November 29, 2022

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New Brunswick woman travels to Russia to care for parents with COVID

Just over three weeks ago, Varvara Pahomenko left her home in Petitcodiac, bound for Russia in an effort to care for her mother and stepfather, both of whom have contracted COVID-19. 

“I expected it to be bad, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad,” said Pahomenko, speaking from Tomsk, a city of 524,000 people in Siberia. “There’s a total collapse of the health-care system.” 

It took Pahomenko four days to get from New Brunswick to Tomsk because there are no direct flights, she said. She flew to Toronto, then to Istanbul and Moscow, before landing in Siberia. Moscow is 3,600 km east of Tomsk, roughly the distance between Moncton and Regina, Sask.

When Pahomenko finally arrived after crossing 11 time zones in the process, her mother and her mother’s husband had been sick for a week with high fevers. 

“They had stayed home and no doctors had come,” she said. 

“They called the ambulance before I arrived and it took three days” for the ambulances to come, she said, noting first responders normally take 20 to 30 minutes to arrive in the city which has a strong university hospital and good clinics. 

“Some of the regional hospitals are closed because too many doctors are sick. Others are overwhelmed,” she said.

According to World Health Organization statistics, Russia as a whole has more than 1.8 million confirmed cases of COVID-19. Of those cases, 1.6 million have recovered and there have been more than 31,000 deaths.

“When the ambulance eventually arrived, they took them both to the hospital,” Pahomenko said. “They were sitting in the corridor for four hours to have their lungs checked, but it was freezing.”

Pahomenko said her mother was told she had to be hospitalized, but the hospital had only “sitting hospitalization” available, where patients sit in a chair in the corridor. Her mother was too weak for that, she said, so they returned home.

Pahomenko said she has taken their care into her own hands.

“I started calling all the doctors I know, asking for advice,” she said, but finding medicine has been a problem.

She began calling her school friends and others, asking them to send medicine by courier from as far away as Turkey. Even acquiring basic pain medications, like acetaminophen, was an issue at local pharmacies, she said, though people have been acquiring and administering much more intense drugs to their loved ones on their own.

“It was basically a nightmare,” she said, adding that she does not work in the health-care field.

Pahomenko said she is far from alone.

“I have just been consulting doctors I know over the phone and on social media groups,” she said. “People are sharing the protocols of treatment on social media because they can’t get into the hospitals to get treatment.”

When she realized her mother and step-father needed oxygen, she searched for devices like oxygen generators or concentrators, but said even the hospitals didn’t have what they needed. Pahomenko said she eventually found a used device from someone on the outskirts of the city.

“Probably the most difficult thing was deciding whom to give the oxygen, my mother or her husband, when both needed it. And I was running with the oxygen concentrator from one room to another,” she said.

Despite her efforts, her 75-year-old stepfather, began losing consciousness, Pahomenko said.

She called the ambulance again, but said this time the telephone number no longer worked. After another failed attempt, she found a different number and the triaging system eventually led to his admission into hospital.

She continued treating her mother at home. Pahomenko said this included taking her to a private clinic to get blood tests so the results could be sent to doctors she knows for advice about what to do next.

Her stepfather was discharged on Monday, she said, noting he lost eight kilograms and is very weak. She believes it was too early for him to be sent home, and that he was discharged to make room for other patients. 

Her mother is doing better, Pahomenko said, but they know it will be a long road to recovery. 

“Every second day we are getting news that someone died,” she said. 

“In Canada there are still too many people who have denied that this is serious,” Pahomenko said, adding that this needs to change.

Pahomenko said she previously worked as a UN representative in the rebel-controlled conflict zone of eastern Ukraine, where in the spring of 2016 she met her now husband, Don Bowser, who was also working for the UN. The pair moved to the Maritimes together to enjoy a quieter life in small-town New Brunswick, where Bowser is from.

“I worked most of my life in different war zones, and my last few weeks here were worse than any war zone field work I’ve done,” she said.

Clara Pasieka, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal