Friday, 21 January 2011
Volume 2 The Death and Rebirth (1968-1991) chapter 1 from the more detailed Two-Volume Edition published in 1993
A hook for the noose: second thoughts…Buteyko again fingered the washing line he’d taken down from the shelf, and thought “that’s pretty rough.” Then, feverishly, “don’t tell me I’ll need to soap it? And then there was the hook. That had to be strong too. You couldn’t hang yourself from the plumbing in the bathroom after all…
Buteyko surveyed the bathroom slowly by its infrared light. It was a bit small. Airless. Horrid. He squeezed the hank of washing line in his fist and made decisively for the large main room that looked out over the court yard. … Perhaps a hook from the chandelier would hold. Buteyko, tried to work out where best to put the stool.
“The whale expects a bolt to the belly,
but a shot in the back
The doctor nearly dropped the rope in surprise. Vladimir Vysotsky, the Moscow bard suddenly erupted through the neighbour’s adjoining wall. He’d started out as a semi-underground singer, but now was all the rage. The sound of his snarl, hit Buteyko literally like a bolt from the blue.
The doctor slowly lifted his head and scrutinised the iron hook, dusted with white plaster. It wasn’t going to be easy for him to die, because he could do without air an awful lot longer than most people. Years of training had done that for him.
“Whoever you are, you were not expected here
And you have rent, you have torn the sail.”
Suddenly furious, Buteyko flung the rope down on the yellow cover of the couch and opened the ventilator wide. The cold October breeze immediately lifted the burgundy flowered curtains …
Vysotsky’s voice literally drove him off target. Exhausted, the doctor lowered himself onto the edge of his rather firm, customised, bed. It’s not so easy to take your own life, dammit! Even now, when it seems all is lost, once and for all…. He cast vacant eyes over the room. It was almost empty, as though it had been looted from top to bottom. His wife had left him, and taken virtually every last stick of furniture from the flat, except the sideboard and cupboard, Buteyko counted, mechanically. But why would she take the cupboard when the lousy curtains were still intact? He leant back on the cool partition wall.
But what was surprising about that? That’s what wives do to failures. Academician Rebrov had given the Health Ministry such a thumbs-down after the clinical trials of his method in Leningrad, that the only surprising thing was that Buteyko was still at liberty… Comrade Zarubin had ordered his laboratory shut as soon as the trials ended; his equipment had been dismantled, and he heard that nurses had been seen steaming hospital laundry in parts of his famous laboratory
“But you have rent, you have torn the sail!.”
Buteyko could hardly take the anguished voice reaching him through the wall. To boil up filthy sheets in a unique apparatus that had saved thousands of lives…, and they were burning sheets in it!
“ But you have rent, you have torn the sail!.”
He had seen the charts of formulae for equalising the breath, ripped down and stashed by the builders’ wooden portable toilet in the court yard at the back of the hospital. Oh God! Dr. Buteyko again reached for the hank of rope at the end of the couch.
Quacks! Careerists! Money grabbers! All your academic salaries combined could never pay for the damage you have caused! And what about people? What about the poor powerless patients? Who will give them the help they tried to get from you for years on end, but only found here in the laboratory and literally within days of coming? Well, alright Mr top flight academic, you can settle your personal scores with me - let’s say I was in your way somehow. But what about your Hippocratic Oath? In your day, you all solemnly swore to help the needy. But now, one stroke of a bureaucratic pen has destroyed a totally unique scientific research laboratory. In fact it has written off thousands of human lives! Is there anything to live for now? Buteyko unwound a small length of rope and tested it for strength. It held! The thin twine, yellowing with damp and use, could probably take his mortal remains.
“ But you have rent, you have torn the sail!
To your shame, your shame,deepest shame “
Who put on this hoarse, sobbing song? The doctor pushed himself away from the wall abruptly, to distance himself from the neighbour’s tape recorder. It just tore his heart out and his heart was torn already.
Shame? He had nothing to be ashamed of: his enemies should be ashamed. Although, if Buteyko were to leave this world before his time and by his own hand, the academic Rebrovs and Pomekhins of this world were hardly likely to be ashamed. Just thinking about it, brought a light perspiration to the doctor’s brow: not just no shame; more like they’d build the bonfire higher, as a fitting tribute for the deceased, then for the next 50, or maybe even 100 years, no one would bother them in their pill and scalpel paradise. No one would trouble them with proof of the miraculous power of carbon dioxide gas. Pack the patients full of as many “compound powders” as you like, and slice them up on the operating table.
