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Why doctor leaves St. Petersburg to work on Chukchi Peninsula

A month after arrival, Sergei Chekhlatov was offered to be chief doctor at the regional hospital’s infections department

MOSCOW, March 11. /TASS/. It may take Sergei Chekhlatov about two hours by helicopter or 9-10 hours by an all-terrain vehicle to get to the most remote settlement if medical assistance is needed there. Actually, the young doctor chose to work in Chukotka, the Chukchi Peninsula, himself, as he revealed to TASS.

"Imagine, here, in Chukotka, it’s like back in socialism — medicine is absolutely free. Look, have you or your relatives in Central Russia ever had an MRI scan?" he asked me unexpectedly.

I nodded yes. "I received a prescription and went to schedule an appointment to be told that I'll have to wait for two months. Since it was urgent I had to go to a private clinic and pay."

This was the answer Sergei expected. "Look, here, in Chukotka, such a situation is impossible. If a patient is prescribed the screening, it will be done within one or two days, for free," the doctor said. "At first, I was shocked, you see."

Leaving for far end of the earth

Doctor Chekhlatov is 37. After finishing school in Bryansk, he studied at the Mechnikov Medical Academy in St. Petersburg.

"It was tough: I worked at the ambulance for 24 hours, next 24 hours at hospital, and was off for another 24 hours. I made enough money, but exhaustion was growing. I wanted to move on, to have new, probably more complex medical cases. This is how I got the idea to move somewhere far, like, for example, to the Far North," he recalled.

The vacancy in Anadyr (the administrative center of Chukotka) was unexpected and seemed unreal — Chukotka, the Northern Lights, polar bears, whales! But on the other hand, it was challenging and attractive.

So he called the hospital, sent all the papers and two days later got a call — they were ready to employ him. A huge Boeing took him to Anadyr two weeks later.

How to cure everyone at once

The doctor settled quickly. All doctors coming to Anadyr are accommodated at a campus until they rent a flat or take a mortgage.

The region offers a few programs to support doctors. For example, rented accommodation is reimbursed practically in full. Another regional program offers special conditions for mortgage loans, where the initial payment is covered by the regional budget.

Unhurried work days on Chukotka made enormous difference to the hustle in St. Petersburg. The huge Chukotka is underpopulated, and there are never big lines of patients. As for infections — they are not different from those in Central Russia. However, the list of pathologies in the North is wider. Besides, the doctor had to treat both children and grown-ups.

"Here we register many cases of oncology and tuberculosis, which has been defeated in St. Petersburg. For example, here we had children with tuberculosis of bones or abdominal tuberculosis. In big cities such diseases are rare, but here the cases are quite numerous. I also had patients with HIV, and it was my first experience, since in the country’s other cities HIV patients are normally treated at special centers," Sergei said.

According to him, local doctors are not limited in medicines or manipulations, and it is a huge advantage. Everything doctors need is bought and supplied without delays.

"Nobody above us would say we are doing something extra, and thus we have the opportunity to examine most accurately every patient," the doctor said. "This is a huge difference with the mainland."

Most doctors coming to Chukotka make quick careers. And Doctor Chekhlatov was not an exception. A month after arrival, he was offered to be chief doctor at the regional hospital’s infections department. On the mainland, he said, a doctor could wait for such a promotion for five or ten years.

A mission to Guatemala

"A doctor cannot just graduate, put the certificate on the shelf and work. We compete with illnesses, we must be always ahead of them, should know up-to-date methods and protocols, should study and develop all the time," he said.

This permanent desire to move, to study and search brought him to Guatemala, where he spent a two-month holiday as a volunteer.

"A colleague of mine has joined the Red Cross (ICRC) mission to Africa. When I learned about it, I was overwhelmed with plans. I contacted the Red Cross coordinators, and immediately was offered missions to a few countries, however the condition was the mission would last for six months. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford this time, but anyway I did not drop the idea. Finally, I found an invitation from a volunteer organization - they were looking for an infections doctor to a tropical country. I contacted them, and found out I would have to pay for my trip there. I also was to hand-deliver a 30-kilo pack of medications, collected by volunteers," Sergei said.

He worked jointly with a local doctor and another Russian doctor, who spoke Spanish fluently. The work was not much different from shifts at the regional hospital, Sergei said. The only advantage is that here narrow specialists were at hand, while over there he could rely only on himself.

"I received patients as a GP. The list of diseases was standard: high blood pressure, diabetes, rotaviruses, SARS. Unfortunately, I haven’t come across new infections. I was truly disappointed, as I hoped for new experience. Anyway, I do not regret I was there. If at any point I get fed up with Chukotka, I will easily spare six months to join the Red Cross’ mission to some African country," he said.

I ask him - can you really be fed up with Chukotka? "It is the harsh Russian North, which tests people. Whenever a person comes here, it is clear where he or she stays or not. I know many people, that have left Chukotka two or three weeks after arrival, saying it’s beyond them, it’s not for them. But as for me, over seven years that I am here, it has never occurred to me that I could flee," the doctor said.

Admirable Middle of Nowhere

For the recent four months, he has been working at hospital, which is in a settlement, called Provideniye. He has received another promotion - to the hospital’s Deputy Chief Doctor.

The settlement is on Chukotka’s eastern coast, in the Emma Bay. "The place is incredibly scenic, as it may be in the North. Especially in the evening, when huge rocky hills, hugging the bay, are lit in the sunset - a view typical for Switzerland. The climate here is much milder than in Anadyr: no roaring winds," the doctor said about his new place of work.

The settlement has its own international airport and a federal-level seaport. A local helicopter pilot told me that in the Soviet times submarines used to come to the bay. Nowadays, only whales come there, and the locals watch the animals through windows of their flats.

Presently, slightly more than two thousand people live in the settlement, while in the past, the population was three times bigger. I ask the doctor how he has decided to drop the city and move to this Middle of Nowhere, even though that admirable Nowhere. "For me it is new, administrative, experience. I am wanted here now, then why not?"


No Internet - no big deal

I look at my cell and the notice on it - Emergency calls only. In this settlement, this is what happens practically all the time. We - used to be available at any time - usually start panicking.

"At first, I also got irritated," Sergei said. "The Internet here is top slow and top expensive, thus most people use WhatsApp. While in Anadyr, the situation has improved, here you may be cut off communication for days. But this, believe me, is to what people get used. No Internet - no big deal. Even to the benefit - I get time to read books and do other interesting things."

Sergei tells me about leisure in Provideniye: "Chukotka’s only swimming pool with sea water, a gym, a huge sauna, an outdoor skating rink, alpine skiing, alpinism, and hot springs not far from the bay. And, finally - fishing! Much fish, different fish - brook trout, burbot, whitefish, saffron cod, cod. And about half a mile from the settlement you can fish upa - sea potato."

"This fishing exists only in Provideniye, nowhere else in Russia. Upa’s taste is something between seaweed and squid. Thus, it’s never dull in the Middle of Nowhere," Sergei said in conclusion.