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People no one noticed before are saving our lives today. Because someone helped them in time.

Few of us know what happens to those who were raised in orphanages when they reach the age of eighteen and begin to live on their own. As a rule — and this is a shameful fact of life in our society — nothing good. Unprepared for life, deprived of the slightest experience of affection and without basic social skills, the majority of them are lost in this world. Few of them know who they want to be, and even fewer know how to achieve it.

But there are exceptions.

These exceptions do not come out of thin air — there are no miracles. Simply put, there are people, highly qualified and dedicated specialists, who take up these young people and help them to find their place in life, to chose a profession that is interesting for them and, in the long run, to become self-supporting. At the foundation “Big Change” that’s just how they work. The instructors match every student with an individual programme, help them to get a goal in their sights, and to go towards that goal. For one it is a high school diploma, for another — preparing for the Unified State Exam and entering a technical college, for a third — the capacity to get along with others and live independently.

“I’m afraid to imagine the hell she is in.”

Katya (the name has been changed at our heroine’s request) is 40 years old. Her mother died in childbirth, and the little girl immediately ended up in an orphanage. She switched orphanages several times and was in a boarding school for behaviour problems. Katya does not like to remember her childhood.

At age 14 she was left on her own — they simply took her from the school to a room in the communal apartment where her mother had been registered, and left her there to live. This was in 1994 — things like that were possible back then. Katya had no allowance, no life skills. no experience, no connections. She attached herself to the owner of a market stall, swept it up and cleaned it up for food.

Katya, a graduate of Big Change
Katya in coronavirus hazard gear

“There’s not much I can remember from that time, but I remember clear as day that I always wanted to work in medicine.” At 16, the girl got a job in a hospital as a nurse’s aide and worked there for almost 20 years.

When Katya was thirty, two events took place in her life — a bad one and a good one. They found cancer in her breast. Then came five operations and several courses of chemotherapy. But after that, through some friends, she started a school programme — until then Katya didn’t even have a certificate of completion for the 9th grade. And there she got to know Tatiana Timofeeva, the person who helped her change her life.

“Before long, I left that organisation and started at ‘Big Change,’ Tatiana explains, “and I took Katya with me. Somehow we became close friends at once. She’s an unusual person: her fate has been hard, but she has a beautiful soul. She had a dream — to finish ninth grade and enter a medical college. I was teaching Russian and I worked with Katya at home. Besides that, ‘Big Change’ gave her some financial help, because an aide’s salary — everybody knows what that’s like. And, at the same time, Katya was battling cancer. But never, not once, did I hear her complain about her life.”

After some years of studying Katya succeeded in getting her diploma; she went into remission and entered a medical college. Two years later she successfully finished and started to work at Filatovskaya Hospital (GKB No. 15) in Vykhino [an area in southeast Moscow]. During this whole time, she continued to spend time with Tatiana Timofeeva. “She’s the person I love best in the world,” says Katya. “Without her I wouldn’t have anything now.”

Katya was working as a surgical nurse in the hospital. But on March 27, Filatovskaya was completely converted for COVID-19 patients. It is now a major inpatient facility for patients infected with the coronavirus — there are more than 1300 beds and they are setting up new ones.

Life in the red zone

“I work in the red zone, that means with the most seriously ill patients,”  Katya explains. “My shift lasts for twelve hours, every day except weekends. We’re under enormous pressure, because a lot of the medical staff quit, and some went on sick leave — not because of coronavirus, they just can’t endure working under these conditions. Many develop high blood pressure from constantly being in a hazard suit, there isn’t enough oxygen. After their shift people get out of the suit barely alive.

Katya in action

Katya too comes off every shift barely alive, but there’s no quitting, no going on sick leave — no way! Every day at eight she arrives at work, puts on a special set of pajamas, then the white hazard suit, special shoes, a respirator mask and gloves. She doesn’t take all this off for twelve hours. She says, “It’s not allowed.” You can’t get anything to eat either, because it’s not allowed to take off the suit.