The doctor lowered his head, saddened. Whether he hanged himself or not, nothing was likely to change. He could argue the case for his discovery as long as he had access to his small, first class laboratory – because it was hard for even a dyed-in-the wool cretin to totally reject results achieved in a laboratory. But now there was no laboratory. It had disappeared, gone for ever. His closest colleagues and most skilful acolytes were jobless, with no means of survival. And Buteyko himself felt he was left with nothing but the smithereens of broken hopes.
So why cling to this crummy benighted existence? Who needs it? Not him. For someone who had first identified the illnesses associated with deep breathing, this kind of life was absolutely no use and physically repellent! To stay alive, and see queues of patients every day, flocking through narrow hospital doors that were too clogged first thing to admit them freely. He could vividly picture this stream of physical suffering, spilling out through the narrow, chlorinated hospital corridors, then pooling into different groups in front of different departments with their beloved departmental notices. He could picture the doctors reluctantly starting to examine the endless stream of patients, deadened by their excessive daily workload; and he could picture them prescribing their totally useless tablets, injections and lotions: month in, month out. Year in, year out!
To see, appreciate, and understand all this stupidity - yet be unable to influence it? No! It was more than he could bear. Buteyko walked briskly to the kitchen and returned with a heavy strong stool. Let all those official quacks get on with it without him. What could he do?
The doctor shifted the stool nearer the hook, then threw himself down on the couch again, as though wanting a short breathing space before taking his last step into the void.While he had the laboratory, he had a purpose. And how they had waited, how they had striven for a clinical trial and the official sanction of the Ministry of Health! They had believed in it like some sacred object. And now the clinical trial had taken place. Just a few months ago, it had all happened. In Leningrad, at the main asthma institute, and with the chronically ill. And with the help of the laboratory team, almost all of them had been cured, in just over a month. And then this conclusion on paper, dreamt up by Academician Rebrov and forwarded to the ministry, had dealt a hammer blow to all his efforts. From Rebrov’s conclusions on the clinical trial, it seemed he and his team had nearly killed the poor patients, not cured them… Rebrov had basically scuppered the clinical trial. He had wanted to make a name for himself! And even the letter to the head of the Communist Party himself – Leonid Brezhnev -, from the 46 people who had been trialled and successfully cured by the Buteyko method, was no help.
The stool creaked in response to the pressure of Dr Buteyko’s hand. But how can you talk about a clinical method, when politicians today can do the same thing to an entire country, for the gratification of their imperial ambitions! A socialist people “of kindred spirits” had put the boot in. And they can spin things so beautifully nowadays, there’s no faulting them. “The protection of socialism is our highest international duty.” Yes: those were “Izvestiya’s” words at the end of August. And what if the whole of Czechoslovakia recoiled from this “protective” hug? What if Czechs large and small were gobbing on the treads of the “defenders” tanks, incensed by their invasion? Of course, “Izvestiya” newspaper said nothing about that…
And why not? Well a handful of intellectuals in Moscow, who’d caught the protests of our “Slav brothers” on shortwave radio last thing at night, knew something about that - and good for them. Know the truth, but keep your mouth shout! And if you are not happy with that, then please, be my guest. Go out on Red Square and get a taste of what other pointy-head intellectuals got. Let them beat you up the way they beat up the Soviet free thinkers who protested against the lawlessness of Brezhnev’s clique. (ref.1)
For a moment the doctor even forgot his own troubles. The savage picture painted by one of his ubiquitous patients, who had happened to cross Red Square at that moment was there before his eyes. …A pathetic group of seven or eight demonstrators, protesting against the invasion of Czechoslovakia (ref.2). They were giving no one any trouble. They weren’t shouting, or causing a disturbance: just sitting in a quietly and orderly way on the Lobnoye monument in Red Square, unrolling a poster saying “For your freedom and ours…”, and lifting a Czechoslovakian flag over one of their heads. A pathetic handful of people trying to dissociate themselves from state aggression -- and opposite them, a huge crowd that wanted to dismember them. “Crush the anti-Soviets! Kill the Jewish bitch!...”
