When Dr. Howard House booked his tour of the Soviet Union he fully intended to visit some of the major hospitals to see how the other half practiced medicine. He didn't count on seeing the medical facilities from a patient's point of view.
The 79-year-old noted ear surgeon and hearing specialist, founder of the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles and one of President Reagan's doctors, suffered a mild heart attack while in the Soviet Union in August. What saved him, ironically enough, was sign language.
House, who says he is feeling "better than I've ever felt," still marvels at the series of events that led him on an inside tour of Soviet medicine, events he calls miraculous and comical.
Touring With a Group
A group of 60 USC alumni began a tour of the country Aug. 12. With House were his daughter and son-in-law, Carolyn and Richard Helmuth, and House's friend, actress Nanette Fabray.
Before leaving, House said he contacted another friend--Dr. Armand Hammer, the chairman and CEO of Occidental Petroleum, who has strong ties to the Soviet Union--to make arrangements for the party to break away from the tour and visit some hospitals.
The trip was going along fine, until House began to experience angina, something he hadn't felt since before his open-heart surgery four years ago. The angina, he figured, was a result of the great amount of walking he was doing, plus the cold, damp weather.
He swallowed some nitroglycerin, which kept the pain at bay for a couple of days. And he didn't make arrangements to see a doctor. "That's the one bad thing about being a physician," he said. "You think you're your own doctor." A boat trip down the Volga, he thought, would be chance to relax before going on to Leningrad.
But on a shopping expedition in Leningrad, the angina got worse. "I knew what was going on," said the soft-spoken House. "Nanette ran off to get a cab to take me back to the hotel. I had no idea how far a hospital was. A cab did come along, and she ran out to stop it. But not understanding English, the driver drove away.
"Now here's the miracle," he said, a smile creeping across his face. "We were a quarter of a block from a busy intersection. And of all things, there were four Russian men all speaking in sign language. Nanette ran up to them and started speaking in sign language."
Signing With Soviets
Fabray, speaking from Hawaii where she was performing, said, "Sign language is not an international language. Some words are similar, but the syntax is different. I spoke very slowly, and so did they. I told them I was an American and that he was having a heart attack and we needed a car; I said it 20 different ways until they understood it. One of the men who spoke a little bit stopped a civilian car. He drove like a madman to the hotel, and he couldn't wait to get rid of us. We offered him money but he wouldn't take it. This nice man had broken every kind of law; in Russia you're not allowed to pick up civilians, especially tourists."
Fabray said the episode was especially traumatic for her, because she had watched her husband, Ranald MacDougall, die of a heart attack in 1973.
After more nitroglycerin and some codeine House was feeling better, so he told his companions to keep shopping while he rested.
But the pain didn't subside, and finally House relented and let Fabray summon a doctor who gave him a shot of a mysterious "reddish, greenish liquid" that quickly eliminated the pain.
House's connections to Hammer once again came through. Hammer, wakened by a phone call at 1 a.m., arranged for the best cardiologist at a nearby hospital to examine House. Even intensive care had been cleared for this new patient.
House made mental notes of the differences in the Soviet hospital. Halls were dimly lit, there were some cracks in the plaster, and no one used disposable syringes. The hospital food? "I'll never complain about American hospital food again," he said with a laugh.
Gift for Doctor
He made good friends with his cardiologist, Dr. Andrei Pulatov. They talked in English for hours, trading information about their backgrounds and professions. "He saw I had Hammer's autobiography with me," House said. "I told him that when I got back I'd send him a copy. He wasn't sure it would get to him, so I gave him mine. You would have thought I'd given him the hospital, he was so pleased."
After that bit of glasnost , House was disappointed to learn that rules dictated he would have to stay in the hospital a month to recover. But leaving the Soviet Union after the tour had left would be difficult, the tour guide told him. With calls to Hammer and the White House, he was able to leave with the group after four days, providing he check into a hospital in Helsinki, Finland, the next stop. But until he was released, no one was really sure what was happening.
"Every day I would call the hospital," Fabray said, "and was told he could leave that day. Then they'd say, 'No, it would be another day.' He did get VIP treatment, but because of that they didn't know what to do with him. They kept changing their own rules."
House made it back to the United States on Sept. 3, and, after more tests and a couple of weeks off, he was back at work. (He received some bad news when he arrived; son John had broken his neck in a surfing accident but after surgery fully recovered).
"At the time," House said, looking back on the experience, "I have to say I was amused at some of it, which is an odd thing to say when you're having problems with your heart. I really felt that I couldn't have been treated better. I would like to go back, and see what I intended to see--from a different perspective. And I'd love to have Russian doctors come here."