Monday, March 24, 2014

My Pen Pal Alla, and My Friend Victor Lvov

From my American Academy of Pediatrics, Section on Administration and Practice Management (SOAPM) listserve:


Don't forget, that there were very few reasons for someone to be kicked out of medical school in my times...

Killing someone, applying for leaving Soviet Union as an "enemy of people" or... failing the very important for all physicians communist ideology class. We had 4 years of internal medicine studies, 4 years of surgical studies, 4 years of military training studies (we all graduated as second lieutenants of the soviet army reserves) but all 6 years of mandatory brainwashing where we had to take detailed notes of all historic publications (Marx, Engels, Lenin) and modern (Brezhnev's "literary" writings along with the party resolutions and other documents). I was able to swing though the dialectic materialism, historic materialism, scientific atheism and communist philosophy courses by doing research on philosophical views of Avicenna, but even the great Maimonides was able to save me from the history of Communist Party in my freshmen year and Political Communism in my senior year. Our 3 mandatory graduation exams were: (a) Medicine, (b) Public Health, (c) Political Communism. And that is on top of all the similar brainwashing through grammar, middle and high school.... To be allowed to present my PhD thesis I had to take another 3 exams:  specialty (i had to do two there - dermatology and medical genetics), foreign language (I can tell you one day how I was GIVEN that exam) and communist philosophy. 

...In 1989 despite of losing everything, uprooting everything and coming to the US with retired parents, 5 yo son, 2 suite cases per person, $90 per person in a pocket, and a dream, I did feel very optimistic. Scared - the lives of 3 people were depending on how I will be able to survive in this new country, on me and me alone - but optimistic. The best description of that feeling was that I had nothing to lose except for my own (socialist) chains, but I could get the whole world (of American dream).

Alla Gordina

And I responded to Alla:

Here is the story of my friend from Russia, Victor Lvov. 

Victor was a dear, warm friend, although we didn't socialize.  He came from St. Petersburg.  I met him when he was our neonatologist at Summit Hospital in Oakland, and I was the Chief of Pediatrics.  We worked together for years, with the warmest relationship ever. 

Victor had been a wunderkind (sorry, German word) and got his doctorate before he was 20, probably.  He was friends with the Saint Petersburg chief of police and they went fishing together.  Victor then published samizdats on the real statistics of public health, not the false ones published by the authorities.  He was told not to do this but persisted.  One day he got a call from his friend the chief of police that was very impersonal, telling him he was an enemy of the state, how could he do this anti-social activity, and that he, his wife, and his young child had to leave the Soviet Union within 24 hours.
Victor hung up the phone and thought, "He is saving me from the Gulag."
Within 24 hours Victor was in Boston with a few suitcases and his family and no money, knowing maybe one person, I think.  He was rescued by the local Jewish agency and was soon working on polishing floors with other Jewish refugees and had a small apartment for his family.  He knew no English.
Within 18 months he had mastered English and passed the medical exam.  He moved to San Francisco and started a neonatology fellowship and in a few years wound up with the Oakland neonatology group.  He was a great doctor, and was soon circulating figures that showed that Summit Hospital had the largest concentration of neonatal syphilis in the country.  We also had outstanding diagnosis and treatment results.  We completely rocked.
By the nineteen-nineties Victor and Barry Phillips, the head of the Children's Neonatology Group, had started the Heart to Heart program linking Children's Oakland to St. Petersburg Children's Hospital Number One as sister hospitals, with neonatology and pediatric cardiology and cardiac surgery.  Then a team from Children's was slated to come to St. Petersburg to consult for a few weeks.  There was a hitch -- the St. Petersburg group said that they could come, but Victor could not receive the Visiting Professor title because of his history.  Barry Phillips stood up and said, if that didn't happen, there would be no exchange at all.
Victor was then appointed as Visiting Professor and returned to St. Petersburg with the highest honors.  Victor was the true victor.  You can imagine!  Many exchanges followed back and forth, and I was lucky enough to be one of the personnel in the exchange.
Several years later I made rounds one morning at Alta Bates Hospital nursery and hadn't seen Victor in a few months.  Gil Duritz, the chief of neonatology at Alta Bates (and father of Adam Duritz, lead singer of Counting Crows) said to me, "Did you hear about Victor?"
I said, "No, what?"
Gil said, "He died last week."
"He wasn't feeling well for about a month and finally checked with a doctor.  He had lymphoma.  He did within one week."
That is the story of my friend Victor Lvov.

Budd Shenkin

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