V+V Knyazevy. No. 5, «My Ukraine» series, 2023 / Facebook, «Sil-Sol»
Mykola found out about his wife’s death at the front. His dearly beloved Lisa, the mother of three children, flew off to distant worlds, unable to cope with typhoid fever, and he could not help because he was saving the wounded in the Austro-Prussian War. How could this be? After all, he was a doctor, a scientist, a surgeon. He learned from the best specialists in England, France, and Germany, invented new methods of surgery, and here you are. In his own house, there is a deceased woman, only twenty-four years old.
When I returned, I walked around the yard for a long time, feeling completely devastated and exhausted. Everything was ruined. At the time, the governess Sofia was serving the children dinner, giving them a bath, and reading them a bedtime story. From the open window we heard:
— Where is mom?
— Mom is sleeping.
— And when will she wake up?
— I don’t know… maybe tomorrow, maybe in a week or a year…
The man continued to hobble back and forth. The main thing is not to stop. Stopping would lead to irreversible madness. The brain must think, work, not grieve. He has no time for that. He has children. He will not act like his father. Under no circumstances will he give his own children to an orphanage.
Mykola remembered everything to the smallest detail. The Kherson governorate with the taste of sweet watermelon sunshine, and their large, friendly family. The boy was born the ninth, followed by three more. They were poor, but they lived well, speaking Ukrainian with each other. Everything changed when cholera took his mother to the other side. The father, unable to feed the family on his own, sent several boys to an orphanage in Odesa. Not forever, mind you! For a while. Mykola was eight years old at the time.
Later, the father died, and the children remained in the orphanage. They suffered hunger, reproaches, and insults. But they overcame all the difficulties. Mykola graduated with a silver medal from Odesa Gymnasium and Moscow Medical University and fell in love with surgery forever and ever. The profession seemed very creative, as it could save lives. Although… Everything could have gone wrong.
At the age of twenty, he assisted in a surgery for the first time, but was so overwhelmed by what he saw that he fainted. As soon as he regained consciousness, he heard from the chief: «The boy is so vulnerable that he will never become a good surgeon». These words sounded like a slap in the face. To prove the opposite, he almost never left the operating room during all his years of study.
At first, he made bandages, then assisted, later operated independently and was appointed head of the surgical department at the Odesa hospital. He defended his dissertation on «Blood ectopic tumor». He visited the United Kingdom. In the land of great smog, sea fog and rain, he drew attention to the work of the famous surgeon Joseph Lister, who was one of the first to prove the need to sterilize surgical instruments and the operating room. Until then, sterilization was considered insignificant and sometimes harmful. Later, he went to another war as a doctor. He returned, met Lisa, fell in love like a young man… He was happy to have children, believing that they were his immortality.
Mykola was saved from despair by his governess, Sofia, who had been serving in their home for many years. She was a slender, dark-eyed woman with curly hair, an almost perfect ear for music, and a cheerful disposition. She was of noble birth and had a degree in music. She took care of her children with great love. Originally from the Poltava region, her parents owned a beautiful estate in the Yakivtsi village, and she and Mykola were both Ukrainian.
The children adored her, and as soon as you looked into the nursery, you could hear the noise and cheerful laughter. At first, the widower felt boundless gratitude for Sofia, and soon he was filled with tenderness and admiration. Later, mutual feelings flared up, and the lovers got married. The young wife was a good housekeeper, understood her husband at a glance, and gave birth to four more children. She never divided boys and girls into her own and others. She treated them all equally.
Soon the Russo-Turkish War broke out in the Balkans, and the surgeon was drafted into the army. Sofia did not hesitate to follow her husband, leaving her six children behind. The wagonloads of wounded were coming in a caravan, so he spent hours in the operating room. After performing three or four operations in a row, being injected with carbolic acid, ether, and iodoform, Mykola would return home with an unrelenting headache and escape with a tiny cup of strong coffee and warm family talk.
He had to work in unbearable conditions: the operating room was at a high temperature, the shots did not stop for a moment, the wounded were screaming in pain, and he was constantly cutting, sewing, and saving lives. His wife poured a tablespoon of wine into his mouth during surgeries to keep him strong. He swallowed and smiled at his beloved from the corners of his eyes.
