SURGEON VALERI CHEKANOV:
ON THE MYSTERIES OF LIFE AND DEATH
Dr Valeri Sergeevich Chekanov is a medical doctor, professor and heart surgeon. People in his profession face the mysteries of life and death every day, becoming witnesses to Divine Providence in the lives of their patients.
I Was Very Far Away From Faith in God
A surgeon’s profession, on one hand, often leads him to faith in God, on the other hand, before this epiphany, he may travel the path of active disbelief. First of all, no other student is taught such a materialistic attitude towards man as is a medical student. It’s not that they are taught this specifically. But all the constructions, first theoretical, then practical, applied medicine, surgery without fail convinces the future doctor that there is no Divine Providence either in a person’s conception or in his life.
When you spend a few years in a medical school next to corpses in an anatomy lab, when you study embryology and observe how two invisible cells transform into the most complicated organism, you develop blind faith that all this happens by the laws of nature, but by no means by God’s guidinghand. As a medical student, I was very far away from belief in God.
Yaroslavl Medical Institute
I enrolled in Yaroslavl Medical Institute in 1957; it is now known as the Medical Academy. The first year began with one month of studies, then we were sent to a kolkhoz for a month to harvest potatoes. How it is that they were going to improve agriculture with the help of schoolchildren and students (we also worked during planting season) is a profound mystery. But I digress…
We’d go to the kolkhoz for the duration of our studies at the institute, while our study hours were reduced. This applied to surgery, therapy and other clinical subjects, but not to socio-political classes, though they could have been shortened, too, but no one was brave enough to suggest that. But how could a doctor become an accomplished specialist without a good knowledge of the history of the Communist Party?
The answer is simple: without knowledge of surgery, you can still operate, but without knowing the dates of the Communist Party Assemblies, you can’t, because just as much time was spent on historical and dialectical materialism, the history of the CPSU, scientific Communism and scholarly atheism as on the main branches of medicine: therapy, surgery, gynecology and obstetrics. Who among us was prepared?...
I did in fact study the political sciences just as earnestly as the others, I didn’t slack off or protest, and unlike tens or hundreds of thousands of my contemporaries, I could not boast about earning only middling grades (as a protest against the Soviet regime). I was young and believed everything we were taught.
My First Experiment
I was especially keen to study anatomy: everything came to me easily. I began my first project in my group right away, to prepare a nerve and all its branches for study was very complicated, but it lay the foundation for good habits for the future.
It Was Considered Very Cool to Take Home a Skull for Homework and Shock Your Family.
Gradually we became accustomed to the morgue, the sight of corpses and body parts floating in formaldehyde. Some of us would faint at the beginning. Two or three students couldn’t overcome these anatomical classes and had to leave the institute. It was considered very cool to take home a skull for homework and shock your family. We were in awe of the assistant professors and adjuncts who would take a bite out of their sandwiches right in the anatomical theater, and wondered if we would be just like them someday.
For some reason I remember the student’s cafeteria. We had little money: our stipend consisted of 22 rubles. Of course, a starting salary wasn’t big, either, 72 rubles a month. But there were always mounds of free black bread in the cafeterias. If we had 10 kopecks for tea and sugar, we’d eat pretty well.
Could It Be that We Are Born Simply to Die?
From the very first weeks, at biology and organic chemistry lectures, I began to be bothered by the futility of existence: could it be that we are born simply to die? This was the philosophy of atheism, but we were reared as atheists. The more I studied in medical school, the more tangled up the concept of the human “I” became, the connection with one’s spiritual origin.
I became intoxicated by re-reading the brilliant book Purulent Surgery Essays by St Luka (Voino-Yasenetsky), which he wrote in between two prison sentences beyond the Arctic Circle. I knew that for this book he was awarded the Stalin Medal, but I had no idea that he was also an archbishop.
How We Helped Harvest the Crops
In September, 1958, instead of classes we headed to the farmlands in Kazakhstant, to Kustanaisk oblast, Uzunkolsk region. We went every year, but maybe not the final, sixth year. An entire trainload came from Yaroslavl consisting of students, occupying twenty transport cars: we slept on plank beds and were given no food, just what we brought ourselves. This didn’t frighten us—we all fervently believed that it was only the consequences of the recent war that prevented us from living in a Communist paradise.
The trip was long—it took four days. Finally we disembarked in an open field, some substation, then we boarded trucks and were taken to the steppe, and some three hours later we were let out in an open field. One of the trucks contained army tents, 20 persons per tent. There were people who knew how to erect them. By nightfall, everything was organized and a field kitchen set up.
