Pain House (Mie Mortensen)

Bol’ is the Russian word for pain. It is also the first syllable in the Russian word for hospital — bol’nitsa. As opposed to the Latin/Germanic ‘hospital,’ which etymologically speaking is a ‘guest house,’ the Russian term technically means ‘pain house’. While this linguistic turn may of course speak to inpatient experience, I like to attribute it to the language’s wont to be exact. And just like a pregnancy test is ‘a test for determination of pregnancy,’ Russian hospitals are not just hospitals: more often than not, their name is accompanied by an adjective indicating their specific function in the world of patients and illnesses. Gynecological hospital. Clinical hospital. My friend ended up in an injury hospital after a stranger walked up to him and hit him in the face. This was back in the nineties. His most badly-injured injury hospital roommate was there as a result of a close encounter with a car. First he was hit by the car, then the driver proceeded to actively try and run him over as if to punish him for getting in the way of the car in the first place.  

Feverish in my friend’s overheated Moscow apartment, I contemplate at once the exactitude of the Russian language and the categorization of pain. The Russian word for injury and trauma is the same. Travma. Pain applies to both body and mind. A friend stops by, plays his double bass to me, washes my dishes. Unperturbed by my rusty coughing, he strokes my cheek. I cry because of the pain in my chest. Not from the coughing but from the sense of rejection. Not from the double bass player, but from someone else farther back, further away. I wonder if my heart is also covered in snot.

My trip to the shops across the street feels like an expedition to Mars. A 300-feet feat. I violate all Russian rules of conduct by sitting down on the pharmacy floor to avoid passing out on it. Clearly perplexed by my behavior, the lady behind the counter takes my order of cough syrup and nose spray in a frog perspective from my squat position on the tiles. My foggy romp down the supermarket aisles yields orange juice and frozen dumplings with cherry filling. Back in the apartment, I collapse on the floor mattress constituting my bed and forget to put the dumplings in the freezer. One of my most militantly anti-vegetarian acquaintances once tried to convince me that carrots also feel pain when we eat them. I remember this a couple of hours later as I look at the defrosted dumplings in the plastic bag, bleeding room-temperature cherry sauce.

A night of feeling too bad to do anything but just be. If pain is a feeling, it is also the absence of feeling. The all-consuming numbness of a wormhole depression seems to be one that applies not only to the mind but also the body. In my state of paralyzing exhaustion, I can’t even really care to watch TV or sleep. My mattress is right next to a wall of rolling stacks filled with books. Some kind of inclination towards morbid thinking has often led me to contemplate how easy it would be to die a really silly death. The image that most often comes to mind is getting hit by one of the Columbia University Public Safety cars that patrol my Harlem neighborhood. Dying in stacks crammed with dusty tomes of Russian literature seems a little ironic, but somehow not altogether unlikely for someone in the already dying field of Slavic Studies. At least these rolling stacks are unusual. The company that installed them had never done so in a private home before.

It’s 11 am in New York City and 7 pm in Moscow when I call Aetna Student Health. A voice at once in my computer and on the other side of the Atlantic assures me my insurance will cover emergency treatment: I will pay out of pocket; they will reimburse me. One phone call later, a doctor from the private clinic arrives. Marina. When she asks me to stand while she examines my chest, I can’t. Her face concerned, she looks down at me. ‘We’ll need to take you to the bol’nitsa,’ she says. As it turns out, Columbia University healthcare is 5000 miles away and the private clinic wants a 5000 Euro deposit to hospitalize me. I remember my conversation with Aetna. I don’t have 5000 Euros in my pocket. Marina calls an ambulance from the public health services. My mind floods with vivid images from the many hospital stories my Russian friends have told me over time, and I wonder if there will be 5000 patients in my ward.   

Out goes the soft-spoken Marina and in walk two worn women. Had it not been for their uniforms, I would have been unsure whether they were ambulance staff or passengers. As with many of my first encounters with Russian women my senior, this one is dominated by an unanticipated conflict and subsequent negotiation of authority. The root of the conflict is what the ambulance ladies perceive as my lacking capacity for self-care. A number of accusations are flung through the infected air of my apartment in the form of questions: I’ve been sick for four whole days and yet it has not occurred me to summon an ambulance? The woman asking this question shakes her head vigorously. My infection has left my lips completely chapped. Why have I not tended to this issue? the other woman wants to know. I try to answer with a look of exhaustion to which she responds with another question: ‘Why do you love yourself so little?’

