We begin a series of essays about the sisters of mercy and the patients of the Visiting Nurse Service of St Elisabeth Convent. Each of them has their own remarkable biography — their unique path that they would like to share.
The sisters and volunteers of the Visiting Nurse Service do an extremely demanding and often invisible work on a daily basis: they look after severely ill persons who have no one else to turn to.
Sister Joanna has been helping those in need since her early years. She worked in a residential care facility for the elderly, in an intensive care unit of a large hospital, and in a children’s surgery unit. She came to our Convent fifteen years ago. First, she worked as a painter and a plasterer. Later, she dealt in church supplies and visited the ill. Finally, she came to serve God in the Visiting Nurse Service. She learned about her own illness — the 2nd stage of cancer — five years ago. Right now, her cancer is progressing again. Having survived an extensive operation followed by chemotherapy, she knows better than most other people what illness is like and how to fight it.
Sister Joanna is an orphan. She does not remember where she was born. She was raised and educated first in a Baby House in Pinsk, then in an orphanage in Kobrin and a boarding school in Dyvin. She was known as Snezhana at that time. She saw her biological mother for the first time at the age of 25. Before that meeting, she had got to know her brother Sergey and her sister Xenia, who had also been brought up in an orphanage. Xenia now works in our Convent.
Sister Joanna told me her life story in an open and calm manner, although I was about to cry during the entire interview. She says that whenever she wants to recall her childhood, she thinks about Ivanovo International Boarding School. It was the first place where she was called by her name.
No one had ever called my name in the previous orphanages. They would kick me and mock me all the time. Generally, the antagonism among the children was very cruel. Little by little, one would inevitably become cruel, too. Might be right. It took me a while to learn that I could treat people in a different manner, too. However, I have always liked animals and I liked looking after small children.
When some representatives of the Red Cross were visiting our orphanage in Ivanovo, our counsellors advised us to answer the question “What would you like to be?” with “I’d like to become a doctor or a nurse.” That answer could give orphans from Asia or Africa the only chance not to return to their home countries riddled with hunger and poverty. I answered, “I would like to look after the elderly or abandoned children.” Apparently, it didn’t suffice, and I was sent back to Belarus.
No one was waiting for Snezhana in Belarus. She was sent from the boarding school in Russia to the Red Cross branch in Brest. It was in the 1990s. The Soviet Union collapsed. She did not find the Red Cross branch in Brest.
I spent a week at the railway station in Brest. I was hungry. I did not become desperate, though. I was sitting with a woman, opened my bag, and it was full of worms: all my food was spoiled. People had been thinking that it was me, the homeless girl, who was reeking so badly. When I started cleaning my bag, photos of my classmates and friends from the boarding school fell out of it: black, white, and yellow faces. The woman was curious and asked me who all those children were. She bought me a ticket to Pinsk. That was how I came back to the local boarding school.
The school board took pity on Snezhana because she did not have any rights in Belarus according to the law: as a former student of a boarding school in Ivanovo, she now was a Russian national. Anyway, she did not have anywhere to go, anywhere to live, and anyone to ask for help either in Russia or Belarus.
Now I know how hard it is when you have no parents around: no one cares about you; you don’t have money, you don’t have a home; you cannot go to any college. I am grateful to the boarding school administration for letting me stay in Pinsk. They gave me some food and checked my health. A week later, Zinaida Chaikovskaya, the principal of Pinsk Boarding School, told me, “Do you know that you have a sister? Would you like to get to know her?”
Sister Joanna says that she was completely maladapted to life. She did not even know how to peel potatoes. Her cycling coach in Pinsk suggested her to go to a culinary college.
Well, I can’t describe to you what I had to go through… I was hit in the face for being an orphan during my first day in the college. I didn’t fight back. I simply stood and looked at that person straight in the eye. I did not respond. Still, I was so freaked out because of that bullying that I even wanted to jump under a train.
I graduated from college. In fact, I was convinced that I would get the 4th Grade. I bought the flowers. They gave me the 2nd Grade, the grade of a dishwasher, so to say. I had studied well but I was stupefied during the exams, I couldn’t utter a single word. I just couldn’t. My surname was at the very end of the list. I was so upset that I went to a pond and threw the flowers into it.
