TOMSK, Russia -- When Sergei Samborsky heard from a patient at the infectious diseases hospital in this Siberian city that his 84-year-old grandmother, an Alzheimer's patient being treated in the isolation ward for COVID-19, was not being fed or cared for properly, he became desperate.
He begged hospital workers to let him tend to her himself, but they refused to admit him into the hospital's restricted "red zone."
So he did the only thing he could think of to help the woman who had raised him from infancy: He dressed up in the protective gear of a hospital worker and went to see his grandmother, Yulia Yemelyashina.
Under his gown, he smuggled in adult diapers, special dressings for bedsores, and nutrition that could be administered intravenously. He entered the closed zone surprisingly easily -- "There was no security," he told RFE\RL -- but what he found there shocked him.
"I went into the ward and asked where this particular patient was," he recalled. "And, telling them I was a therapist from another ward, I went in. My grandmother was lying in a puddle of urine and feces. There was vomit in her mouth and her oxygen mask was on her forehead."
Later, Samborsky posted shocking video of the incident on social media, showing the unconscious Yemelyashina covered in bruises and bedsores on a urine-soaked mattress.
Neither the hospital nor the regional Health Department has commented on the case.
On his third trip into the red zone, a doctor began questioning him closely, and he was revealed and expelled. He felt he had only one course of action left.
"I knew immediately that I had to go to Moscow if I wanted to save my grandmother," he said. "There was no sense in going to the prosecutors in Tomsk."
The director of Infectious Diseases Hospital No. 2 (MSCh-2) in Tomsk, Aleksandr Kholopov, is a prominent local figure, a former head of the regional Health Department.
"They all know Kholopov and would again cover up for him," Samborsky said. "My only hope were federal prosecutors. I wanted even to get to the president. I reported to the Investigative Committee about violations in the hospital's work."
In July 2020, Kholopov was fired as head of the regional Health Department amid a scandal following the publication of photographs from a Tomsk morgue that reporters alleged showed body bags containing unaccounted-for COVID-19 victims from MSCh-2. In his announcement of Kholopov's dismissal, Tomsk Oblast Governor Sergei Zhvachkin said the doctor was responsible for "the organizational mess at such an important facility."
However, in March, Zhvachkin seemed to reverse course and named Kholopov as head of MSCh-2.
"This institute must be run by a person with considerable experience in practical health care, capable of bearing responsibility, and enjoying the respect of his colleagues," the governor said. "I think [Kholopov] meets these criteria."
In September, less than a month before Samborsky's experience, MSCh-2 doctors published an open letter to Zhvachkin accusing Kholopov of mismanaging the hospital and calling for his dismissal.
The doctors contended that Kholopov made dire staffing cuts and other management decisions that undermined the hospital's quality of care.
"Now, Kholopov is completely busy with the election campaign," the doctors wrote, referring to parliamentary, regional, and local elections in September, "promoting his own candidacy and engaging in self-promotion while delegating everything to his deputies."
Samborsky's experience at MSCh-2 mirrored the doctors' allegations.
"Kholopov has organized the hospital so that there is simply no one to work," he told RFE/RL. "There are no diapers, no proper bed linen, no nurses to keep track of medications. There isn't even anyone to feed the patients."
During the 'conversation,' they implied that the video I took in the hospital and that had caused such a public outcry had been 'edited' to 'discredit the Health Ministry.'"-- Sergei Samborsky
"My grandmother was on a liquid diet," he added. "The first day I went to her, she ate one-quarter of her norm. Two days later, she was moved to another ward where she didn't eat at all because they didn't feed her intravenously but liquid from a spoon, which she couldn't take. It’s even possible she simply starved to death after they 'unmasked' me and kicked me out."
Samborsky returned to Tomsk from Moscow on October 29 but was unable to visit his grandmother. Instead, hospital administrators asked him to take his relative away and sign a statement of refusal of care, even though she was still being treated for pneumonia and had a high fever. Samborsky refused.
The following day, Yemelyashina's condition deteriorated. She was taken to intensive care and put on a ventilator. She died later that day of "coronavirus infection, pneumonia, [and] acute heart and lung failure," according to the hospital report.
For Samborsky, however, the troubles were just beginning.
After his return to Tomsk, it was announced that federal prosecutors had opened an investigation into hospital management on suspicion of "professional negligence leading to fatality." On Sunday, October 31, at 6 p.m., Samborsky was summoned to the Tomsk branch of the Investigative Committee to repeat his story as a witness.
"I was prepared for this," he said, adding that he took a lawyer with him because he anticipated hostility from local prosecutors. "In the end, he prevented many attempts to violate my rights."
Samborsky said prosecutors asked the same questions over and over again and that the session lasted more than three hours.
"During the 'conversation,' they implied that the video I took in the hospital and that had caused such a public outcry had been 'edited' to 'discredit the Health Ministry,'" he said.
About the same time, Samborsky said, he learned that "some sort of journalists" had visited his hometown and were asking locals about him.
"From their questions, you could tell that they wanted to find out something bad about me," he said, adding that some local media have been accusing him of making a "fuss" over his grandmother's illness and death.
Nonetheless, Samborsky said he intends to continue his efforts to have criminal charges brought against Kholopov and against the attending physician in his grandmother's case.
"All I was trying to do was to save a person's life," he said. "She raised me instead of my mother. What would be the point of a 'fuss'?”
“I lost my job as a welder when my video created a scandal,” he added. “They called my boss and threatened him if he didn't fire me. Now I am burying my grandmother at my own expense. In the end, I couldn't save her."