An American couple travels to Russia with the goal of adopting a child. But first, they will have to survive a series of tests at a Moscow medical clinic.
… About 10 years ago…
“Do you want to go the American medical clinic in Moscow, or the Russian one?” my wife asked. “The American one will take an additional day.”
We were adopting in Russia, and she knew I was already worried about the time I had taken off from running my company. We’d already traveled to Russia for part of the adoption process, and now we were back in the States, planning our next Russia trip, during which we would have to submit to a medical exam. Well, eight medical exams, actually. Eight different doctors in eight different medical fields. It would be so thorough, I thought, if they don’t let us adopt, they’ll at least say we qualify for the cosmonaut training program.
“Well, here’s the thing,” I told my wife, “it’s true that I’m worried about time and expense, but as my Ukrainian grandfather used to say, in for a kopeck, in for a ruble, and, further, I’ll be damned if I’m going to go to some 1950s Soviet era clinic and have them start taking X-rays with God knows what leaky old radioactive equipment they dragged from Nikita Khrushchev’s basement in 1958. Let’s take the extra day and go American.”
The temperature in Moscow was a slightly chilly minus 22 Fahrenheit that fateful medical morning. Our driver picked us up at the hotel in a classic Russian Lada. These cars were built like Soviet T-34 tanks in World War II. I wanted to hold the door open for my wife and daughter, and in a quick 20 or 30 minutes, I’d pried the frozen 500-pound steel car door loose from its Titanic frame. We all climbed in, then I sealed the hatch. The Lada slowly lumbered down the frozen tundra road, crunching snow and ice and Nazi invaders underneath the tank like tracks of its thunderous heavy tires. My wife and daughter sat in back while I rode shotgun up front next to our tank commander, I mean, driver. He was a strong, black haired, swarthy Slavic ex-soldier (he still kept his Russian army hat, which he had on the rear deck of the car peeking out the back window). As he guided the Lada toward the medical clinic, he very slowly spoke what I believe were his very first English words.
Looking sideways at me, he said, “Yoooo luke like Bruce Villis,” in a deep resonant voice.
Now understand, I’m five feet eleven inches tall, blonde, and of slight frame. In short, not quite a dead ringer for the very bald, very muscular Mister Willis. I wasn’t sure how to respond to this astounding pronouncement; however, since all I’d learned to say in Russian was hello, good morning, how are you, and thank you, that’s exactly what I then said, in Russian. Hello. Good morning. How are you? Thank you.
The driver looked at me again. He appeared puzzled by my sparkling Russian. His forehead and face were broad, his eyes were bottomless black-holes, and then he said, in a slow, deep bass voice, “Yoooo luuuuke like Bruce Villis.”
Just then, I saw two things. Two important things. The first was an enormous poster of, you guessed it, Bruce Willis, on the side of a building, as we rounded a corner, and then, in the corner of my eye, I saw a Russian-English translation book resting on the car’s console between us. I instantly realized that, while I’d learned to say only hello, good morning, how are you, and thank you in Russian, our driver had learned to say in English, only, you look like Bruce Willis. (I learned later that Bruce was more popular in Russia than David Hasselhoff was in Germany.)
As I contemplated renewing my gym membership and buying a head razor, the Lada slowly crunched crunched crunched to a stop on the frozen road. I peered through my window and saw the magic words, in gold lettering, “AMERICAN Medical Clinic,” on the brick facade of a vast building. As I pushed, shoved, and kicked open the frozen steel Lada door, I said to the driver, mustering my finest Russian accent, “Have a nice day.” You see, I’d borrowed his Russian-English translation book during the ride in order to pick up a few more fitting phrases in Russian.
He then looked at me and said, in English, “Yoooo luuuuke like Bruce Villis.” He obviously hadn’t had a chance to brush up on his English during the drive.
As we waited in the waiting room, I realized that they must have decided to call the place the American Medical Clinic because they’d heard we were coming. All of the other patients looked Slavic, as did the staff, administrators, and doctors. After some time, I was escorted into a small examination room. Inside the room, a very tall, lithe, beautiful woman in a white lab coat appeared. She looked like Central Casting hired her for a role as “The Beautiful Russian Doctor” for a scene in “Doctor Zhivago.” In her long, slender hands, she held a thick file folder which had a label on it, with the name, Feingold, Jeffrey Mark.
The silence was as palpable as the frozen air of an interminable Russian winter. But then, at long last, she spoke.
“Pleeze, zit down,” she said, motioning to the cold steel chair behind me. “My name is Olga-Volgavolga-skylevich. I am dock-door of winfectious dizeez.”