‘Is this your apartment?’ one of them asks. When I tell her it belongs to my friend, she gets to the point she’d been wanting to make in the first place: why is your friend’s apartment such a terrible mess? The word she uses is somewhat crude and can also mean brothel. Leaving me no time to compose an answer, they start discussing whether I know this word. Maybe prompted by provocation, I feel a wave of concentration washing over me. ‘You can’t really spend time in Russia without learning the terms “a terrible mess” and “renovation,”’ I reply, referring to the omnipresent repair efforts that seem to never end on the streets as well as in people’s homes. The whole country seems to be in an ongoing process of reconstruction.

The women sit down in the space simultaneously comprising my living room, bedroom, and kitchen. For a little while, I feel convinced they’re about to drink the tea and eat the snacks on the table. They seem more pleased with me now that they know I can make jokes in Russian. I resent myself, realizing that I register and appreciate their approval. As someone who always strives to be pleasant, I am easily awed by grumpiness. Still amused, they have started debating whether ‘a terrible mess’ is possible without ‘renovation,’ and vice versa. I interrupt their chat to ask them what I need to bring to the hospital. Three things, they say:


In his ‘In a Room and a Half,’ Joseph Brodsky recalls how his mother would enforce a regime of shoes and slippers in reference to an old Russian superstition that walking barefoot or in socks may bode death. This information seems particularly pertinent as I take off my boots and change into my slippers at what turns out to be a ‘hospital for infectious diseases.’ My feet are sweaty. To calm myself down, I make a list of all the different ways I have noticed Russians cover their feet. Boots. Slippers. Flip flops. In my head, I can already hear the ambulance ladies scolding me for not bringing flip flops to wear in the hospital shower. Bakhili — the little plastic covers that they make you put on your shoes in museums or at the pool. I always forget to take them off when back on the street. Until a babushka points a didactic finger at my feet in passing. If nothing else in this moment, I appreciate the idea of slippers for your shoes. 

My coat and boots are placed in a large sack and taken away. Ward #9. Six people are sleeping in five beds and I am thus the seventh person in the sixth bed by the wall. I spend not inconsiderable amounts of time contemplating this wall. I turn around to face it rather than the nurse injecting my butt with antibiotics. A trail of chewing gum marks runs across its yellow paint like footprints. I look towards the corner in search of a runaway piece of gum, but in vain. I take this as a sign that I too will eventually leave the hospital. My doctor, however, is sceptical. Not unlike a tour guide explaining a map, she unfolds my journal, marking the points with dissatisfying results. I learn that it is possible to divide a urine sample into thirty different categories.         

Slippers muffle footsteps in a way that real shoes can’t. The hushed sound of cushioned fabric on floor and socks on plastic form part of the hospital soundscape. Like feet whispering. Wardmates also whisper. In the university library, I always thought such suppressed conversations were coloured by a sense of excited insolence, but here they seem considerate. Whispering conveys a desire to protect one another from the scary words spoken. The nurse who broke an injection needle in someone’s behind. The Uzbek woman roaming the hallway with some kind of hepatitis. And there is always at least one person in the ward asleep. I find other people sleeping comforting. I recall his chest calmly rising and falling against my back under the covers. His insightful appreciation of my own resting body: ‘You have the perfect temperature.’ The notion of going to your safe place now seems like a hackneyed cliché of American pop psychology, but I sometimes conjure the image of my friends asleep on the other side of the Atlantic.     

