The Doctors

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Dr. Andre Bevzenko and Dr. Andre Zhdankin go ice fishing on the Amur River.

Tom with fish

Dr. Andre Bevzenko took this photo of me.


I went ice fishing last weekend with two doctors named Andre — Dr. Andre Bevzenko and Dr. Andre Zhdankin.

Bevzenko lives in Kharbarovsk, where he works as a surgeon at the regional hospital. Zhdankin, a pediatrician, lives in a small village on the outskirts of the city. Both men are 30. I had met Bevzenko during a hospital tour, and we became friends. He invited me fishing so I could meet Zhdankin, his best friend.

Friday evening, Bevzenko and I took two buses and then hitched a ride in the back of a truck to reach Zhdankin’s village, Michorinskoya, located 40 kilometers north from downtown Khabarovsk. About 3,000 people live there. Metal drums sit in front of every home. Twice a week, a truck rumbles down the dirt road and fills the drums with water. No one has indoor plumbing. And no one has a phone, not even the village doctor. Zhdankin’s wife, Irina, cooked dinner while the two doctors questioned me about life in America.

“Our life is bad, isn’t it?” Bevzenko asked me.

How could I answer such a question? I tried to be positive. “You have good marriages, beautiful, healthy children,” I said. “You live good lives.”

My salary is 4,000 rubles a month, ” Zhdankin said.

“That’s $10,” Bevzenko added. “How much do American doctors make?”

“You don’t want to know,” I said.

“Please, tell us ,” Zhdankin said. “We want the truth.”

“In America, doctors are like businessmen. Some make more money than others.”

“How much money?”

I paused for a moment. “Some doctors make $10,000 a month,” I said.

Bevzenko laughed. “I can’t even imagine that much money,” he said. Zhdankin looked at the floor and said nothing. His wife entered the room with dinner — fried chicken, mashed potatoes, pickles, caviar and tea. The potatoes and pickles were grown in their garden. The chicken was raised in the back yard. The caviar came from a salmon Zhdankin had caught in the nearby Amur River. The milk in my tea was provided by their cow, which lives in the barn along with two pigs. The Zhdankins grow or kill much of their own food. When we went fishing the next morning, it was for food as well as sport.

We woke up early and walked down to the Amur. It was an unusually warm day, and a film of water covered the melting ice. We stayed close to shore. Zhdankin slammed an iron rod into the ice to make holes. Bevzenko unrolled a piece of canvass, revealing five fishing poles he had made himself. Each pole was about a foot long, unpainted, and smoothly carved from light-weight wood. He showed me how to hold a pole and jerk it to snag a fish. (There are 14 kinds of edible fish that live in the river.) While we stood there trying to catch one, I told the doctors about some American doctors I had met last year at an Alaska fishing lodge. Each doctor had paid $5,000 a week to go fishing. Lodge workers cooked them gourmet meals, and a float plane flew them to a different river or lake every morning. If they caught a fish, a guide would take it off their hook for them. The Russian doctors liked that story.

“Here we can fish for free,” Bevzenko said. Unfortunately, after four hours of free fishing, none of us had snagged anything. And there was no lodge plane to take us to a better river. To make matters worse, Bevzenko’s rubber boots were leaking. We headed home. Earlier in the week, strong winds had blown the snow off the river bank and uncovered a small beach. Bevzenko leaned over and with a joyful shout lifted a wrench from the sand. We all agreed that he was lucky to find such a useful tool.

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