It was there, on the battlefield, that Mykola developed his invaluable method, the «Sklifosovsky lock», which allowed him to connect broken bones. He introduced disinfection of instruments, which reduced mortality several times, and obliged doctors to wear clean gowns.
During the Russo-Ottoman War, he operated with Pirogov. Sometimes for several days without rest, and ten thousand wounded passed through his hands. He improved the principle of «sparing treatment» of battle wounds, introduced the use of plaster casts, and substantiated asepsis with antiseptic.
After the war, the family returned home, where their seventh child was born. The scientist became a professor at a medical university and head of a surgical clinic. He introduced congresses to which he invited the best doctors from all over the world, including the prominent German physiologist and pathologist Rudolf Virchow. Visiting Sklifosovsky’s clinic, the author of the doctrine of cellular pathology emphasized: «You are at the head of an institution that is the envy of other European nations».
In addition, Mykola Sklifosovsky founded two periodicals, the «Surgical Chronicle» and the «Chronicle of Russian Surgery». In order to reduce the cost of the journals and make them more accessible, he paid for the publishing house from his own funds. As a result, his name became an authority.
Throughout his life, he focused on topographic anatomy: the topography of the pharynx, larynx, and carotid triangle of the neck. While still a student, he would stay late in the theater to understand the lumbar region and other important «layers». When he became a famous surgeon, he never stopped visiting the morgue to study anatomically a certain area or to determine the correct way to the depths of the body. He categorically advised his students not to operate blindly: «Cut only what you can see or perceive clearly by touch. All autopsies should be done on the basis of knowledge of anatomy»,
The surgeon did a lot of things for the first time. He performed a laparotomy — opening of the abdominal cavity, followed by a gastrostomy (he taught doctors to introduce food directly into the stomach). He removed a cyst on the ovary. He also operated on the gallbladder, liver and bladder. Cancer of the tongue. Tumors of the thyroid gland. He performed a kidney transplant. He described bone surgeries for «false joints».
He used a cocaine solution as an anesthetic for oral surgery. He constructed a device with his own hands to maintain anesthesia. This allowed him to operate longer and better, because before the use of the anesthesia machine, complex operations lasted no more than five minutes. He introduced X-ray examinations into surgery. He invented the «Murphy button» and used a bubble suture.
The range of surgeries was quite extensive: the doctor performed plastic surgery on the face and skull, on blood vessels, nerves, bones, joints, gastrointestinal tract, uterus, and parenchymal organs. He removed stones from the bladder. He operated on tongue and jaw cancer. He also performed hernia and gynecological operations, and everything turned out well. He wrote about a hundred works on surgery. He had a reputation as a light handed surgeon.
Once he was invited to come by the luminary Pirogov himself: his favorite teacher. Mykola immediately suspected something was wrong, so when he was heading to the village of Vyshnia, near Vinnytsia, he was seriously worried. He met the professor in the living room, but he looked bad. The examination showed cancer of the upper jaw, the disease was advanced, inoperable, so the «student», in order not to upset his colleague, diagnosed a tumor, but a benign one. Other prominent surgeons did the same: Val, Grube, Billroth. Recognizing a creeping membranous mucous membrane ulcer of the mouth, they said something completely different.
Eventually, when Pirogov died, Sklifosovsky organized a collection among doctors to build a monument and received permission from the emperor to erect the monument. A seven-meter bronze sculpture of the great physician still stands today. In one hand, he holds a skull, a symbol of anatomy, and the other hand is tired and free. Every year, medical graduates dress the monument in a white robe and bandage its arms and legs. It’s as if they are receiving a blessing.
Life accelerated and from time to time made an attempt to drive me into a dead end. The «Vidrada» estate in the village of Yakivtsi saved him from obsessive fatigue, sleepless nights, and endless human suffering. Every summer, the surgeon and his family would come to his Poltava estate and find the peace he desired.
The house stood on a steep hill, with the Vorskla river winding below. There was dizzying air and crazy birdsong everywhere. Freedom, silence, tranquility. Upon arrival, he would dress up in an embroidered shirt and linen pants, put a straw hat on his head, and switch to Ukrainian. His Russian colleagues knew about his «eccentricities», so they jokingly nicknamed him «the Khokhlyatsky soul».