Alarm clocks are unnecessary. The 6 am injection rounds start at the end of the corridor where the babies sleep. A cacophony of wailing from tiny lungs announces the start of the day. After my injection, my last name is called out followed by the word ‘procedure’. Observing other inmates, I understand that this means tests and examinations. I find my way to the nurse’s station. She can’t find my veins. Giving up on my arms, she plunges the needle into the back of my hand. She can’t get the blood to flow into the tube. Another nurse enters and they call me stingy with my blood. I wonder if this is the opposite of bloodthirsty. A week ago, I told my anxiety-ridden sister that thoughts and feelings are like blood in her veins or farts in her intestines. Secondary. She is not them. Following this logic, I am tempted to ask the staff to draw some of my feelings and thoughts as well. I can just imagine my doctor dividing them into a 200-box matrix, telling me by how many factors they exceed or fail to meet the norm.

I may have given little blood, but I am dizzy and nauseous. ‘What is wrong with you?’ the nurse shouts into my face as I collapse. I am taken to my x-ray scan in a wheelchair. They tell me to bare my torso. My naked breasts press against the cold metal of the aging apparatus and any little sense of privacy I may still have felt evaporates as it strikes me how they’re simultaneously looking at and into me.     


Kettles filled with boiled water stand between the kitchen and the patients sleeping in the hallway. The mug I brought is white and says ‘Muscovites for trolleybuses’ in bright red letters. A small image of a red trolleybus is both decorative and explanatory. My roommate is part of a community of intellectuals that engages in political activism at a local level and protested when the city wanted to eliminate the historic trolleybus lines because the cables were in the way. Their protest produced a souvenir mug.

Local politics may not be high up my list of concerns just now, but affairs of the state still find their way into the ward . A document announcing hospital rules and regulations has been covered by a poster that says ‘Our Country — Our President’ in the colours of the Russian flag. My time locked up in the hospital for infectious diseases coincides with the final days before the 2018 presidential election. A couple of years ago, author Gary Shteyngart spent a week locked up in a New York hotel room surrounded by TV monitors displaying exclusively Russian state media. The result was a New York Times article titled ‘Out of My Mouth Comes Unimpeachable Manly Truth’. Sacrificing his time and mental well-being, the author wished to learn how a week spent in isolation with carefully curated propaganda would affect his mind. My mind feels like a screen saver. I can’t tell whether my state is one of meditation or abandonment. 

The hospital has no monitors and the only screens I see are those of the x-ray machine and people’s smart phones. I realize I haven’t seen a computer for a week. The entire institution is run on a carefully crafted system of handwritten lists and notes, as well as printed documents filled in in pen. In addition to vegetarian cafes and bike paths, most of central Moscow is now embellished with free internet. All of this serves to create the aesthetic illusion of a first-world democracy. Surely, if you have five kinds of non-dairy milk, you also have free elections. The city hospital for infectious diseases #10, however, has yet to receive this kind of make-over. It does not have bike paths. It doesn’t even have sidewalks. And if you slip in the icy black slush on the paths surrounding it or get hit by an ambulance, this is not even the type of hospital you will need to go to. Perhaps the injury hospital would have wi-fi, but I doubt it. I check this criticism acknowledging that I, with my flip phone, have also failed to meet the contemporary expectations of communication. Not having internet access makes me wish the internet would cease to exist altogether. 

I realize I also haven’t seen a man for a week. I have listened exclusively to the emotional cadence of  women’s voices and children crying. In these parts, gender roles are carved all the way into people’s speech. Russian men speak with the intonation of a spoon stirring porridge, whereas female voices are animated by opera-like movements and drama. I reimagine the hospital as some post-apocalyptic scene where all technology has broken down and men have become extinct. I increasingly think of contemporary man as unviable, and perhaps more so in Russia than anywhere else. Suddenly a man appears in the line for the bathroom. There is one bathroom with two stalls for sixty patients, plus the ones sleeping in the corridor. It is also the place where you dispose of your trash. One trash can for ten wards. The bathroom is the topic that causes the most outrage among my fellow inmates. One of them is having a hard time stomach-wise. Tanya. She has started referring to the toilet as the ‘orchestra pit’. When she complains that her stool is shitty, I ask whether it was ever otherwise.