“You don’t go to the toilet, because you can’t get undressed,” Katya says. “A lot of us are working in Pampers. I can’t do the Pampers, that’s absolutely unbearable, so I don’t drink anything. True, it’s even harder that way. The mask steams up all the time, it’s hard to breathe in the respirator, the suit doesn’t let air through, and the sweat just pours off you. When it gets too bad, I go out on the balcony to get a breath of air. Sometimes I’ve got on four layers of gloves, and I’ve got to feel for the vein so I can put in a needle. When, after my shift, I take all of this off, there are welts on my face that are bleeding, and blisters on my legs. On the metro they often look at me strangely — obviously they think somebody’s beaten me up.”

Katya in action

Katya says that recently they have started bringing food from restaurants into the hospital. But she rarely eats after her shift — either there’s nothing left, or she just wants to hurry up and get home. Last Wednesday, like thousands of Moscovites, she was caught in a crowd at a metro entrance, when the police were verifying peoples’ [electronic] passes by hand. She was forty minutes late to work. “I’m afraid to guess how many people were infecting each other there.”

“We haven’t got enough people — no cafeteria workers, no aides either,” Katya continues. “We’re feeding the patients ourselves. They’re very seriously ill — double pneumonia, sugar diabetes, kidney failure. Recently a home for the elderly in Moscow burned down — and they brought all these people to us. Earlier, it seemed to me that I’d seen it all before, but my heart was simply torn apart by the condition they were in. Just skin and bones, hair all matted, huge bed sores, you can’t bear to look.”

Katya says that they have enough ventilators, but that they are running out of beds. In the hospital, they are rushing to make additional places, and the wards are already at capacity with around six people in each. People are being admitted who have other complications along with the coronavirus, even pregnant women — the hospital has its own birthing center. Women are infected and they are giving birth to infants who have the virus. Says Katya, “The doctors are doing battle for them from the first days of their lives.”

According to Katya, they were promised some kind of extra pay, but neither she, nor any of her acquaintances in other hospitals, has received anything so far. “But the money doesn’t bother me so much— I just want this to end as quickly as possible. No amount of money will expiate this hell.”

“Katya is not just a good-as-gold person, she’s a God-given medical worker,” says Tatiana. “Considerate, dedicated, trustworthy — to her, every patient matters. And with it all she is very strong. And very modest. And completely unique. I have good, warm relationships with many of my students at Big Change and with the graduates, but Katya — Katya’s a special case. Despite the blows of fate, she got up on her feet. She’s a unique person, I can’t tell you how much. I’m afraid to imagine the hell she is in, but I know that she is giving herself to her work unstintingly. I know she will work to the end of her strength.”

Katya and Tatiana were close friends before, but now they check in with each other every evening, when Katya comes home from work. “They haven’t tested us a single time,” says Katya. “I think they are afraid that, if there is a positive test, they’ll have to send the employees home, and then there won’t be anyone at all left to do the work. A lot of nurses I know have become sick in the different hospitals and they are now staying at home. I’m not afraid of getting sick. I dream that this will be over, although it won’t be over soon. But all the same, I love my work and I am happy that I can be of help to people in this horribly difficult time. And as for me, I’ll get through it all somehow.”

“First, you won’t outrun fate, and, second, this is my commitment.”

“I never saw my parents, but I know their history,” says Olya (her name has also been changed.) “Way back when, Mama was a champion in track and field, but her second marriage pulled her down, she started to drink. When she gave birth to me she was already a hopeless alcoholic. She abandoned me in an orphanage right away. Then during a domestic argument, she stabbed my father to death with a knife, and was sentenced to prison. It seems like she got out later, but I don’t know what happened to her then. My guess is, she’s dead by now. I never saw my Mama — not even once, she never came to see me or took any interest in me.”

Olya is 39 now. Like Katya, she dreamed from childhood of becoming a medical worker. And she’s not eager to remember her childhood either. She says, after fourth grade it became more or less bearable, just depressing. But before that there was another orphanage and there it was really bad.

