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In Russia, A Blogger And Cancer Survivor Counters Efforts To Restrict Treatment Abroad

A physician examines X-rays at the N. N. Blokhin Cancer Research Center in Moscow. (file photo)
A physician examines X-rays at the N. N. Blokhin Cancer Research Center in Moscow. (file photo)
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets is under fire for speaking out against sending sick children abroad for treatment, a statement denounced by health advocates as part of Russia's mounting isolationist drive.

Speaking on June 1, International Children's Day, Golodets ordered health authorities to increase scrutiny of charities raising funds for treatment in foreign clinics.

According to her, most children are unnecessarily sent abroad for medical treatment.

"Almost any kind of high-tech medical care can now be obtained domestically," she said.

The claim has sparked an outcry among health advocates, who say Russia suffers from a dire shortage of qualified doctors and modern, well-equipped medical facilities.

It follows a series of similar comments by Russian officials, including Russia's chief child oncologist, Vladimir Polyakov, who said in February that sending children abroad for cancer treatment amounts to "speculation" and "discredits Russian medicine."

Some of the most stinging criticism of Godolets' remarks so far has come from Anton Buslov, a prominent blogger who recently beat cancer after receiving treatment in the United States after Russian doctors declared him incurable and sent him home to die.

"I was cured in the United States," he wrote in an open letter to Golodets. "I'm alive, this is why I decided to write to you."

Even in the West, it's not uncommon for cancer patients to shop for the best treatment internationally. But Buslov's case illustrates that in Russia -- where members of the political elite routinely seek care abroad -- this is often a matter of life and death.

Buslov, 30, was diagnosed in 2011 with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

He traveled from his home city of Samara, 850 kilometers southeast of Moscow, to undergo treatment at the Blokhin Cancer Research Center, one of Russia's top cancer clinics.

But in 2012, after a grueling treatment riddled with medical red tape, long hospital queues, and a shortage of drugs, he was told he could not be cured and would succumb to the disease within two years.

In his letter to Golodets, the blogger and journalist delivers a withering assessment of Russia's health-care system.

"What takes two months at Blokhin Cancer Research Center takes two hours in New York," writes the blogger, who collected the money for his U.S. treatment through an online fund-raising campaign.

Buslov laments the poor medical equipment in use at Russian clinics, saying much of it is so outdated it "has its place in the Polytechnic museum."

Patients, he says, must wait weeks for a PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scan, an indispensable procedure to accurately diagnose and monitor treatment for a range of cancers.

"And this is in Moscow," he says. "In Samara, there isn't a single PET to be seen."

Despite experiencing intense pain, Buslov was unable to obtain suitable painkillers due to Russia's stringent antidrug legislation, which deters many pharmacists from selling even over-the-counter strong analgesics.

"I stood in that pharmacy, I was in a lot of pain, and the pharmacist was very scared," he writes.

He cites the case of Vyacheslav Apanasenko, a retired Russian admiral with terminal cancer who committed suicide earlier this year because he could no longer bear to watch his family's daily struggle to provide him with pain relief.

Buslov also has harsh words for Russian paramedics, who he says often refuse to carry sick patients out of their flats. His own sick grandmother, he remembers, was "carried out on a chair by neighbors."

"When I suffered a septic shock in the United States, [the ambulance] arrived almost immediately," he says. "My wife didn't have to search for burly guys in our apartment building. The paramedics had everything they needed, including a clever gurney to carry patients in any condition up and down the stairs."

Russian hospital staff, Buslov charges, are equally curt.

He says nurses at his Moscow clinic screamed at the wife of a bedridden patient and threatened to throw her out into the street just because she had brought an electric plate to cook meals for her husband.

"In the United States, there are kitchens in all the departments open around the clock for patients and their relatives," he writes.

Buslov also takes issue with Russia's restrictive system of allocating hospital beds, which forced him to travel to Samara to undergo a bone-marrow transplant before flying back to Moscow the next day to resume his treatment in Moscow.

As a result, he developed double pneumonia. Again, the quotas prevented him from being hospitalized at the Blokhin Cancer Research Center.

He ended up treating the disease alone, at home, injecting himself with drugs prescribed by his physician.

"For one month, I gave myself high-tech treatment on the backdrop of my condition after the bone-marrow transplant, in a rented flat, with my own hands," he says.

The list of Buslov's grievances is long.

But to his own surprise, Golodets did answer his letter.

In fact, she even called him on the phone.

The blogger said Golodets assured him that she was working on the problems raised in his letter and pledged that she had "never considered exerting administrative influence on charities."

"Miracles happen," he wrote in a follow-up blog post.

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