I pick the smallest spoon. I don’t know what it was for. During his time locked up in the Manhattan hotel, Gary Shteyngart lived off room service and, albeit less extravagantly, in a way so do I. Our days are organized according to the route and schedule of a small metal cart loaded with pots and plates that arrives four times a day. The women pushing the cart uses ‘ward #9’ as a collective noun referring to us all. ‘Ward #9, who’s having juice?’ ‘Ward #9, has everyone had soup?’ We are handed plates of porridge and warm meals, but not utensils. The spoon is for eating all my food.

My doctor has kindly alerted the kitchen about my lactose intolerance: every morning, the cart has a small pot of water-based porridge. Nothing that watery could ever taste particularly exciting, but I remind myself that I am many fields of cows removed from soy milk Moscow. Most vegetables are covered with high fat content dairy products and I am given a plate with variations of potatoes and processed meat. I was never a particularly principled vegetarian. The aforementioned desire to be pleasant would keep me from dictating a dinner menu. My friends in Russia would joke about the questionable origins of these little cutlets by calling them ‘mystery meat.’ I, however, prefer to think of them as ‘maybe meat.’ I remind myself that this may not even be meat at all and refrain from thinking about what it might actually be. Armed with my tiny teaspoon, I stare at my maybe meatball with a sense of great determination.

I throw up in a poorly performed inversion because of the distance between my bed and the tray on the floor. Stomach acid in my nose, I emerge from my state of meditative abandonment for the first time during my stay and start sobbing loudly. I am overcome by the conviction that malnourishment and poor sanitation will keep me hospitalized. My hysteria is met with a wall of calm. The sixteen-year-old in my ward, Lena, sits down next to me on my bed. Her voice firm, she tells me to take deep breaths in a way that I thought only my yoga teacher could. Half my age, she possesses twice my authority. Earlier that day, I saw her tackle a poorly behaved six-year old with a tone and gestures suggesting she could be the girl’s grandmother. At this point, we wardmates are each other’s most immediate source of inpatient care. The nurses passively nod in approval when I carry the tray to the bathroom myself. I guess vomiting is not what they’re treating me for. I hear voices discussing the possible causes of my being sick. Did the bun I ate have milk in it? Was I really as disgusted by that smell of perfume as I said I was? 

Lena is arguably the most resourceful among us. Her pneumonia complications have given her lots of time and experience in the hospital. She was there before any of us. She sleeps with a handle under her bed. This handle was given to her by another pneumonia patient who was in the ward when she arrived. It is passed on from generation to generation in ward #9. Since our windows do not have handles, this solitary handle can be attached and allows us to open them. When the nurses aren’t looking, we close the door, crawl under our blankets, and Lena opens all the windows to let the frosty but fresh suburban air into our ward.

We joke about leaving through the window. I remind us that the three-storey fall as well as the fact that we can’t access to our coats and shoes would most likely put us right back in the hospital. Transition in and out of the institution is generally complicated business. Due to our infected condition, we are not allowed visitors. At certain hours, however, people are allowed to deliver packages. They must be packed in a plastic bag and weigh no more than five kilograms.

Slippers, mug and spoon. This was what I brought. Plus a few toiletries and underwear for two to three days. Ambushed by my diagnosis and my extensive treatment plan, I wash my clothes in the sink and borrow Agatha Christie in Russian translation from the ever-resourceful Lena. Her family brings a package almost every day and she is generous with the contents. One day Lena’s package contains a head of cabbage. Instructions from her parents advise us to sleep with cabbage leaves on our butts to relieve the pain from all the injections. Tanya looks at me and tells me that this is a Russian folk cure: you sleep with cabbage pressed against your butt cheek, then you eat it in the morning, and you’re cured. It is only the last part that is a joke. The nurse arrives in the morning to find that all patients in ward #9 have cabbage in their panties. Russians are at once the most irrational and the most practical people I know.

Whether absurdity stops seeming absurd because of a certain state of mind or due to the general absence of rational behaviour is unclear. March 8th dawns on a Thursday. In Denmark, this is known as ‘the international fighting day of women’. In Russia, it’s just ‘women’s day’. If they don’t anymore, at least Danish feminists used to burn bras on this day. Russian women get flowers and cards. There is a celebratory mood among the nurses. I wonder if the total absence of men increases or diminishes the sense of celebration. Perhaps it’s all just the anticipation of a long weekend. Not a single doctor in sight for four days.

