Encounter brings adventure
by Mel Bloom
A chance encounter with a stranger presented Joan Jennings
a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity while simultaneously bringing
her close to death in a Russian hospital.
Three years ago Joan was flying home to Ojai, after a two-week
holiday in Europe. Her seat companion was Ili Katilli, the wife
of a university professor who was to become Indonesia's ambassador
to Russia. The two women got along splendidly. Mrs. Katilli was
also headed for Ojai to attend her grandson's graduation from
the Ojai Valley School, one of the town's several illustrious
boarding schools. During her visit she was invited to join the
Jennings family in a number of activities and a burgeoning friendship
was soon on solid footing.
Last year Ili invited Joan to spend a couple of weeks at the
embassy in Moscow. It was to be an adventure far bigger than
Joan had anticipated. The prelude was almost a page from a Tolstoy
novel, grandiose on a Russian scale.
The Indonesian embassy, elegant behind wrought iron gates, is
a graceful three-story building with lavish Old World flourish
- huge rooms, marble floors, high ceilings, crystal chandeliers.
Joan's quarters included a bedroom salon (larger than her home's
living room), a bathroom and a small kitchen where the refrigerator
was filled with an array of enticing edibles.
Though it was like the presidential suite at a deluxe hotel,
there was no hot water. In early June, Moscow's hot water system
of reservoirs, heating plants and conduits to all the city's
buildings shuts down as it undergoes a thorough cleansing and
no hot water flows for three weeks. For those who can't do without,
water may be heated on the stove, in the fireplace or with an
electric water heater.
The first several days in Moscow were a social whirl of concerts,
theater, and embassy parties. In fact, said Joan, "Had I
been 30 years younger, I would have felt like Natasha Rostova,"
the heroine of Tolstoy's "War and Peace" novel. Additional
Moscow adventures included a lavish underground shopping mall
with an opulent array of merchandise affordable only to the wealthy
or foreign diplomats and a detailed tour of the Kremlin and its
After a five-day social and cultural inoculation Joan, Ili and
an ambassadorial assistant from the embassy departed by plane
for St. Petersburg. Prior to checking into the city's posh Moscow
Hotel they toured St. Petershof, the summer home of Peter the
Great. When Joan became chilled and started to shake, the women
knew it was best to go to the hotel.
That evening Joan's condition worsened and she was unable to
make the schedule which included an evening ballet and a following
day trip to The Hermitage, the imperial palace built by Peter
the Great, and now a world-class museum. Ili was constantly at
her side. By morning Joan's fever had soared and brought her
near delirium. She was unaware three doctors were in attendance
and had injected her with medication.
She was taken to an international clinic used by foreign visitors
and dignitaries. After long hours at the clinic, doctors, still
unable to diagnose the reason for her high temperature and weakened
state, put her in an ambulance with a doctor and rushed them
to a prominent hospital in another section of the city. Ili,
not allowed to accompany Joan in the ambulance followed by car.
During the "white nights" of late spring there is no
darkness, and the seven bridges along the waterways of St. Petersburg
are drawn up one at a time, an hour apart. When the last one
is raised, crossing from one side to the other is impossible.
Luckily for Joan. the ambulance made it just before the last
bridge was drawn at 4 a.m., averting a three-hour wait until
the first bridge would be lowered. But Joan's luck was soon running
on empty as Ili and the ambassadorial assistant were not allowed
to cross the bridge.
Arriving at the hospital, Joan's uneasiness mounted since she
didn't know Russian and the doctors didn't speak English. She
clung to the hope that she would be treated effectively. After
tests and an examination, she was stripped naked and covered
with a knitted shawl considerably less comforting than a blanket
and dispatched to another wing of the hospital.
There one of the few staff members who could speak a modicum
of English informed her she was in acute toxic shock caused by
a kidney infection probably begun 10 days earlier. She was next
told her blood pressure was dangerously low and her chance of
The doctors wanted to put Joan on kidney dialysis, but Ili, who
had arrived at the hospital a few hours later adamantly resisted
because as she said, "Joan had no prior kidney problems
and I have seen too many friends and relatives die from this
The next four days were the most dispiriting Joan had ever lived.
Uncomfortable and uncertain, she found herself assigned not to
an intensive care unit but to something that resembled a storage
facility. It was crammed with a broken desk, bed frames, and
other equipment she could not distinguish. Though it was tiled,
the place was filthy. The floor was littered with bottle caps,
needle sheaths, and intravenous bits of tubing.
Her iron bed was covered with a 3-inch-thick foam rubber pad
that had begun to crumble from prolonged use. A lumpy, stained
pillow was her head rest. A catheter drained her urine into an
open bucket on the floor. For three days the catheter remained
unflushed and Joan's stomach had become painfully distended.
"I had a roly-poly belly any Santa Claus would have been
proud of," she later said.
An empathetic cleaning woman, whom Joan described as a saint
and who spoke no English, brought her a forceps to bang on the
metal bed when she needed attention as no call button was available.
When a non-English speaking nurse arrived Joan had to gesture,
grunt and point to the catheter and the almost-empty bucket on
the floor to convey the cause of her discomfort. That night she
lost the catheter and had to lie in a urine-soaked bed. Hours
after the catheter was replaced, the container on the floor overflowed.
Summers in St. Petersburg are hot and humid. Joan's screenless
open window enticed flies and mosquitoes along with their annoying
buzz which never stopped. There was neither soap nor towels and
the closest thing she ever had to a bath was when the cleaning
woman brought her a small piece of moistened gauze to wash her
Ili, though restricted by the number of visits the hospital allowed,
did not return to Moscow but chose to stay as close to Joan as
possible. When she could see Joan, she was appalled by the accommodations,
the mess on the floor, and the day-old meals and beverages resting
on the sill of the open window. She called the American Consulate
in St. Petersburg. A staff member visited Joan, but was unable
to get her transferred to another section of the hospital.
By the fourth day Joan's infection had miraculously lessened
and though the doctors claimed she wasn't strong enough to leave
the hospital, she insisted on doing so. After long debates with
hospital authorities, Ili was instrumental in getting Joan released,
providing she would be checked into a Moscow hospital as soon
as they returned to that city. Once liberated Joan refused to
enter another Russian hospital.
Upon arriving at the Moscow airport, Joan and Ili were met by
a doctor and an ambulance. Enroute to the embassy the doctor
stopped at a pharmacy with the antibiotic prescriptions from
the St. Petersburg doctors which were to have been filled at
the Moscow hospital that Joan had refused to enter.
At the embassy the maids were so alarmed by Joan's appearance,
they volunteered to sleep in her room until they she was well
enough to be left alone. Over the next three days Joan gradually
got stronger thanks to a ravenous intake of fruit juices, medication
and leisurely walks in the embassy. The greatest remedy, however,
was the shower and shampoo as hot water once again flowed through
the pipes of Moscow. "It was one of the greatest blessings
of my life," said Joan.
Still frail and easily tired, Joan insisted on returning home.
All the people at the Indonesian embassy had treated her like
royalty and without Ili she felt she might have died. But she
realized with fervor the truth in the adage, "There is no
place like home." Four days after the Kafkaesque horrors
of her St. Petersburg confinement, Joan boarded an Areoflot plane
for the 18-hour trip home, fragile but grateful.
© 2002 The Ojai Valley News
Back to the news