The doctor nearly wretched. Lord! Human ignorance is so savage, so aggressive! And which one of them had heard the anonymous woman announcer over the radio, begging in a voice that could tear your heart apart. “ Please, Russian brothers. Leave Czechoslovakia. We didn’t ask you to come !” Apart from the plainclothes KGB men, working away in the crowd, probably no one. But everyone was lashing out, and so furious! Yet the demonstrators were only trying to protect the rights and freedoms of their attackers too. Today they crushed the Czechs, tomorrow it will be our turn. And why tomorrow?
Dr Buteyko took his hand away from the stool.
They are turning the screws today, right this minute, and they’ve been at it for a long time: it’s just that we don’t always see and hear it clearly. The way hardly anyone caught the sound of the distant Czech radio announcer, begging the Soviet troops to withdraw -- except discerning short wave radio listeners, and people whose job it is to gather intelligence.
The ruling clique knows how to keep its villainies a close secret, and so they have buried the clinical trials of the Buteyko method without firing a single shot: everything present and correct, and no fireworks. And although no doubt Leonid Brezhnev did not take the decision himself, his white-coated coven of academics, feed in the interstices of his system and they did it with the blessing of his state. A letter lay on Brezhnev’s table asking him to support Buteyko’s methodology. It was signed by the 46 patients who took part in the clinical trials in Leningrad and had been cured by the VEDB method, among them, a couple of Heroes of the Soviet Union (ref 3). Buteyko knew from an impeccable source that it was there. So what? Not being in mint condition himself, the Communist Party’s General Secretary did not want to trouble himself, for his retinue, with some clinical trials, requested by former sufferers of a chronic ailment.
In the end, the matter concluded entirely painlessly for the General Secretary following a short phone conversation with – who else? – Zarubin, who had, after brief enquiries, been helpfully brought to his attention as an “expert” on the Buteyko problem. As for what Zarubin dreamed up to tell his Lord and Master about Buteyko’s discovery – well, the doctor now had a pretty precise picture on that score.
Moreover, Buteyko was now quite clear that, when Professor Chugunov and Academician Zarubin had deliberately falsified the results of the Leningrad trial, they had in all probability been obeying a secret order from the Chief Physician himself: teach this upstart with his crazy ideas about carbon dioxide the lesson he’d got coming to him. If not, the letter from the forty six patients who’d been released from long years of suffering would undoubtedly have given rise to appropriate action … Forty six chronically ill patients cured in the space of a month!
Hardly aware of what he was doing, the doctor threw the end of rope which had unwound itself from the hank round his neck, and with his left hand pulled gently on it as it dangled free. The official clinical trials of the method – so long in the planning, and now finally realised. Who would have thought it would end like this?! The doctor’s right hand accidentally brushed against the hank of rope, which fell with a dull thud from the couch to the floor. He made no move to pick it up.
To think that this winter he, Natasha Voronova and Wilma Goncharova had travelled to Leningrad with such unclouded expectations. They’d thought that since the clinical trials were being carried out on the Health Ministry’s say-so, the whole thing would operate at the highest level, so to speak. Oh yes, it had been the highest level, alright. Only the highest level had turned out to be the highest degree of disingenuous turpitude imaginable in the scientific world.
Buteyko closed his eyes for a second. At once, the winter’s tragic events in Petersburg crowded in on him, as if it had all happened just the day before. He and the laboratory team (five in all) had arrived in Leningrad on 7th January 1968. Besides Natasha and Wilma, Buteyko had invited Svetlana Bubentsova and Kolya Skvortsov, the lab assistant, to come with him.
Academician Rebrov was a stunted little man, all kind of hunched-up. He greeted them with immense hauteur. “Despite our having made every effort on your behalf” - he scrutinised the fivesome who had appeared in his office, somewhat gloomy with its half-lowered window blinds, and with some effort pulled his tightly compressed lips into a smile - “I’m not sure you’ll manage to assemble enough patients to carry out a proper scientific clinical trial for your method …” . As he uttered that penultimate “your”, Rebrov stumbled slightly and, straightening his white lab cap which had slipped a bit squint, brought his gaze to rest on Buteyko a shade longer than on the other members of the group before him.