Joanna had to leave the Pinsk boarding school after her graduation from college. She found relatives in Čavusy, MA.
My relatives helped me at first. Then my uncle lost his temper, “If that bastard comes, here again, I’ll kill her with an axe!” I had to run away.
The world is full of kind people. Joanna got to know Taisia Makarova, a police officer, who helped her with Belarusian citizenship. It was her who advised Joanna to go to the local residential care facility for the elderly and ask for employment.
When I came there, I saw a man peeling beans. I asked him how I could find a job in the facility, “I don’t need money, I will work for food.” The man turned out to be the director of the residential care facility and employed me, first as a cook, and then as a hospital orderly. It was there that I realised how physically robust I was. It was there that I recalled my mum who had had a mental illness. I started learning about mental disorders. It made me realise that my mum wasn’t really guilty of abandoning us.
Sister Joanna with Raisa Strukova
Raisa Strukova, the superintendent of the Chavusy Residential Care Facility took Joanna into her family. Joanna helped her look after Vitya, her youngest son. Today he is thirty. He has three children. Joanna was a godmother to one of Vitya’s kids.
Raisa Strukova and I have remained friends even now. Here is a gift I have prepared for her. She keeps calling me “daughter”. Of course, I saw a lot while working as an orderly. However, if this terrible life is the only life that you know of when you have no idea that a different life is possible, you won’t break down. Now I know that there can be a different life, and if I had to return, I would certainly break down. I keep thinking about it. Lord, don’t let me forget my past dreadful condition and the basements I had to live in!
I decided to travel to Mahilioŭ. I simply went on the road and hitched an ambulance car. On my way to Mahilioŭ, I was chatting with the doctors. I told them about my life. One of the male doctors asked me:
— What skills do you have?
— I know how to look after people.
— Do you want a job tomorrow? But I’ll get you a job only if you come to the regional hospital by 10 AM.
Sister Joanna came to the hospital on time. She got a job in the intensive care unit. The male doctor in that ambulance turned out to be the surgeon-in-chief of Mahilioŭ Regional Hospital. She says that it was in the hospital that she learned literally everything she now knows.
The ICU taught me everything I know. It was there that I began thinking of God for the first time. Nurses kept telling me that I was so strong. I thought, “Well, probably, if there is a God, He must have given me this physical strength for a reason.” I could turn and wash a very heavy person, do his or her bed, and do a massage at the same time. Sometimes patients would be indignant: “I feel that it’s not Snezhana’s hands! Take your hands off my body, it hurts.”
When Sister Joanna was discharged from the hospital, she decided to go to Minsk. She came to Novinki by sheer accident. Now she knows that the Lord had been leading her to the different life — a life of service — but it looked like a sheer coincidence at that time.
I visited the Convent for the first time in the winter of 2002. I thought, “Wow! Where am I?” A guard called Nun Eupraxia. I was surprised that it was a place where nuns lived. I knew absolutely nothing about Orthodoxy, Christianity in general, to say nothing of monastics.
Nun Eupraxia introduced herself, and I heard her name as “Europe Crying”. I thought, “It’s impossible! How can I call her Europe Crying?” I asked her to write her name down for me on a sheet of paper. (laughs)
I remember how I inquired, “What do you believe in?” The nun replied, “I believe in the One God the Father, Pantocrator…” And I was thinking, “How do I tell her that I can't understand anything she says?” I was ashamed to admit that I was ignorant of things that only small children could be ignorant of. I didn’t understand any of the words except for “I believe…”
Nun Eupraxia met Sister Joanna with love… She invited her to stay in the Convent for a few days. She took Sister Joanna to a meeting with Father Andrew.
Father Andrew asked me, “Why do you want to be in the Convent?” I paused to think for a moment and then responded, “I want to become a better person.”
I was baptised in December. Nun Eupraxia was my godmother. I started swallowing books after my baptism. I was amazed that there are after-death temptations, sins, and confession. I learned about the significance of Communion and how crucial it was to treat the Sacrament with extreme attention, how challenging it was to repent and to make peace with others. I was very curious about the life of nuns.
