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Monday, September 19, 2011

Lithuania Redux 3: The Saddest of All Beggars OR a Case for Saint Jude

I traveled to Lithuania in June of 2010 for a one week trip. At the time I had just completed six months of study in a Spanish University. It was my second trip to Lithuania and when I got back to the USA I began composing long blog entries combining my recollections of my last trip to Lithuania with emails I wrote home to family and friends from when I studied Yiddish there for a month in 2008. This is the third, of nine entries. (Entry one is here), (entry two is here). I hope to post a new entry every three days.

So what’s changed in Vilnius during the past two years?  Well the best way I can describe it is that if Vilnius, and Lithuania as a whole were a person it’s kind of like someone hit her over the head with a baseball bat and didn’t let her clean herself up afterwards.  This of course is true of the USA as well, but the global financial meltdown seems to have taken a particularly dramatic toll and you can see it on the faces of the people and you wonder at it as you realize that there are five times as many beggars in Vilnius than there were just two years ago.  My second time in Lithuania there was a brutal raw desperation to some of the beggars that just wasn’t here two years ago, a type of desperation I had only ever seen before during one scary trip with my parents to the outskirts of Tijuana when I was nine or ten years old.  It’s the type of desperation that stems only from being convinced that starvation is around the corner.  Although there were several dozen sad cases worthy of Saint Jude, the saddest of them all was undoubtedly a man with an open infected wound on the top of his forearm that went down to the bone.  The first time I encountered him just through the entrance of the gates of dawn he used his arm as a barrier to block further movement.  He’d simply put up his arm and people in all directions would instinctively back away and the unlucky ones would end up pinned between the bone sticking out of his arm and a wall.  There was something so disturbed, so unmistakably medieval about it that every time I approached him I had a guttural reaction to put as much space between him and myself as humanely possible. 
Photo of the "Gates of Dawn" where this incident occurred.  Credit Joe.Sau flickr.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no sissy.  In fact I’m just the opposite.  I’ve seen some really horrible stuff in person without turning away or flinching; from strokes, fatal heart attacks, to a waterlogged/bloated corpse to a mutilated (but not bloated) boy’s corpse and most relevant to this incident a really horrible compound fracture of a friend’s femur that took some of his thigh-muscle along for a ride.  In all of the cases I got really upset an hour or two after the adrenaline wore off. Which is to say that I’m no fan of gore or suffering but it’s not like I haven’t seen some horrible things the average person in a first world country hasn’t.  Because I have.  That combined with unbelievably horrible things I’ve seen on film and in photos for Holocaust related research in archives (much worse than you’ve seen on TV or Youtube) means that this beggar was on the surface hardly the worst thing I had ever seen.  But there was something so perverse about both the man’s arm and his situation that it has caused me to lose sleep ever since.  It took me a while to figure out what it was that has stuck with me so much but ultimately I’ve come to realize that it was his calmness.  

Let’s start clinically: he had an open infected wound that was about 3 inches long, with about 2 inches of bone fully exposed.  The skin surrounding the bone was black, dead, and gangrenous, resembling more charcoal than skin.  The visible bone itself was completely white, devoid of any surrounding blood or tissue (G-d forbid you ever see a compound fracture up close you’ll see that there’s lots of stuff that is fastened to the bone and as the bone breaks the skin tissue stays attached to it, in his case it looked as if bacteria had eaten away all of the skin and ligaments over a period of days).  But the thing that was most upsetting about it was that the man seemed totally there mentally and he was extremely calm.  After trapping people and exacting money he spoke to the people he had caught as I stood a short distance away.   He was Polish; or at least an ethnic Pole and spoke to the crowds in Polish, Lithuanian or Russian and sometimes all three.  It wasn’t until the third day that I heard him speaking to someone in German and therefore realized that I would be able to communicate with him myself.  As you’d expect what he had to say was absolutely devastating. 

He was in his sixties and recently a widower.  He was sawing something when he cut his arm and although he went to the hospital an infection had set in, followed by gangrene.  Unable to work he couldn’t pay his rent (he was already behind due to his wife’s funeral) and was evicted from his apartment.  He had no relatives and the homeless shelters refused him because they (rightfully) felt that he was a health risk to everyone near him and that he ought to have been in a hospital.  The hospitals for their part, for reasons I have either forgotten or never understood due to my poor German, wouldn’t take him and the man related to me that he “honestly feared” that he was going to die from the infection.  Looking at it, and knowing that his bone had been exposed to the elements for weeks I was honestly surprised that he wasn’t far more ill than he appeared, let alone dead.  And I told him my assessment.  As we were having this conversation a horrified-looking German man in his late twenties asked him why he wasn’t in a hospital, about insurance, about how much a hospital stay would cost him etc.  I started to leave and our hopeless case called out to me “sir, aren’t you going to give me any money?”  “Money” I said “money!  You don’t need money you need medicine and a hospital bed!” He looked at me sadly and said “what I need sir is Saint Jude but money won’t hurt!”  I saw him the next day but not the day after that.  By complete chance I ran into the German man in a bar and found out that he, along with colleagues on a business trip, had paid the equivalent of three hundred Euros to get the man into a health clinic. I gave him about fifty Euros to reimburse him for the part I felt I should have paid and bought him a beer.  I never heard from the Polish beggar with gangrene after that.  

1 comment:

  1. If he lost his job and didn't register as unemployed, he lost his health insurance.