We had to help the combines harvest the grain. At the time, one of the Soviet scholars proved that the harvest would be better if the wheat were not taken away immediately but allowed to lie on the ground for a few days and then collected. I remember the unbelievable beauty: neat rows disappearing into the horizon, stripes of cut wheat stalks. Three days went by. We worked a great deal, dawn to dusk. Exhausting! But it was going to be worse, the mechanics told us. All of the wheat had to be gathered in three days.
The brilliant September days were warm. We were ready for our fourth day of work, but instead, snow fell the night before, and all the cut wheat stalks were blanketed.
Almost 20 days past in the fields, but the snow didn’t melt. Then we heard on the news that this Uzunkolsk region announced that the entire grain harvest was collected ahead of schedule and with a 15% increase in output over last year. Then we came to realize that not everything the state told us was true.
The snow finally melted. We could return to work collecting the grain from the piles of stalks. But we discovered not wheat grains but green stripes of shoots—the grains took the melted snow as a sign of spring and began to germinate, destined to die at the next snowfall. There was nothing else to do, we lost time at our studies to no avail and returned to Yaroslavl.
How I First Found Myself at a Church Service
An event in Leningrad is burned in my memory: how I first found myself at a church service. I once headed for the Museum of Atheism which was housed in the Kazan Cathedral. I didn’t bother asking for directions, and, seeing a beautiful church (I don’t even know now which one), entered, confident that this was Kazan Cathedral. I had no idea that that very day was the Nativity of Christ, and that every church that survived the Communist destruction was holding divine services.
I opened the door and walked in—and was bewildered. Icons hung everywhere, people were standing in place, the scent of incense was in the air. Thank God I was raised to remove my hat whenever I entered any building. So no one made any comments for leaving my hat on. Then I saw something entirely unexpected: very close to me was a group of no fewer than 20 priests in remarkably beautiful garments. But even more beautiful were the priests themselves: grand Russian faces, so handsome, inspired, placid. It seemed to me at the time that I had never in my life seen such beautiful faces.
Suddenly I realized that I was in an operating church. Now I should have come to a certain realization, like a bolt of lightning that would illuminate me, and, inspired, should turn my heart and soul to God. Quite the opposite happened, however: like a madman, like a devil recoiling from incense, I ran out of the church and ran a block, maybe two. We were firmly and thoroughly taught in school and at the institute, and as a true Komsomolets [Communist Youth member] and product of the Soviet regime, I was a good student.
I passed general surgery with flying colors, more than required, I reread everything the libraries of the institute and medical libraries of the oblast had, I knew a great deal of useful and useless information, took hundreds of pages of notes. But most importantly, during my third year I was given the official opportunity to take the night shift at the emergency room and assist in surgery.
Before my shifts began, I noticed that the sick would pester the nurses, especially the orderlies, giving them no opportunity to sleep, to eat in peace, to engage in non-medical conversation. Many nurses shouted at the sick. One should fear the surgeons, but nobody was afraid of them, meanwhile, the nurses and orderlies struck fear in the hearts of the sick and their relatives.
Of course, I was immediately at the mercy of the orderlies. How I bothered them! I needed to find a locker where I could put my clothing. I needed a place to nap where there were no patients or medical procedures. I needed surgical scrubs. Because of me, the nurses had to stop what they were doing and explain where everything is, at least at the beginning. But how dangerous it was to ask them to do something (bring a basin to a patient, clean something up, help move a patient onto a gurney, move him to another room), if they were drinking tea, snacking or gossiping…
My First Operation
In a spring semester, I was a grown up, and it seemed fully adult at the age of 21. I had a great sense that being a surgeon was my calling. My shifts at the oblast hospital became more and more interesting, and finally I was allowed to assist during an appendectomy for the first time. I remember the surgeon’s name—Pamputis. He did everything easily, with seemingly no effort, and he was a natural teacher: without rebuke, without raising his voice, as though he didn’t notice my nervousness, my inexperience. He corrected me, guided me and respected my young ambition.
How I First Heard of the Spiritual World
During my fifth year, most interesting were the brilliant lectures of Anatoly Konstantinovich Shipov, a student of the Academy of Sciences member Alexander Vasilievich Vishnevsky, a surgeon of the renowned Kazan Surgical School.
It was from Professor Shipov that I heard the spiritual world for the first time in my life. I was stunned
It was from Professor Shipov that I heard the spiritual world for the first time in my life. I was stunned, and the experience remained with me for the rest of my life. During one of his lectures, devoted to reanimation after clinical death, the professor drew attention to an interesting case of a patient whom he was able to reanimate two or three times after complicated abdominal surgeries. The patient, after the last reanimation, asked the professor not to reanimate him anymore: for the place he found himself after death was far better than on earth.