I slumped into the icy metal chair. Here we go, I thought. Now she’ll tell me to roll up my sleeve or remove my shirt while she produces a needle the size of the Empire State Building and proceed to withdraw enough blood to fill the mighty Volga River, or perhaps just enough to fill a large samovar. Was the needle even sterile? Had it just been used on the last hapless American? But then, she spoke again.
Looking at the label with my name on the thick dossier she was holding, she said, “So, Feingold, Jeffrey Mark… you have infection?” I was astounded.
“No, no infection,” I replied.
Another long pause. Now here we go. I was sure. Time for her to pull out God-knows-what old needles and blood-letting equipment.
Then, she said, “So, Feingold, Jeffrey Mark…never infection?”
I wanted to jump up and say, well, I was in the Navy, after all. I mean, what red-blooded American boy can honestly say of himself, never infection? But of course, I couldn’t say that. My wife was in the waiting room, going through hell and high water to become a mom, so I said the one thing a red-blooded American Navy vet could say under the circumstances.
“No,” I said, “never infection.”
Doctor Olga then looked up from the dossier at me and said with conviction, “Next!,” as she stamped my dossier with the seal of approval while I was escorted to the next examination room.
As I waited alone in the next exam room, I realized the infectious doctor likely had to get back quickly to the Bolshoi Theater from where she’d been hired to impersonate a doctor. She was a fine actress! Then, another tall, lithe Slavic woman in a white lab coat appeared. It may have been another beautiful Russian actress, though I’ve always wondered to this day if it was the same woman as the first “doctor,” only now in a different wig. In either case, she also had my dossier in her hands, though I now wondered if perhaps inside the folder was just the Moscow phone directory.
“Pleez, have zeet,” she said. “I am Svetlana Stevlanovovich, dock-door of oncology. So, Feingold, Jeffrey Mark… you have cancer?”
I looked down at my chest, arms, legs, and feet and—through my clothes and shoes—saw no cancer. And so, I said, “No, no cancer.”
“Good!” she exclaimed. Then, a pause ensued.
Despite my surprise at emerging from my prior exam unscathed and unbloodied, I truly thought, oh no, this is it. Now she’ll instruct me to remove my shirt while stepping inside a 1950s radioactive cancer-causing X-ray machine. Or worse, ask me to remove other parts of clothing. Then what frozen steel implements would she be removing from her freezer to poke, prod, and dissect me with?
After a pause, during which she looked intently through my file, perhaps trying to see if “Feingold, Jeffrey Mark” was listed in the Moscow phone book, she said, “So … never cancer?”
I paused and, in a flash, thought of a million biting things to say. Then, biting only my tongue, I said the only thing possible. “No. Never cancer.”
And then, concluding the exhaustive examination, she said, “Next,” as she stamped my file with the seal of approval.
I was thusly escorted into five more exam rooms, meeting each time some of the loveliest actresses and ballerinas Moscow had to offer. I don’t even recall their medical specialties at this point, nearly a decade on. I think I was “examined” by specialists in feet, livers, eyes, and whatnot. But I sure do remember the last exam. After each of my first seven exams, my wife was led to the same doctor and given the exact same “examinations.” But for the eighth and final exam, we were both mysteriously led together into the same exam room. After a while, a man in a white lab coat appeared, holding two separate Moscow phone directories. Apparently, my wife was listed in the Moscow phone book, too!
The man then said, “Pleez, have zeet. My name is Yevgeny Yevtushenko. I am dock-door of zsychology.”
Ok, I thought, here’s where they get us. Here’s where the adoption process stops. The doctor will start asking us if we like to beat children, drink too much, smoke that American pot, or perhaps wear tie-dye tee shirts and listen to the Grateful Dead.
Then, Doctor Yev looked up at me and said, “So, Feingold, Jeffrey Mark, you have phobia?”
I wanted to tell this man so many things. Of my fear of aging. My worries about the future. My fear that we’re sullying our little planet beyond the point of no return. And most especially of my fear of having to pay a lot of actors in Russia to pretend to be doctors. Couldn’t we just have skipped the eight-way medical and mailed them a check? Or left a large brown paper bag stuffed with rubles with the receptionist? But with my poor, bedraggled wife by my side, I said the only thing possible.
“No, no phobia.”
The doctor nodded his head slightly, then asked, “So…never phobia?”
After I confirmed I had spent a lifetime free of phobias, he asked my wife the same two questions, to which she provided the same two obligatory answers.
“Good!” said the doctor, and then we were escorted back into the Lada.
Our driver was waiting, with the engine running. After sealing my wife and daughter in the back seat, I again climbed into the front, closed the hatch, and smiled at our driver, who looked me up and down and said knowingly, “Yoooo luuuuke like Bruce Villis.”