One night after rounds, one of the nurses returns to our ward with a small black briefcase. She unfolds it and displays rows of neatly aligned perfume samples. It seems that she subsidizes her undoubtedly humble salary with a Tupperware-like presentation-in-private-setting scheme. She engages Lena as a potential marketing associate. The atmosphere in the ward turns business-like. The air becomes heavy with artificially-scented cosmetics as everyone rubs eau de cologne on the back of their hand. The backs of my hands are still blue from my stingy blood donations. I try to encourage a window ventilation session. My preferred smell has always been the absence of smell. Later that same evening, a woman arrives with a sinus infection-turned-meningitis. Maybe. After her first visit to our bathroom, she feels compelled to cleanse herself of the experience by spraying cheap perfume on her neck. Shortly after this, I start throwing up.

I spend the weekend thinking of Anton Chekhov’s 1892 short story ‘Ward No. 6’ about the philosophical conflict between a mental institution patient and its director. The director is eventually admitted as a patient himself and, short story short, ends up dying from a stroke. Monday arrives and so do the doctors. I feign a chipper mood and refrain from bringing up my brief fit of hysterical vomiting. Chekhov story in mind, I wonder where my doctor goes when she is a patient. As a child, I once asked my dentist whether he fixes his own teeth. He answered in the negative. I ask the doctor whether I will be discharged today. She answers to the affirmative.

Comparing my time in the hospital to someone dying in a mental ward would be exaggerated and dramatic and yet, I wonder what an artistic adaptation titled ‘Ward No. 9’ would look like. Tanya has already had this thought and has decided that the genre is necessarily horror. Towards the end of our stay, she roams the corridors with her smartphone filming the bathroom and the patients in beds next to the kitchen while repeating the phrase ‘this is a hospital for infectious diseases’ over and over again in an ominous voice. To my mind, however, ‘Ward No. 9: The Movie’ would be a Soviet feel-good film about the drama unfolding in a hospital ward. Maybe even a musical of the Stalinist kind. Friendships would be formed across nationalities and patients would unite to play tricks on the unsuspecting nurses. The genre would dictate a romantic plot line and a near-death experience as well, but I am still not sure how exactly this would be achieved.

The mood in the ward has changed radically. Four of us are being discharged. Lena ceremoniously hands the window handle to a girl who has arrived a few days earlier. ‘You are now the handle keeper,’ she says. We all switch into our now hollow-looking everyday clothes and strip our beds. There is no talk of money, but much document-signing and stamping. After reaching into the sack with my coat and boots, I step out of the building realizing I have no idea where I am since I was brought here in the back of a windowless ambulance. Russian hospitals are often far from major transport points. I return home by trolleybus feeling my ‘Muscovites for trolleybuses’ mug glow in my bag.

The internet did not cease to exist in my absence from it. I have 200 unread emails. Upon receiving the news of my alleged bronchitis, a friend informs me that according to Chinese medicine, the lungs are the organ associated with grief. Just like ‘a terrible mess’ and ‘renovation,’ sadness and the airways are also co-dependent. I find this information both poetic and disconcerting. Will I be able to break the cycle of coughing and crying? The document I received when discharged is official-looking and serves as evidence of my experience. It is a template printed with blanks that are filled in with a pen according to the formula: ‘[name] was in the hospital from [date] until [date] with the diagnosis [diagnosis].’ When the doctor was signing me out, I asked her what exactly had been wrong with me. They had after all been analysing my body fluids, x-raying my lungs and treating me for seven days. ‘That’s not so important, you’re well now,’ she said. I thus cast a curious glance at the ‘diagnosis’ field. It’s been filled in with a handwritten ‘sickness’.


Mie Mortensen grew up in Denmark, studied in Russia and England, and is currently in the process of completing her doctoral studies at Columbia University in New York. When not producing a dissertation, Mie writes creative non-fiction, translates prose and poetry, and is involved in a number of collective art projects. She puts her non-academic accomplishments on display at her website.