Opening hearts and minds Yeltsin surgery: President's bypass operation underscores Russian health-care needs.

September 23, 1996

PRESIDENT BORIS N. YELTSIN's recent acknowledgment that he will have a heart bypass operation later this month DTC marked the first time in history that a Kremlin leader has openly discussed his health. Traditionally, the gatekeepers around Russian rulers have regarded health as a private matter something akin to a state secret.

Changes never come easily. Mr. Yeltsin's public announcement was preceded by waves of denials and obfuscation by underlings. The president was just tired from an energetic re-election campaign and needed extended rest, they insisted. They were acting in a time-honored Russian manner, just like the communist functionaries who kept insisting Yuri Andropov had a bout with flu when, in fact, he was dying.

Some Russian surgeons say Mr. Yeltsin should go abroad for his operation because Western hospitals are better equipped. Also, heart bypass operations in Russia are not as routine as they have become in many foreign countries in recent years.

In the end, though, there is no reason why Mr. Yeltsin cannot have a successful operation in Moscow. Russia's best doctors are good indeed and hospitals for the privileged correspond to Western standards. A successful operation in Moscow might even train a much-needed spotlight on Russian medicine, a field of some peaks of excellence and many valleys of antiquated methods and dilettantism.

Free health care was one of the cornerstones of the Soviet social contract. As a result, the country boasted seemingly impressive numbers of hospitals and medical professionals. But a shocking number of the former did not even have running hot water. The latter were often as poorly paid as they were ill trained. In contrast to the U.S., being a doctor in the Soviet Union was neither a prestigious nor a particularly remunerative profession.

If Mr. Yeltsin's operation is successful, it could do marvels in promoting and modernizing Russian medicine. Some specialists, particularly Moscow eye surgeon Svyatoslav Fyodorov, already are in demand throughout the world. But a typical Russian hospital is still shockingly primitive and short of many of the most rudimentary medicines and equipment.

Pub Date: 9/23/96

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