We students were astonished, even shocked. The mention of a world beyond the grave, were it to be reported to the Party authorities, could cost the professor his cathedra. In 1962, such things were unforgivable in the Soviet Union. Until then I had never heard of a world beyond the grave and never read any such thing—nothing in academics or religion. This embedded itself in my memory.
I graduated the institute with flying colors, I dreamed of doing science, I had nothing but excellent grades and a “red diploma,” but I had no sponsors, no connections, and I didn’t remain in the post-graduate program, or the “clinical ordinature” [higher-level medical program in the USSR—transl.], nor in the Yaroslavl Municipal Health Administration (where , actually, the more average students ended up). My friend, who always had average grades and didn’t graduate with the “red diploma,” stayed on in the post-graduate program. Frankly speaking, a bad student aged 35 but a Party secretary stayed in the post-graduate program.
I was appointed to a town in Vologda oblast, to a tiny village hospital, and not as a surgeon, but a simple country doctor, since they had no surgical program or operating rooms. The main blow to me was that you could only join the post-graduate program after two years of surgical practice, but not as a country doctor, so the door to my future was shut tight.
I remember the words of the professor who assigned me, he said: “They say that you are a star of the first order among the graduates. If that’s the case, you will shine even in the Vologda skies.”
So I set out for Vologda. I was due on September 1, but came a month before, and immediately declared: “I am ready to work starting tomorrow, but if possible, as a surgeon. I was at the right place at the right time. In the city of Gryazovets, a three-hour drive from Yaroslavl, a young surgeon from Arkhangelsk, Igor Belov, had been working as a surgeon for two years without a break. The head of the Oblast Health Department called Belov, and told him that he could finally take a vacation, and sent me to the surgical center in Gryazovets, so I was able to work as a surgeon.
So a few hours later, with my little suitcase, I stepped out of the train in the town and saw a small “Gazik” car with a red cross on the roof. Two seats had been removed from the car and replace by stretchers that one could sit or lie on. This car took me to the hospital, where I met the physician-in-chief, a very nice, kind woman. She wanted to set me up with an apartment right away, then show me the medical center, but Dr Belov intercepted me and we virtually ran to the surgical building right away.
The surgical center was a two-story wooden building with stoves, one operation room, two recovery rooms and two sections—one male, one female—each with 15 cots. A few minutes later, after introducing me to surgical nurse Antonina Sergeevna Levashova, Dr Belov, a very sympathetic light-haired fellow about three years older than me, rushed off, as I understood, to take his long-awaited vacation.
My First Patient
Soon an utterly drunk man in traumatic shock was brought to me—a train had severed his leg. I look back on this in horror today: a 23-year-old kid, having finished his studies a month earlier, alone, without a guide, with a patient suffering a horrifying injury—blood, flesh, skin, bone fragments and fabric. No one asked me if I knew how to perform amputation a limb, whether I had ever held the necessary blade, could I saw off bone and properly stitch up the stub.
Even the surgical nurse asked me no questions, but I saw that she was unperturbed—she had worked as a surgical nurse at the front during the war, saw such injuries hundreds of times, and could probably amputate the leg without my help. She had wonderful self-composition and very kind eyes. She immediately offered me her trust and good will. That God I had spent hundreds of nights in the emergency room. Everything was done properly, and the amputation and bandaging was successful, and I got a smile of approval from Antonina Sergeevna, who in an instant became my good helper.
Anaesthetologist Aunt Dusya
But there was also psychological trauma—not for the patient, for me. Before the amputation, the patient needed to be administered ether narcosis, there was nothing else available. Anesthesiology was a nascent science, and Gryazovets, naturally, didn’t have an anesthesiologist.
Aunt Dusya, a woman age 50 or so, administered the narcosis; she could barely read or write and knew nothing about narcosis, complications or reactions to it. Under the direction of a surgeon—in this instance, me—she applied a mask to the patient’s mouth and dripped the ether until I sensed that the hands of the patient, bound tightly to the operating table, relaxed. He was falling asleep—if we saw his muscles tensing up again, we would drip more ether.
There was a lack of surgical gloves, sterile scrubs, the suturing materials were darkened from repeated washings and sterilizations. My independent surgical career began under such conditions but with an experienced nurse (who alone assisted me), and the anesthesiologist Aunt Dusya. It was almost 1965.
No electrocardiogram, no proper anesthesia. It was important to keep track, after the operation, that the vomiting that would necessarily follow, that the patient would not choke. God had mercy on me and the patient: everything went well, there were no infections. Meanwhile, before every operation, Aunt Dusya would make the sing of the cross. I remember well her prayers.
