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Documentary : U.S. Doctors Pay a Soviet House Call : The team of physicians from Alaska found vast differences in medical care. They also found an appreciative collection of patients.

September 25, 1990|CHARLES HILLINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANADYR, Soviet Union — Dr. Fritz Craft, 34, an American dentist filling teeth in a hospital in this remote seaport on the Bering Sea, could not believe it when his first adult patient jumped up and hugged him at the end of his appointment.

Then it happened again. And again.

Anesthesia, it turned out, is rarely used when repairing cavities in the Soviet Far East. So for the first time in most of their lives, Craft's Soviet patients were experiencing painless dentistry.

No wonder the outbursts of emotion.

For 32 members of an Alaskan medical expedition to this part of Siberia, the example was just one of many they discovered during a 17-day tour of the Soviet Union's northeasternmost corner--a tour that underlined for them and for a Times reporter allowed to accompany the mission vast differences between U.S. and Soviet health care.

Often, conditions and procedures were primitive by American standards. The visitors saw novel techniques unfamiliar to most in the United States, some of them showing medical promise, others smacking more of folk medicine. There was the "bone-stretching" procedure, the use of enormous quantities of electricity in shock therapy, the use of ultraviolet light tubes as treatments for colds.

"Any time a child has an earache, sore throat, runny nose or cold, we have them sit with an ultraviolet light in their ear, nose or mouth for a few minutes," explained the Soviet doctor on duty in the medical ward of the Fairy Tales Kindergarten in Bilibino,

site of the world's only nuclear power station above the Arctic Circle.

As he spoke, a little girl and a boy were seated at a tiny table with ultraviolet light tubes up their nostrils. Another girl had a tube in her mouth. "Colds in this, the coldest place on Earth, are passed around quickly," the doctor noted. "We found that the ultraviolet light treatment has cured and reduced colds in our kindergarten by 40%."

The ultraviolet machine is just one of the numerous exotic medical devices never before seen by the American doctors who visited clinics and hospitals in the small cities of Pevek, Bilibino, Anadyr and Magadan, and a number of rural communities in Magadan Oblast (region), across the Bering Sea from Alaska.

Steve Carr, 42, a physician's assistant with the Alaska State Dept. of Corrections, visited a hospital in Talja where he saw 1,000 volts of electricity fired through the body of a woman being treated for depression.

"The hair on her head stood straight up," Carr said. "I was told the electricity was run through her to realign her nervous system. She was seated in a chair mounted on thick rubber mats. Obviously, she wasn't grounded. If someone had touched her, they would have been electrocuted."

In the United States, a typical shock treatment--known as electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT--would use 150 volts of electricity, according to an American mental health specialist.

The Russians here have other techniques that would look strange to an American doctor. Heated demitasse-size suction cups are placed on patients' backs to keep fluids from settling in lungs and are put on other parts of the body for all sorts of aches and pains.

Many traditional home remedies are used in hospitals--herbal medication, hot packs on the chest, mustard plasters, chopped garlic around the neck, hot tea, honey and vodka.

High-frequency current is prescribed for muscle stimulation. Ultrasound is a common procedure. Weird-looking electromagnetic field machines with a claw-like device suspended over one's head are supposed to cure headaches.

All these are part of normal treatment in hospitals where medicinal mud is often applied on the belly of a pregnant woman, on the belly of a woman wanting to get pregnant, for arthritis, bursitis, and other such ailments.

The American doctors were fascinated with the possibilities offered by some of the Russians' exotic procedures but expressed a great deal of skepticism about most of the unorthodox practices they saw in the hospitals.

One unusual surgical procedure developed here, however, has already been introduced in Alaska--the Gavril Ilizarov bone-stretching technique. Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Michael Holloway, 45, has used the procedure 40 times in Alaska since he was here on a similar expedition last year. It is applied to cases where a patient, due to either birth defect or injury, has one leg shorter than the other.

Holloway explained the procedure this way: Wires drilled into bones are attached to external metal rings. The rings are connected to rods and bolts that are turned with a wrench one-fourth of a millimeter four times a day. When the desired length is achieved, the bone is held in place to allow consolidation.

When performed properly, there is regeneration "not only of a healthy bone, but also of skin, muscle, blood vessels and nerves lengthening up to 10 inches in the leg," Holloway said. "People that are crippled don't have to stay crippled with this remarkable discovery."

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