“But we had a letter inviting us, so we assumed …” Buteyko was suddenly angry, to the point of biting his lip.
“Yes, yes, of course!” The Academician hastily averted his eyes, which were curiously expressionless, as if faded. “Absolutely! There was indeed a letter, and a directive from the Health Ministry. But … you know how it is,” he turned his body marginally towards the doctor, “in real life things sometimes turn out differently, not at all the way they’ve been planned on paper. In any case, it’s my assistant Professor Vladislav Borzov” - the academician nodded towards an elderly, curly-headed man who had hitherto escaped their notice, sitting in a deep leather armchair in a shadowy corner of the office just to the right of the entrance - “who’s really been in charge of the matter. I’m sure he’ll explain the situation that’s arisen in more detail, and help you make the best decision.”
“I think, Academician,” Rebrov’s assistant responded animatedly from his hidden corner “I’d probably best take our guests through the wards and give them a chance to check things out for themselves on the ground.” Borzov’s superior, who had stopped forcing himself to smile, was quick to back him up: “Undoubtedly the best idea, Professor! Undoubtedly the best idea! You’re the one with it all at your fingertips, as they say.”
So they went through the wards. Not enough pulmonary patients to take part in clinical trials for the method? In Leningrad, in the top asthma institute? Buteyko paced nervously though the hospital corridors behind Borzov. It was unthinkable. Absurd. At their own clinic, people signed up on a waiting list for ten years hence. Yet here they couldn’t find thirty or forty asthma patients? … It was just not possible!
As they approached the end of their tour, however, the doctor had to admit that Academician Rebrov’s fears were not as groundless as they might have seemed at first glance.
The asthma wards were half empty. For the most part, the answers provided by the doctors in charge of the wards boiled down to roughly the same thing: patients with moderately severe asthma (said they) had recently been discharged, since (they went on) a certain level of therapeutic effect had been achieved and it made no sense to keep them as in-patients any longer. As for the severely ill (who actually weren’t that thick on the ground either) – well, here they were, such as they were, right in front of them. They could choose some to have a chat with …
As they spoke, for some reason or other the doctors tried to avoid Buteyko’s direct, uncomprehending gaze, and did their utmost to bring to an end as quickly as possible a conversation which they were clearly not enjoying and which seemed to embarrass them in some way.
Dr Buteyko turned to a patient who was lying sprawled on his back, mouth open, on a narrow iron bedstead. The man seemed to him to be in a particularly grave condition. “Have you suffered from asthma for a long time?” The poor fellow’s chest heaved continually. From the sound of it, his laboured breathing, accompanied by a whistling noise, could probably be heard as far away as the corridor outside.
“Me?” the patient wrapped his striped pyjamas round himself and raised himself slightly on one elbow. “A year or so now. Why do you want to know?” As he answered Buteyko, he for some reason looked anxiously and expectantly at Borzov, as if awaiting some sort of agreed signal.
Dr Buteyko nodded towards his travelling companions. “Well, we’re here from Siberia, from a scientific research laboratory. We’d like to invite you to try out our method of treatment. It uses what we call volitional elimination of deep breathing. What do you think of the idea?”
“You mean to say it involves not breathing at all?” the asthmatic struggled to raise himself even higher on the bed. His gaze slid again towards Professor Borzov, who was standing close by with an air of feigned indifference. He then reproachfully fixed his eyes, hotly shining and inflamed by prolonged lack of sleep, on Buteyko, who was thrown into sudden confusion by the hostile tone of the question.
“What on earth makes you think you don’t breathe at all? Where did you get an idea like that?” It was Buteyko’s turn to look at Professor Borzov, who had suddenly been taken unawares by a fit of coughing. “It’s not possible not to breathe at all, as far as I’m aware …”
The asthmatic waved a bony hand and abruptly interrupted Dr Buteyko. “No, I don’t want to! I don’t want any experiments done on me. I’m not going to let you treat me!” He turned ostentatiously to face the wall.
“Oh … right …” Buteyko shrugged his shoulders, at a loss to understand, and moved away from the bed to rejoin his colleagues, who were also astonished at the turn of events. It was the patient’s prerogative, of course. All the same, it was a bit odd …
They made their way quickly to another ward. But there too, to the Siberian visitors’ even greater astonishment, almost exactly the same scenario was repeated. At the mere mention of the VEDB method, a young man, dark-haired and completely cyanosed, who was downing one pill after another, refused point-blank to participate in the trials – he seemed almost terrified.