The Daily Life of a Surgeon
A few hours later I was taken to another two-story wooden house, where I was to live on the second floor. It was a few minutes’ walk from the hospital. I had no time to unpack before an ambulance came to pick me up and take me back to the hospital: a patient arrived with abdominal pain. It seemed too much, too fast. But it was to remain this way—in two years, 800 days, I performed some 2,000 operations. Two or three every day, of course, plus minor procedures. There were broken bones, sprains and small injuries that required stitching and couldn’t be called real operations.
Little of Gryazovets remained in my memory. I wasn’t able to properly use the stove. I never had time to collect extra firewood, and nobody at the hospital thought to help the overworked surgeon. Very often, before lighting my stove, I had to chop wood. Despite the stove, my room remained cold at the beginning. I’d lie down on the cot and wake up from the cold when the stove would burn out.
Every day was the same, patients came in for urgent operations. I had the desire to perform new operations, especially since patients, due to time constraints, would refuse to travel all the way to Vologda, to the oblast hospital. There was a lot of surgical work to be done. Surgeons who worked in the central Soviet Union know this full well. In addition to urgent operations (abdominal pain, severed limbs, skull wounds), there were minor and major injuries (knife, bullet, axe and pitchfork wounds), burns, infections, broken bones, sprains, emergency gynecological surgery (for the lack of a gynecological surgeon), and a great deal else.
Put another way, there was not a single (!) night when the ambulance wouldn’t come to fetch me. I would go to the movie theater only to be called back to the hospital—the show would stop, the lights would go on, the ambulance driver would enter and say “Valery Sergeevich, to the hospital!” No one in the cinema ever objected to the interruption.
I never bathed in the banya (sauna) to my satisfaction. Every time I left the house (remember, there were no cell phones then), I would leave a note on my door as to my whereabouts: the cinema, the diner, at a friend’s place, at the Regional Council, in the woods (with directions). Almost all of my walks in the words, no more than 20-30 meters from the road, would be interrupted by the ambulance blowing its horn.
I remember patients who suffered phantom pain in their amputated limbs. There were a few. Some lost their legs during the war, others from train accidents. Amputations were sometimes rushed, sometimes done improperly, nerves were mistreated. After a few years, a nerve would regenerate and reach the end of the stump, and the nerve endings would feel trauma. This caused severe, chronic pain that could only be treated with narcotics.
We had narcotics, but the problem was causing addiction. The constant desire to relieve pain was met with restrictions on the amount spent on narcotics had a negative effect on my young psyche. Especially difficult was dealing with such patients.
Gryazovets was a dirty town, nothing but clay all around. The roads in the region were worse. Sometimes I would get an urgent call to a distant medical clinic consisting of ten beds, no operating room, covered by a young doctor who wasn’t trained in surgery faced with a young woman with abdominal pain. There was no car that could make the trip into our town, only a tractor could make the last 3-4 kilometers. A patient wouldn’t survive. And this is the mid-20th century. But I had to hurry—abdominal pain could be serious.
Operating by the Light of a Tractor’s Headlights Through a Window
I set out immediately. After two kilometers, our vehicle stalled in the mud, but a tractor was already awaiting us (I was with my surgical nurse), which took us to the old wooden house turned into a local medical clinic. The young woman had an abdominal [ectopic] pregnancy with a rupture bleeding into her abdomen. I needed to operate immediately, which we did in a bandaging room without a surgical lamp.
I had other such emergencies, sometimes I would operate with a kerosene lamp or the headlights of a tractor shining into the operating room through a window.
I was busy with the patient and paid no heed to the fact that it was in an old noble estate known as Bryanchaninov-Pokrovskoye. No one knew that St Ignaty (Bryanchaninov) spent his childhood there. Before the Revolution, and now, after it has been restored, the mansion is hailed as the “Russian Versailles” in recognition of the great architecture, the fine ornamentation, the symphony of nature and art in its magnificent park. For many years I would pass by treasures of Russian spiritual, pre-Revolutionary life. Of course, the country eagerly destroyed everything it could of this.
My Gryazovets period was short-lived, but I remember my professional work with satisfaction and pride. I did my job, helped people and saved a lot of lives. Other surgeons would have done so, but God arranged it so that there were no others around.
“Everything is God’s Will”
In Gryazovets I first encountered a phenomenon that is difficult to explain from a scientific or atheistic viewpoint. There were a few instances when I was completely convinced that the patient would die: his injuries or illness were lethal. But these hopeless patients somehow survived. I simply could not understand: what power came to their aid, and why are they still alive?
