Amidst the Cold War and its military madness threatening to extinguish humanity, I received a phone call that would change my life and ultimately, through persistence, save the life of an “enemy” I had never met.
As an avid “ham” amateur radio operator since age twelve, I have always had an intense desire to communicate with the world -- including people I was instructed were "adversaries." I even taught myself Russian to talk with Soviets themselves. I found them engaging -- surprisingly easy to relate to.
While messages from Russia were not unusual, this one was truly urgent: a plea from Igor Korolkov, a Soviet ham seeking American medical assistance for his critically injured friend, Oleg Murugov.
Day 1: Oleg’s auto crashed in a torrential rainstorm. His companion died. With multiple internal injuries, in a deep coma, Oleg miraculously clung to life in a rural clinic with no qualified doctor. Amazingly, Igor convinced a Soviet bureaucrat to provide helicopter evacuation to a hospital in Ryazan.
Despite surgery, the outlook for Oleg was grim. So Igor did the unimaginable to most of his countrymen -- he sent out a call on the 20-meter radio band to America, the "enemy," seeking medical help. His voice was heard in Brooklyn by Ed Kritsky, fluent in Russian. Kritsky phoned me -- a pediatric dentist -- and Lawrence Probes, a physician also known to speak Russian.
Kritsky then sent a Russian-language fax -- fairly new technology, then -- detailing Oleg's condition. Rita Shkolnik, our neighbor who had practiced medicine in the Soviet Union, worked late into the night helping me translate the detailed medical terminology.
Day 5: Time was short. I phoned Joseph Izzo, a respected neurosurgeon whom I had never met, told him of Oleg's plight, and asked for his help. He said "Yes" and added: “Oleg’s lucky to be alive. The coming two weeks will be critical in determining whether or not he recovers.” Izzo would continue assisting, night after night, for months.
Within hours, I organized a network of doctors and hams across the U.S. With a similar network in Russia, we became a lifeline for Oleg. Frequent communication began between Izzo and me, and the Russians, through Igor, with translating by Kritsky in Brooklyn and Probes in Michigan. We also utilized the then-new PeaceNet e-mail network. Telexes arrived in English, as Igor translated messages to and from the hospital staff.
Day 7. Three days after Igor's initial call, Dr. Izzo advised Soviet doctors: “A CAT scan would help detect brain swelling. Please keep his head elevated.” He prescribed specific drugs and dosages. As exchanges continued, I wrote in my journal: "The relationship between the doctors in America and Russia started to change from one of mistrust and ‘why are they doing this?' to cooperation. As Oleg lay in bed near death, the doctors and nurses began to follow all instructions."
Day 9. Oleg developed pneumonia. We Americans scrambled to find a broad spectrum antibiotic. Kritsky radioed New Jersey hospital employee Angel Garcia, who found the medicine and delivered it to Allen Singer, who sped it to JFK Airport for a plane to Moscow. Administrative details nearly prevented the shipment from boarding. From my diary: “Only at the last minute was the air freight agent willing to overlook the red tape and run the package to the plane.” Next day the medicine reached Oleg’s bedside, after a friend drove all night from Ryazan to Moscow and back. The pneumonia subsided, but Oleg’s condition remained perilous.
Izzo continued shortwave prescriptions. The patient improved,
as did relationships between more trustful Russians and Americans who had
I remember a telex: "Soviet doctors are very grateful for your assistance. Your advice gives them confidence that they are doing the right thing." Izzo responded: "Please tell the doctors we are thinking about them every minute. We feel a close kinship with them. And you, Igor, are doing a fantastic job!"
Worried by Soviet doctors’ discussions about a high heart rate and possible cardiac arrest, Igor asked Izzo, "Doc, you said it is doubtful to save my friend if there is a cardiac arrest. But have our doctors a chance to save him a life if no cardiac arrest will be?"
Izzo: "Yes, there is a chance to save Oleg's life. It is difficult to say at this time about the `quality' of that life." The telex from Izzo and me that night concluded, "We are proud to work with you. This is a new moment on Earth. Everything we do breathes new life into our relationship and, hopefully, into our brother, Oleg."
Day 14: Our hearts jumped with news by telex. "The
patient has begun to open eyes, move his hands, have tried to fix the look
and to carry out the commands. Soviet doctors, with your help, believe in
success.” I'll never forget the sense of relief and rejoicing that
night. I could hardly see the control panel through my tears.
Several weeks saw Oleg gradually come out of his coma. He was still critical, yet occasional humorous Russian notes like Day 16’s broke the tension: "Oleg passes a stool independently. We celebrate!"
Suddenly, conflicting Soviet and American ideas stalled
recovery. Izzo said: “Stimulate him! Get him out of bed as much as
possible. He'll be tired. That's okay! Shake him! Talk to him!” The
Russians hesitated to move him. They babied him, not knowing how to help
patients so injured, most of whom never survived.
But the Soviet doctors did change. And Oleg improved.
Day 31 he sat up in bed and swallowed water. Soon we heard: “Intravenous feeding has stopped. Oleg’s mother brings him home-made broth to feed him by tube.” A week later he talked, first uttering profanities about his terrible bedsores. We knew he was better yet!
We new-found partners across the U.S. kept our vigil another month, following Oleg's progress through Igor's frequent shortwave broadcasts. By Day 60, Oleg's bedsores were healing, he was eating by mouth, walking twice a day, and maintaining conversations.
Then two setbacks stunned us: Oleg's pneumonia and fever returned, and Dr. Izzo underwent emergency surgery for carotid artery stenosis. But within three days, Izzo was again advising the Russian doctors, even as he himself was recovering: “Continue Oleg’s antibiotic!” Soon the pneumonia disappeared, and Oleg strengthened.
Day 80 we soared with elation. Igor’s voice on the radio waves: "Oleg is home." He had traveled by train, and friends and family took him to his home and threw him a great party. Across the seas we celebrated with him, like family.
This story is about saving one human life -- with persistent cooperation, compassion, and marvelous technology. But it means more to me: Whenever I find myself discouraged by “impossible” world problems, I remember those 80 days and the greatness of the human soul that wants to do good if given the chance.
I will never forget 1990. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union finally ended. Walls were falling, democracies springing up, partnerships beginning. The evolution of the human spirit of cooperation continued to flower and spread around Earth. And Oleg went home.
Lionel "Len" Traubman publishes on war and peace from his personal experience with Russians and Americans, Armenians and Azerbaijanis as well as Jews and Palestinians. He co-founded the 15-year-old Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue and has co-produced two instructional films – PEACEMAKERS: Palestinians & Jews Together at Camp, and DIALOGUE AT WASHINGTON HIGH.