Being Admitted to the Ward - Chs. 1-4 from "Cancer Ward" by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Welcome to the Cancer Ward
It is post-war 1950's in the Soviet Union. Welcome to the cancer ward. This is the only place in Russia where you cancer can be treated and you may have a chance of surviving. Take a number, change into your patient garb, and head to your bed in a large room of other patients.
It's also probably fair to say that not everyone is quite as gentile as Pavel, or Rusanov, as he is sometimes called. Many of these men are hardened from different lifestyles and experiences. There is one which Pavel describes as being so sun burnt and worn that he was a few shades from appears as a mummy. Another young man, who served in a Communist youth organization, howls in pain, constantly tossing and turning because he can find no comfort from his illness. Another, hardened man with dark hair and disheveled beard, sits and continually reads books, refusing to turn the lights off when he does not want to. Even worse, there is a man who constantly paces the room. He is in such an agitated state that he continually talks and puts himself in other people's business. "But the floor started shaking again as someone paced up and down between the beds. Of course it was Yefrem coming back. The old floorboards vibrated with his footsteps and Rusanoc could feel the vibrations through the bedrails and the pillow. However, Pavel Nikolayevich decided not to rebuke him, but to endure it. There's such bad manners and impudence among our people. We still haven't got rid of it. How can we lead them to a new society carrying this burden?" 1
Given such a racket it's very difficult for Pavel to sleep, and meanwhile he continually wonders where the doctor is. For the first day there are only nurses and orderlies who come around to feed them and take their temperature, though some of these women do bring some joy to the men with their pleasant attitude. One young woman, Zoya, who is actually studying to be a doctor, certainly shows them care and concern, though this is not universal by any means. Just like the nurses are continually rotating through their shifts, the patients too are continually coming and going, with new ones entering as the old ones leave. Most had only been there a few weeks, except for one man who basically had consigned himself to a life at the cancer ward. He stayed outside in the hallway and he body was incredibly sensitive even to the touch.
When the doctor does come around, it becomes clear that she is doing the best that she can. There are certainly limited numbers of them, but she is able to set them up with treatment for injections, pills, or surgery. Some of the men even had positive transformations with their cancer due to their time in the ward.
Consider: "'He was a good man. A human being. I shook him by the hand. You see, I had to know! I'd tormented myself for six months before that. The last month I hadn't been able to lie, sit down or stand without it hurting, and I was only sleeping a few minutes a day. So I must have done plenty of thinking. This autumn I learned from experience that a man can cross the threshold of death even when his body is still not dead. Your blood still circulates and your stomach digests, while you yourself have gone through the whole psychological preparation for death - and lived through death itself. Everything around you, you see as if from the grave. And although you've never counted yourself a Christian, indeed the very opposite sometimes, all of a sudden you find you've forgiven all those who trespassed against you and bear no ill-will toward those who persecuted you. You're simply indifferent to everyone and everything. There's nothing you'd put yourself out to change, you regret nothing. I'd even say it was a state of equilibrium, as natural as that of the trees and the stones. Now I have been taken out of it, but I'm not sure whether I should be pleased or not. It means the return of all my passions, the bad as well as the good." 2
Now Pavel is not pleased that it took the doctor so long to see him, and begins to insult her. "Assassins in white coats," as they were known. She reminds him that this is the only clinic in the whole country which treats things like this ... so he is free to leave and go die if he wants. And so he resigns himself to the injections. 3
A Few Personal Thoughts So Far
A few personal thoughts that I found interesting were, one, that there were so many woman medical professionals and doctors. I would not have expected that given the time and place. Two, that there would only be one cancer clinic in the whole Soviet Union. I would assume that coming out of World War II that there would be a decently large amount of people with cancer given their exposure to chemicals and the strain of war in general. But, then again, it doesn't surprise me that there was a shortage of resources and doctors because Communism seems to always be plagued by shortages. Third, it didn't surprise me, but I found amusing the Dostoyevsky-like characters which Rusanov encounters in the cancer ward. Very hardened, gruff, rude, and quirky men who had probably seen very hard times, all of them, in their own respects. Also, to me personally, the absence of God hangs out the setting in the book. Dealing with suffering and tragedy in the absence of faith ... is bound to lead to a form of nihilism. Also notable too, is that Solzhenitsyn had cancer himself after WWII, so I'm sure that many of these characters and situations reflect his own experiences.
1 - Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Cancer Ward. (New York. Bantam Books, 1969). Pg. 20, 21
2 - 31
3 - Chs. 1-4 pgs.