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St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Hospital in Continuous Operation for 200 Years - 2002-06-03

The northern Russian city of St. Petersburg is racing to restore its historic buildings, palaces and monuments in time for its 300th birthday celebration next year. City officials are vowing they will also upgrade infrastructure and such things as schools and hospitals.

Looking through the wrought-iron fence, one might easily mistake this for an old theater or a small palace. The exterior paint is faded and the facade crumbling, but the building still exudes grandeur with its graceful white columns.

This is not some dilapidated opera house, it is the Mariinsky hospital in the center of St. Petersburg.

Patients are brought here round the clock and it is the only hospital in the center of town that can provide emergency care.

The Mariinsky Hospital was built 200 years ago under Czar Alexander I and has been in constant operation ever since. It has about 850 beds and 1,000 employees, including 250 doctors.

Step inside the main building and you enter another era: creaky floors, dark arched hallways and ceilings five-meters high. The lighting is poor and there are few signs of modern technology.

Dr. Oleg Emelianov, the hospital's medical director, is aware of the facility's shortcomings, but also its importance. "We have 16 buildings on six hectares of land. ... I started here five years ago ... the condition of the hospital was very bad.... For 30 years there had been no renovation," he said. "Most of the buildings are from the 19th century.... It is a big hospital, centrally located. There are no other hospitals in the center of town that can provide emergency services. The city cannot do without us and there is really no place to build a new hospital here."

Dr. Emelianov says there is no choice but to renovate the existing hospital. But that is proving difficult because any renovation must conform with the hospital's original architecture.

Nurse Zinaida Baranovskaya has worked here for 35 years. "Our ward is meant for 70 beds, but we always have more because we serve as the emergency ward as well," she said. "But despite the uncomfortable conditions, I think our hospital is known in town for its good doctors and nurses. ... I have only worked at the Mariinsky Hospital and I would not trade that for anything else."

Nurse Baranovskaya admits the hospital is in need of repairs. "The floor, plumbing, lighting we wish it were better," she said. "We wish things worked properly. We wish we had enough cold and hot water, we wish the sinks and toilets would not leak. We hope things do not fall off the ceiling ... you can see this leak in the ceiling; it happened when we had a lot of snow on the roof. The building is very old [so] of course, it is very difficult."

Realizing that her visitor is American, nurse Barankovskaya adds, "I wonder how our colleagues in America would cope with these conditions."

The Mariinsky hospital is not unique in its problems. Average Russians say health services throughout the country have suffered because there is not enough money to upgrade physical or technical facilities.

The Mariinsky hospital is fortunate to be on the list of historic sites the city wants to renovate.

As Dr. Emelianov inspects work underway in a part of the complex, he acknowledges much more needs to be done. But he says when it is finished, this wing of the hospital will have up to date facilities. "This is our future," he said. "Here on the first floor we will have the emergency room [and] here will have a ward to treat patients in shock, here intensive care, emergency operating rooms, x-ray rooms, diagnostic services and on the 2nd and 3rd floors we will have other departments." The Mariinsky hospital does have a number of newer buildings, constructed about 30 years ago.

Dr. Konstantin Pavelets is head of surgery in one of these buildings. "We used to be in the old building, but with the renovation, we moved here ... we specialize in gastroenterology," he said. "The Mariinsky hospital was traditionally a hospital for the poor. Conditions were such that many patients could not stay here. But that has changed. Conditions here are quite good. We have a big intensive care unit, a post-op [post-operation] unit. The problem is that we do not have the money to make the hospital even better. We need funding. So, there are still a lot of problems here."

Whatever problems there are do not seem to bother 73-year-old Raisa Shalayeva, who is recovering from a gallbladder operation. "I still feel weak, but the operation went well," she said. "This is a very good hospital. Compared to the hospital I was in before, this one is much better. Here the care is better. The doctors are attentive."

The doctors, nurses and administrators at the Mariinsky hospital talk a lot about renovation. They seem much more eager to restore the old buildings rather than have new ones built. Chief surgeon Hasan Musakayev explains why.

If we renovate the old buildings, they have more potential. They will be much more comfortable for doctors and patients. They are built for the climate. They are warm in winter and cool in summer. There is a lot of light. The new buildings were built fast and cheaply. Their quality is bad and they will not last. ... The money being spent on renovating these old buildings will be well spent and will bring returns.

Everyone at the Mariinsky hospital knows that work will not be finished before next year's celebration of the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg. But the hospital is an important historic site and the staff hopes that will give city officials the incentive to provide sufficient funding to bring it up to modern standards and restore its former glory.