. Today a beautiful and peaceful park, with trees and birds and squirrels, grows over this scene of horror, a fitting memorial if ever there was one. Katya and wandered around Babi Yar for more than an hour, taking photos and sitting on the ledge taking it all in, where so many had spent their last moments.

Then, to shake off the melancholy that had overtaken us, we went to a bar.

The Lavra

The ancient Lavra, built more than a thousand years ago.

Babi Yar

Babi Yar. Beneath the ground generations are buried.

That night we went out for dinner at a traditional Ukrainian restaurant, where I got to have Chicken Kiev in Kiev, thus crossing something off my bucket list. The restaurant was cool, and the inside was decorated to resemble the outside. We ate at a table on the "porch" of a village hut, while a "starry sky" hung above us. Best of all, it was all indoors and air conditioned! The food was fantastic and the bottle of Georgian wine was superb.

The next day we went back to Kiev Borispol where we said tearful goodbyes, not knowing how long it would be until we could see each other again. My flight took me back to Frankfurt, where I had a ten hour layover, and then on to Toronto and then Victoria. Katya's took her back to Moscow, a mere hour-long flight away.

Thankfully, 5 months after that, Katya received her visa and a month later, in December, I flew to Moscow to bring her home to Canada. Our meeting in Kiev marked the 6-month-point of our enforced separation, but it was fun and wonderful and, unfortunately I don't remember too much of it, aside from sobering moments like in the Lavra and at Babi Yar.

Kiev was musical, and cultural, and the food was fantastic and the people were beautiful and friendly and the city was so damn historical. I will definitely be going back some day!

The traditional Ukrainian restaurant we ate at our last night in Kiev. Despite appearances it was all actually indoors!

Chicken Kiev!!