Skip to content

Story of an Illness

To tell you the truth, I much prefer to be sick at home. At a hospital, no question, the light bulbs are stronger and things are more scientific in general. But at home, as they say, even straw tastes better.

Judge for yourselves. My family brings me to the hospital with typhoid fever, in hopes of easing my suffering, and immediately my eyes fall on a poster: “Corpses for pick up between three and four.”

I don’t know about other patients, but my knees frankly buckle. “Look, Comrade,” I address the orderly who’s writing me up, “why did you have to post such a vulgar poster? People here feel weakened as it is.”

Boy, is he scandalized. “Just look at him, ready to croak, yet he too must criticize! First get better, dear Comrade, though that’s highly unlikely. Or else you’ll be picked up between three and four!”

Here a nurse hops over to take me to the “hosing station.” “A hosing station? What am I, a horse? Can’t you call it something more poetical—a bath?”

Now the nurse is miffed. “Really, patient, such subtleties you notice; I don’t see how such a nosey one can recover.” So she takes me to the washroom and tells me to undress.

I unbutton my pants with shaky fingers and suddenly observe a head sticking out of the tub. “What are you devils doing to me? This is the women’s washroom!”

The nurse hushes me. “Never mind the hag—she’s running a bad fever, even worse than yours; unconscious. Undress freely; we’ll drag her out.”

“The hag may be unconscious, but I’m not,” I object. “And it gives me no pleasure to observe what you have floating in there.”

The orderly arrives to the commotion. “First time,” he declares, “I’ve seen such a picky patient. A dying woman is taking her last bath, and he makes a face. No matter she can’t see a thing. And in any case, it’s not like the sight of your naked body will delay her in this world. No, I much prefer them when they arrive unconscious, without a taste for scientific discussions.”

Now the crone in the tub pipes up. “Lift me out, you beasts, or I’ll pull your scurvy joints apart!”

So they drag her out, stick me in, and after the bath, issue me a set of pajamas four sizes too big. It was a special torture in that hospital, I learned later, to dress undersized patients in huge pajamas and vice versa. But my fever continues to grow, and I choose not to squabble over this.

So they find me a bed in a smallish room of maybe thirty people. Some are pretty far gone; others seem to be on the mend; some whistle; others play checkers; those who can read shuffle from bed to bed, examining people’s charts. I say to the nurse, “If I came to a madhouse by mistake, please tell me now. In all other hospitals it’s peace and quiet. Here it’s like a flea market.”

“Just listen to him! Maybe you want a private room? And a special nurse with a flyswatter?”

I begin to shout for the chief physician, but instead the same orderly arrives. On seeing him, my weakened system blows its fuses, and I pass out.

When I come to, three or four days later, the nurse greets me: “Well, well. We have a real tough cookie here, haven’t we? We put you next to an open window—by mistake—and still you made it. Now, if you don’t pick something up from your neighbors, we’ll soon be wishing you a happy recovery.”

I didn’t pick up anything, this time, except for whooping cough—there was a children’s division in the back. As the nurse explained, I must have been fed from a sick child’s plate—by mistake. But all in all, as they say, nature persevered, and again I began to recover.

Later, true, I developed a nervous rash all over my body. The doctor told me to stop fretting, but I couldn’t, because they wouldn’t discharge me. One day they forgot; another, my chart was missing. Or they had a wave of new patients—the wives of the patients already hospitalized—and all the staff was busy. The orderly comforted me that it had only been eight days; some wait for three weeks.

In the end, I was discharged and sent home. “You know, Petia,” my wife told me, “last week we thought you were no more. We received a note from the hospital: ‘On receiving this, kindly come to retrieve your husband’s body.’”

It turned out a patient had died, and they had decided it was me, for some reason. I was about to run there and raise hell, but remembered how it was, and didn’t. Stayed home. And now if I’m sick, I stay home. Seems safer that way.

Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers.