ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Among the 75 people whose portraits gaze out from a makeshift memorial to medical workers who have died of COVID-19 in St. Petersburg since the pandemic began, the youngest is 30-year-old Maria Tyshko.
For eight years, Tyshko worked as a nurse’s aide at a veterans hospital and dreamed of one day becoming a nurse.
But after she died of COVID-19 on April 15, hospital and city officials refused to recognize her as a medical worker or to offer her family the compensation promised to front-line health-care personnel who fell victim to the illness.
"When I asked the human-resources director at the hospital, she responded rudely: 'She doesn’t qualify. She wasn’t a medical worker and that's it,'" said Tyshko’s mother, Margarita.
Mama, they have taken away my profession. I tried so hard, and they just deceived me."-- Maria Tyshko
“I don’t understand how they can refuse [Tyshko’s] parents,” district councilwoman Nelli Vavilina told RFE/RL. “Even though money isn’t that important for them, they were shocked when they were told, ‘You don’t qualify for anything. She wasn’t a medic; she was a registrar.’
"They appealed to me a few weeks ago and as soon as they started speaking, they broke into tears. That’s how much they are hurting. Money won’t bring their daughter back, but I will do everything I can to make them pay.”
Vavilina added that as Tyshko’s story is becoming more widely known, public support for her is growing and people are offering to pay for lawyers or provide other assistance.
A Dream And Determination
At the age of 4, Tyshko was diagnosed with infantile cerebral palsy. Her family made every effort to treat her various symptoms, but her vision remained poor. She attended a special school for the visually impaired and later attended a medical-technical college, quietly nurturing her dream of becoming a nurse.
After graduation, Tyshko was accepted as a nursing aide at the state-run Hospital for War Veterans, working in the trauma department.
“The first year was very hard for her,” her mother recalled. “She was dealing with elderly people with broken bones and so on. They needed to be lifted, turned over. And she was so small -- less than 50 kilograms. But she gradually gained experience.
“She was very personable and easy to get along with,” Margarita Tyshko said. “She didn’t have conflicts with anyone.”
[Maria] couldn’t reconcile herself with the injustice. She just kept saying: ‘Let them explain to me what I did wrong, and I will leave.’”-- Margarita Tyshko
After about a year, she was transferred to the neurology department, where she began a very happy period.
“She went to work each day as if going to a celebration,” her mother said. “She was always telling me how happy she was and what a wonderful situation she had found herself in. For the whole five years she worked there, she had a wonderful relationship with the head nurse and the head doctor. She was so happy.”
But a new hospital director, Maksim Kabanov, soon appeared, and one day he summoned Tyshko and asked her to resign. He refused to give her a reason, saying without explanation that “everything was written” on the hospital’s website.
Kabanov’s office declined repeated requests for comment on this story.
Tyshko and her parents consulted with a lawyer and decided that Tyshko would not resign. She told Kabanov that if he fired her, she would take him to court. The next day, she was reassigned as a medical receptionist at the hospital’s rehabilitation center.
“And they began giving her additional shifts,” her mother explained. “Instead of six or seven 24-hour shifts per month, she had up to 10. They were trying to push her out. I told her this and she just said that she didn’t care, she wouldn’t leave, and she liked working at the hospital.
“She couldn’t reconcile herself with the injustice,” she said. “She just kept saying: ‘Let them explain to me what I did wrong, and I will leave.’”
'I Tried So Hard'
About three months before Tyshko died, she began weeping regularly, her mother said. It took a long time for her mother to get her to tell her what was wrong, but it soon became clear that Tyshko had been tricked into signing a form that listed her job not as a “medical receptionist,” but merely as a “receptionist.” From that moment on, although her duties did not change, she was officially a nonmedical worker at the hospital.
“She didn’t understand at first what had happened,” Margarita Tyshko said. “But when she understood, she began crying. She said: ‘Mama, they have taken away my profession. I tried so hard, and they just deceived me.’”
In mid-March, as the coronavirus pandemic was raging in the city, Tyshko was summoned to work at 7 a.m. one day and assigned to take the temperatures of all hospital employees as they began their shifts. She was placed in a small office and, for nearly three hours each morning, she evaluated the health of hospital staff.
“On April 1, she called me at 2 p.m. and said she was feeling very bad,” her mother said. “Her temperature was 38.9 [Celsius]. I told her to come home immediately, but she said she couldn’t and finished her shift. When she got home at 5 p.m., she was dragging herself along while leaning against the wall.”
'Deception' And Death
Her mother called an ambulance and the medics told her that Tyshko had a cold and should see a doctor the next day.
The doctor prescribed antibiotics and sent Tyshko home. On April 6, her parents again called an ambulance when Tyshko began having trouble breathing. She was taken to a hospital and diagnosed with pneumonia. Her mother was hospitalized three days later.
The two spoke by telephone for the last time on April 7. Later that day, Tyshko was taken to intensive care and placed on a ventilator. She died on April 15.
No one from the hospital where Tyshko worked for eight years has contacted her family to offer condolences.
“We have laws,” Olga Ryabinina, a spokeswoman for the municipal Health Committee, told RFE/RL, “under which compensation is only for medical workers. Every hospital has a register of medical and nonmedical workers. If there is a decision to make payments to nonmedical workers, then of course her parents will be paid. We are not opposed to paying everyone…. But at the present moment, we pay medical workers.”
St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly Deputy Aleksei Kovalyov said he is concerned about Tyshko’s case.
“At the same time, I am hearing reports that this very hospital has been making compensation payments to people who never had COVID-19 but who have been given the necessary documents,” he told RFE/RL. “I’m talking about various friends and relatives. I haven’t been able to verify this yet. But against this background, the refusal of Maria’s parents on purely formal grounds is particularly upsetting. Particularly since she worked for eight years as a professional nurse.”
Although there are 75 portraits at the St. Petersburg memorial for medical workers who have died of COVID-19, the city has only official recognized 35 COVID-19 deaths among medical workers.
Kovalyov has repeatedly asked the Prosecutor-General’s Office to weigh in on some of these cases. He told RFE/RL that in most cases medical workers died because of the negligence of administrators who did not provide them with adequate protections.
“These cases should be qualified as criminal matters,” he said. Otherwise, he added, hospital administrators and health officials “will continue to ignore the health of medical workers and to use people as cannon fodder.”