“You told me that in Leningrad we’d be swamped with people wanting to land a place to train with us!” Buteyko hissed angrily to Voronova when they and the rest of the group were out in the corridor again.
“But that’s how it was…” a flushed and agitated Voronova was quick to reply – she too kept her voice low so that Borzov, who was walking ahead of their little cavalcade, should not overhear. “I’ve had two trips here! I’ve successfully treated several groups of patients. And afterwards, such amazing stories were going round about our method that there was no escape from applicants chasing after me even when I was in my hotel. I just don’t understand it!”
“Me neither”, the Doctor went on, lowering his voice still further, shaken to the core by what was happening. “Although …” there was an odd look in his eyes as he watched Borzov’s lanky figure looming ahead of them. “Maybe I’m just beginning to catch on to something here … It looks as if before we arrived they made sure the asthma patients would be scared stiff of us.”
“That’s out of the question!” Voronova was so taken aback that she slowed her steps. “Doctors doing a thing like that to other doctors?”
“So Pomekhin’s not a doctor, then? Nor Martynov, nor little Miss Master’s Degree Dzagoyeva from Alma-Ata?” Buteyko went on, taking advantage of Borzov’s disappearance round the next corner in the corridor to raise his voice just a little. “It’s the same story here. It’s obvious – they couldn’t give a damn about the Hippocratic Oath .. They’re not fighting to save lives – it’s a fight to the death they’re after.” Buteyko saw that Borzov had stopped by the entrance to the next ward and so was forced to abandon the conversation.
The Doctor had made no mistake in his diagnosis. They had indeed scared the patients. Out of their wits. And Professor Borzov, who had led the group on their tour of the hospital wards, had played a bigger role than most in the affair.
Shortly before the Siberians arrived, he and Professor Chugunov had discharged all patients whose condition was relatively mild. They’d then gone to work in no uncertain fashion on the patients who couldn’t simply be turfed out of their beds. They’d impressed on these unfortunates that Buteyko was a fanatic whose method fell into the draconian category. It was very aggressive, extremely hazardous and only marginally effective. It was a method which resulted in more deaths than recoveries ... Academician Rebrov and his right-hand men had a simple outcome in view: leave the visiting Siberian group with practically no patients.
No patients. “Dear comrades,” they would say, “we’ve just no suitable patients to offer you! And as you see, even the ones we have don’t want anything to do with you.” Oh yes, that turn of events would suit everyone. The Chief Physician and comrade Zarubin, for example, who had been on the phone to Rebrov. He wanted to know the Academician’s plans regarding the forthcoming trials of the Buteyko method. From the questions the Chief Physician asked, and from the tone of the conversation, Rebrov was left in no doubt as to the preferred outcome of the trials as far as the Health Ministry’s top brass were concerned. Not that it would have been difficult to work it out. Plenty of people were aware of the extreme hostility with which Zarubin viewed the volitional elimination of deep breathing method, and its inventor.
And if the doctor left Leningrad empty-handed, that would suit Rebrov too. After all, if things happened the other way round, and Buteyko proved the efficacy of his method, what sort of light would that cast on the methods their own institute had developed for treating asthma? The aforementioned Professor Chugunov’s “complex powders”, for example?
It would be tricky, too, to explain the unusually high mortality rate among asthmatics who came to their institute for treatment. They were forever hanging themselves or taking poison, the scoundrels, despite the miracle-working powders! At present, the institute managed to get away with it. They would claim that the ill-starred establishment got landed with patients who were hopelessly gravely ill, and with cases that had been neglected. But then all of a sudden (just imagine such a thing for a moment!) - the Buteyko trials were successful. Those wretched suicides would have misused their hospital-issue towels for nothing! It would have turned out that many of them could have been rescued from the conditions they’d despaired of.
No. That kind of scenario wouldn’t have fitted into Professor Chugunov’s plans at all, nor Academician Rebrov’s. Add in the fact that the Chief Physician himself was expecting quite the reverse outcome, and it would seem that the fate of the trials – which hadn’t even got off the ground yet – was in no doubt.