KEMEROVO/NOVOSIBIRSK, Russia -- "Recline the car's seat all the way back. She can't sit up by herself."
According to caregiver Kristina Baikalova, that's what medics told her on November 4 when she went to pick up her relative, 52-year-old Zhanna Lindt, who was being discharged from a hospital in the southern Siberian city of Kemerovo.
"We began to get upset," Baikalova told RFE/RL. "Couldn't they see what condition she was in? She didn't react to any stimulus and apparently couldn't feel any pain. I was pinching and shaking her. Why weren't the doctors concerned that her eyes were closed and she was unresponsive?"
The next day, Baikalova summoned a doctor, who was shocked at Lindt's condition. Lindt was returned to the hospital, diagnosed as being in a coma following a massive stroke.
"Exactly when the stroke happened, we'll never know," Baikalova said. "But I believe it was before she was discharged. At that time, she was already in a coma."
Lindt fell ill at the end of September but continued going to work. Eventually, her condition worsened so that she couldn't eat or drink and Baikalova took her to the Belayev Kuzbass Clinical Hospital.
After hours of waiting, she was diagnosed with pneumonia. She was given a prescription for antibiotics and sent home. With difficulty, Baikalova was able to fill the prescription and begin the treatment on October 8. On October 20, Lindt returned to the hospital and had a second X-ray. Again, the diagnosis was pneumonia.
By this point, Lindt was unable to walk without assistance and slept almost all the time. Baikalova called a regional Health Ministry hotline and begged them to send a doctor.
"She was simply dying," Baikalova recalled. On October 22, an ambulance was called and Lindt was hospitalized.
On October 25, Baikalova lost all contact with Lindt, who stopped answering her phone. Later she learned that Lindt had been transferred to the COVID ward, although her two COVID tests had been negative.
On November 3, the hospital called and said Lindt would be discharged the next day.
"We pulled the car up and they started wheeling Zhanna out on a gurney," Baikalova said. "I asked, 'Can't she walk?' And they answered, 'Are you kidding? She can't even open her eyes.'"
After her return to the hospital on November 6, Lindt was sent to intensive care and put on a ventilator. She died on November 20, never having regained consciousness.
The regional Health Ministry and the local prosecutor are investigating the case.
Like much of the rest of the world, Russia is in the grips of an alarming new spike in COVID-19 cases. New infections have passed 25,000 per day and are still climbing, while daily deaths are around 500 per day, according to official figures that have been widely criticized as understating the situation. Moscow has reported more than 42,000 fatalities since the pandemic began.
The wave of infections and hospitalization comes as Russia's health-care system is emerging from a years-long government policy of "optimization," which in practice has meant the consolidation of facilities and the closure of many smaller ones.
'He Was Hungry And Tried To Crawl To The Refrigerator'
Oleg Gulidov, a 57-year-old resident of Novosibirsk, was hospitalized on October 23, scheduled to have one leg amputated because of complications of diabetes. His operation passed successfully the next day, but on the fourth day of his hospitalization, he tested positive for COVID-19. He was diagnosed with COVID and double pneumonia.
After two negative COVID tests, Gulidov was released from the hospital on November 20.
According to a resident of the dormitory where Gulidov lives alone who asked to be identified only as Yulia, his room soon reeked of feces. Gulidov had no crutches or wheelchair. He was unable to make his way to the refrigerator.
Some friends dropped Gulidov off on November 20, late on a Friday evening.
"I noticed that no one came to him on Saturday," Yulia told RFE/RL. "I thought that I should drop by and see if he needed any help. He said that he was hungry and tried to crawl to the refrigerator. He fell and injured his leg."
Yulia said she bought Gulidov some groceries and some medicine and called a local clinic, which promised to send a therapist. No one came.
After a few days, a friend of Yulia's wrote about Gulidov's plight on social media and strangers began offering help -- a wheelchair, groceries, money.
Yevgeny Ilchenko, a lawyer who is working with Gulidov, blames the doctors who treated his COVID for his plight.
"What condition was he in when he was released and where was he living?" Ilchenko said. "If a person doesn't have proper living conditions, was that indicated in his release? They basically released him in a state that threatened his health and even his life. In the hospital, they definitely could have gathered a commission to give him special-needs status and put him on the rolls of social services. But the doctors did not do that."
The regional Social Development Ministry is looking into Gulidov's case.
'I Was Calling The Ambulance Four Or Five Times A Day'
Vadim Skripnikov, also of Novosibirsk, fell ill at the very end of October. On October 31, he visited his local clinic with a fever. He was diagnosed with the flu and sent home on sick leave. His condition, however, worsened -- a dry cough, loss of the senses of taste and smell. His son, Igor Skripnikov, began calling for an ambulance, but he was told that he'd have to wait his turn and that it would take two or three days.
After three days, a medic showed up at the apartment.
"He examined my father and diagnosed him with pneumonia," Igor Skripnikov recalled. "We asked him how he could be hospitalized and we were told to organize a CT scan of his lungs and then see what the diagnosis was." The local COVID hotline gave Skripnikov the same advice.
The elder Skripnikov again visited his local clinic and was again diagnosed with the flu. No CT scan was done.
He was given a prescription for an antibiotic that turned out to be unavailable across Novosibirsk, Russia's third-largest city with a population of about 1.6 million.
Nine days later, Vadim Skripnikov had a fever around 40 degrees Celsius, and his breathing was labored. For two days, his family called for an ambulance without success.
"I was calling the ambulance four or five times a day," Igor Skripnikov told RFE/RL. "They just told me they were coming. There was no point in me taking him to the hospital because they wouldn't admit him without a CT scan, which I hadn't been able to arrange because even the private clinics were booked until December 11.
"One medic I spoke with told me rudely that the situation was very bad and that just in Novosibirsk's Lenin Region they were getting 300 calls a day."
An ambulance finally came when the elder Skripnikov was barely breathing at all.
"He was taken to a special COVID hospital and was supposed to be put on a ventilator in intensive care," Igor Skripnikov said. "But we later learned that he had been put in an ordinary ward for several hours before he was moved to intensive care."
Vadim Skripnkikov died two days later. According to his file, he died of pneumonia. There was no mention of COVID-19.
Four days after he died, an emergency doctor that they had called when Skripnikov first fell ill appeared on their doorstep to examine the patient.
"We had no chance to buy him medicine or get him hospitalized in time," Igor Skripnikov said. "We found ourselves in a meat grinder. Our health-care system chopped us up and spat us out. And no one will be held responsible for it."
On November 20, the Novosibirsk Oblast Health Ministry issued a statement offering "a sincere apology" for its handling of the Skripnikov case.
"The regional Health Ministry offers its deepest condolences to the relatives and friends of the deceased," the statement concluded.