It was Father Andrew who influenced my determination to make peace with my mother. I got to know her. Until that time, I had been writing letters to her. Now Xenia and I visit her at least once a year. She is somewhat childish. She likes my dog very much.
Later, I looked after Father Andrew’s mother and a schema-nun from our Convent. I spent four years driving a long lorry. I transported goods made in our Convent to the Urals. I have been to so many places! Then I began fainting. Chronic fatigue. I thought it was due to overwork.
I learned that I had cancer on November 30, 2012. I complained to my physician about pain and infirmity. She sent me to an oncologist. They did a puncture.
“You have cancer, the second stage,” the young oncologist was afraid to announce this news to me. I smiled, thinking, “Oh, finally there is something happening in my life!” I caught myself thinking that smiling wasn’t really the most appropriate thing to do in that situation, so I told her, “You know what? I’ll come back to you in a couple of months.” “What do you mean? Your tumour is metastasising! You have three months left to live. If you come here in a couple of months, we won’t be able to do anything!”
At last, it dawned on me how serious it truly was. They performed an operation. The surgeon who operated on me was a staunch believer, he prayed to Saint Luke of Crimea. He was called Alexander Alexandrovich… I can’t remember his surname.
Regrettably, I could no longer drive long vehicles after the operation and chemotherapy. I was wondering what I could do, what I was capable of. Looking after people, of course! That was how I began my work in the Visiting Nurse Service.
We spent a lot of time talking with Sister Joanna about troubles and sorrows, and about ways to deal with those who have been diagnosed with something hardly curable (now I know that it isn’t a great idea to say “Keep your chin up!”), as well as about the most essential things that visiting nurses have to keep in mind.
When you come to your patient, it may seem that you are absolutely unaware of what to do with him or her. Bedsores, excrements, foul smell — it’s unpleasant. However, when you approach your patient, something happens: You somehow regain all your knowledge, find your strength and proper words. Most significantly, your heart empathises with the pain of the other person.
Certainly, knowledge and skills matter, too. Our nurses have finished courses on The Basics of Visiting Nurse Care. They passed exams and received certificates.
Forbearance is even more important than knowledge. Your patients grow accustomed to you. They are so accustomed that they start playing up. This is when your good nature can help you a lot.
People who deal with bedridden patients have a hard time, too. They want to help but they are disoriented by fear: They don’t know what to say… I believe you should listen to your heart. If the patient is ready to talk like we are talking right now, you can even discuss death. You will simply recognise that person’s attitude. If the patient feels detached and is afraid to talk about it, you should sit with him and read a book. You shouldn’t pity your patient, or else they will start feeling dispirited. You need to be able to hear the other and to listen attentively. If he talks about flowers, you should talk about flowers, too. If he starts talking about his illness, you can talk about it, too.
It is critical to talk about repentance and to prepare the patients for their death. My own illness teaches me a lot. Sometimes I feel sad because of my sins. I recall what I used to do or what I haven’t managed to repent of, for any number of reasons — and I feel miserable. At the same time, I feel blessed. If I didn’t come to the Convent, if I went on living as I used to, nothing would ever matter to me. My soul would surely perish. Given that I know the alternative way of life, the better life, I am afraid of the fact that many people live in sin and in darkness, oblivious to the fact that there can be a better way to live this life.
Alas, it is not always true that every person who requires care must be visited by social workers. Even if social workers do visit bedridden patients, they provide only minimal assistance. Severely ill and disabled people need patronage, i.e., regular care, but there is no such service in Belarus officially. That’s why people, who are sometimes unable not just to walk but even eat without assistance, remain isolated in their flats. The problem is not just that some of them do not have relatives. It often happens that people die alone in their flats even if they have relatives because no one ever visits them.
That is why St Elisabeth Convent decided to establish a Visiting Nurse Service in 2014.
This Service is supported solely with donations. Your donations make it possible for us to aid more severely ill and poor people, offer free doctors’ visits, teach the relatives how to look after their bedridden family members, pay for transportation and the work of the sisters. The nurses of the Visiting Nurse Service need your help to be able to look after more people who need their assistance.
This is how you can help:
Sister Irina Tsegelnikova from the visiting nurse service of Saint Elisabeth Convent tells us how Saint Elisabeth's example had inspired her and the other sisters.