“They systematically bullied us,” Olya remembers. “When we were naughty, they would punish us — they stood us in the drying cupboards for hours on end, they made us hold a pillow for hours in our outstretched arms, to lay our heads on the desk for a long time. I remember how one of the teachers, a great big woman, put a pillow on my head and sat her backside down on top of it. That was the most horrible of all. When people brought presents for us, they took them all away. They took the chocolate candy for themselves, and they stole the inexpensive fruit drops out from their wrappers. And they yelled at us all the time. To this day I hate shouting.”

From age 15 Olya dreamed of living on her own, and when at age 18 she left the orphanage and got a one-room apartment, this was true happiness. She was always a good student and had finished the 11th grade. But to survive, she went to work, and she laid aside her dream of medicine. She found work in a clinic as a receptionist — to be just a little bit closer to medicine.

Olya happened upon Big Change in 2012, and she immediately sat up and took notice. “They told me here that they would help me prepare for the Unified State Exam and enter a medical college,” Olya remembers. “I understood that this was unbelievable good luck, and that I should grab it by its tail. Still, I had left school in 2000 and of course I had forgotten everything. I had to pass Biology, Russian and English. They set up a programme for me, and I spent a year studying. Learning was great — heaven on earth compared with school. There, the teachers could not have cared less about anyone, especially the orphans. But here, they took trouble with everyone; they kept reminding us that learning is your ticket to life.”

She passed the Unified State Exam and entered a medical college. She did well there, and when she finished she found a place at a cancer treatment centre. She’s been working there for five years. “Olya has a very professional attitude to her work; they think highly of her, and she is in absolutely the right place,” says Elizaveta Zvereva, an instructor at “Big Change.” “They consider Olya one of their best specialists. She’s constantly educating herself. I know for a fact what a thoughtful professional she is and, the main thing is, she’s a person who cares. The kids come to us with very different starting levels, and Olya was one of the most self-directed of our charges.”

Olya works in cancer surgery and takes part in cancer identification. “We make an exact diagnosis and determine which patient should receive which treatment — chemotherapy, surgery or radiation, or, if the disease is already beyond that, we look at symptomatic treatments,” she says. “I like oncology very much. I realized that I wouldn’t flourish in a general practice, but here it’s both complicated and interesting. I know all the patients and each of their histories and often I am the one who advises them. I understand that when a person shows up at a cancer centre, he is, to put it mildly, feeling lost and frightened, and to help him, support him and give him direction is very important. I feel that this is the right place for me.”

Today Olya lives in the very same one room apartment, and there she is bringing up her 14 year old son Vanya. She remodeled the apartment herself, turning one room into two. She constructed a windowless separate bedroom for herself in an alcove, and turned the rest of the space over to her son. Even after she left “Big Change” she continued to spend time with the teachers, especially with Elizaveta Zvereva, who is in charge of the “club” activities at the foundation: excursions around the city, outings at the theatre, trips to the Golden Ring. When time allowed, Olya would take part in activities along with Vanya. “It is unbelievable, what they do,” says Olya. “Enormous support in any situation. I am fantastically grateful to the foundation for everything.”

Recently Olya signed up as a medical volunteer in the hospital in Kommunarka [a town in Moscow’s southwestern suburbs]. On any day they can call on her, and she takes herself out there to help treat patients infected with the coronavirus. “Many of my colleagues say, ‘What! Are you crazy? Stay put and don’t mess with it.’ But my feeling is: first, you can’t outrun fate, and second, it is my commitment, They don’t have enough nurses there, and I can — and want to — help,” says Olya.

“If Olya is going out there, and she needs to live in Kommunarka,” says Elizaveta Zbereva, “If this were somebody else, I would go and live with Vanya. But Olya has raised her son to be as sensible and self-sufficient as she is herself.”

The above article, entitled “Saving Us”, by Maria Bobyleva appeared in Takiye Dela on April 24, 2020. We are grateful to Takiye Dela for permission to reprint it here. Translation by Patricia Stewart


FHM supports the”English Club” programme at Big Change. The video below is a slide show of Katya in action.