And there was the opposite: sometimes patients should have lived, but suddenly, for no apparent reason, their condition deteriorated, no efforts would succeed, and they died, leaving me utterly baffled: why did this happen?
I paid little heed to the phrase I heard then: “Everything is God’s will.” But with age and experience, I began to understand that with the same sickness, the same diagnosis, the same condition of the patient, similar success on the operating table, one patient would live, another would die. There was nothing to latch onto and say: he died for this reason, this one lived for this reason, except for that same phrase: “Everything is God’s will.”
A Doctor Very Often Knows from God the Future of a Patient
When they say “a doctor from God,” I think it doesn’t just mean the knowledge and talent God gives a doctor. A doctor from God very often know the future of a patient. I knew such doctors… for instance, Vladimir Ivanovich Burakovsky, a cardiac surgeon, was a doctor from God not only for his brilliant operating techniques, but because he often knew in advance the result of an operation.
So I gradually ceased being an atheist.
In the last months of my sojourn in Gryazovets, a forty-year-old surgeon from Moscow came to be a full-time doctor. He sought out a quiet country town. Something very serious forced him to leave Moscow with his wife and child and come to Vologda oblast. I left my patients to his care and went to join the post-doctoral program.
How I Was Accepted to the Post-Doctoral Program
I began working in Vishnevsky Institute, which was the best surgical school at the time.
I enrolled in the post-graduate program as follows: I met with Dr Vishnevsky’s science deputy, Professor Sergei Pavlovich Protopopov. This was an old Russian intellectual of noble lineage, mild-mannered and very kind. He interviewed me and then asked a secretary: “Take this young man’s documents for an entrance exam to the program.”
“We can’t take him; he’s not a resident of Moscow.”
“But I already signed his application, how can I go back on my word?”
Thirty people applied for just 6 places; I scored “excellent” on all three exams and was accepted.
Several more years of study and work, in short, in time I became a Doctor of Medical Sciences, a professor, Deputy Director of the Bakulev Cardiac Surgical Institute, and General Secretary of the All-Russian Society of Cardiac Surgeons. I delivered lectures in America, in Milwaukee Heart Institute, on congenital heart disease. I wrote 650 articles, monographs and brochures. I organized a program of cardiomyoplasty.
This is of no interest to the average reader, it would be better to explain how I finally became a believer.
“Lord, Help Me!”
During my time at Bakulev, we sometimes performed cardiac surgery in a hyperbaric chamber. The heart can be halted for 5-6 minutes, then successfully restarted, but sometimes that’s not enough time. In a hyperbaric chamber, you can stop the heart for 10 minutes, because the higher the air pressure, the more oxygen gets into the blood, meaning the heart has more time for a safe hiatus. My first open-heart surgery was performed in a hyperbaric chamber.
For this, the chamber is pressurized to three atmospheres, which takes an hour, and this entire time the surgical team is inside the chamber with the patient. In an hour we begin surgery, and when it is finished, we wait until the pressure normalizes, only then can we open the door.
Usually, when a surgeon first performs a certain operation, he is assisted by an experienced doctor. This is especially important when operating on the heart: one false move can have serious consequences, which can only be corrected with great surgical artfulness. An experience surgeon assists in order to teach, but also in case an error needs to be corrected.
It Was Then That for the First Time in My Life, I Said “Lord, Help Me! Lord, Help Me!”
I was assisted by two young surgeons who just arrived at the Intitute. I knew that if I made a mistake, an hour at minimum would pass before anyone could come to my aid. On one hand, I was young and proud that they entrusted me with the opportunity, that they believed in me as a surgeon. On the other hand, I was very, very scared.
It was then that for the first time in my life, I said “Lord, help me! Lord, help me!”
Since then, before every operation in a hyperbaric chamber, I prayed.
I Opened My Own Heart to God
Somehow, gradually, by some wondrous means, everything I had experience began to come together: Professor Shipov’s mention of an afterlife, the prayer of Aunt Dusya, the inspired faces in the church in Leningrad, and the words “Everything is God’s will.”
After the first time that I prayed by my own volition, something changed inside of me. I opened my own heart to God, and He powerfully and forever entered it.
Soon, my wife and I were baptized. During baptism, to my embarrassment, I looked around the church: are there any parishioners here who know me and would report on me to my employer? The Communist Party was still alive and well, I could very well be thrown out for my decision to be baptized, or at least demoted as Deputy Scientist.
In 1988, the 1000th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus, our country began to experience a rebirth of faith, churches and monasteries were being built and restored. My wife and I have attended church regularly for years, and I am its librarian and perform other services. But that’s a whole other story…
Books by Olga Rozhneva are available at Sretenie.ru
January 23, 2019.