Despite his fanatical love of surgery, Mykola adored music and theater. He was friends with many composers and stayed up late at night with the author of the opera Prince Igor, Oleksandr Borodin. He personally knew Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Maria Zankovetska and took students to her performances as a «psychological workshop».
His beloved Sofia also played the piano well, and the scientist was ready to kiss her sensitive, skillful fingers every minute, which accelerated in virtuosic passages. She taught music to her children, and they willingly performed minuets with preludes. The doctor also knew a lot about painting. He admired the works of Ilya Repin and the master of monumental paintings Vasyl Surikov.
Having forever imprinted the war in himself, he praised the works of the battlefield artist Vereshchagin. He especially liked the triptych «All is calm on the window pane» about soldiers serving on the Shipka Pass in Bulgaria. The snow is piled high, and the sentry, covered with powder almost up to his chest, does not move. He stands guard until it turns into a solid snowdrift, from which the corners of his overcoat are barely visible.
Every time Mykola looked at this painting, he exclaimed in his heart: «Let the war be cursed!» Vasyl himself was brought back to life by the surgeon on several occasions, so the artist gladly presented his landscape to the doctor with the inscription: «When you get tired of work, look at my painting for a long time and you will immediately relax». Mykola looked eagerly.
He was modest, taciturn, unassuming, and exceptionally talented. Every morning he would swim and promote the benefits of swimming. In winter, in St. Petersburg, he also did not abandon water procedures and, before going to lectures, dipped three times in the icy Neva water (an ice hole was specially cut for the professor). Coming out of the water, he would rub himself red with a hairy towel and go on with full energy.
In the operating rooms, he asked to keep quiet. He did not want to be the center of attention, he did not even want to celebrate twenty-five years of medical work. However, people wanted to express their gratitude, so the scientist received more than four hundred postcards from all over the world. He expressed his thoughts briefly and clearly. He made brilliant reports in French. He believed that doctors should be gathered from time to time for professional retraining in accordance with the latest medical advances, so he organized an educational institution such as the Institute for Advanced Training of Physicians.
Mykola Sklifosovsky succeeded in almost everything but one thing. The scientist remained helpless at the moment of saving his own children. His son Borys died at the age of three. At sixteen, Kostiantyn died of kidney tuberculosis. The pain was eating away at his skin. It penetrated his heart and poured boiling water over it. To cope with the round-the-clock longing, he came back to Poltava region again and again and searched for the peace he had lost. In memory of Borys, he built a school for forty students on the territory of his estate. It also included a teacher’s apartment.
The estate covered an area of six hundred acres. The family kept horses, cattle, pigs, chickens, and ducks. A large apiary with fifteen beehives was maintained. The owner brewed his own beer and enjoyed treating people to it. He dug a well, which was also used by the locals. In his estate, he received sick villagers and took on the treatment of any disease, without choosing a specialty. That is, he was considered a doctor of all specialties. He listened carefully to everyone, addressed everyone on a first-name basis, and provided examinations and prescriptions free of charge.
The estate was well managed. The land was given a rest (an eight-field crop rotation was used, and the resting areas were sown with alfalfa). The horses were exclusively Ardenese (short, hardworking, very strong), and elegant Danish horses, which were harnessed to wagons and carriages. The cattle were Simmental, the pigs were Yorkshire (large, white-skinned, with marbled meat). The chickens were of the best breeds: lush and squat fawn cochineals, meat chickens — gudankas, naked and hairy legs — langshans.
The estate has an industrial garden with single-variety plantings. Not far away, there was a mulberry tree plantation, a vegetable garden winking with tomatoes and salad peppers, a hop house (a rarity at the time), and the estate’s own mini-brewery.
Oak, maple, and birch trees rustled with leaves along the slopes and ravines. Mulberry and acacia trees. Evergreen pines and triangular spruce trees were also luxuriating there. There are records in which the scientist described in detail the details of crossing peaches with apricots and apples with pears. It is not surprising that the surgeon’s paradise was dubbed «The Poltava`s Switzerland».
Mykola planted a vineyard on the bank of the river and was very proud of it. He tied and pruned the vines himself. He took care of the seedlings like small children. Later, he got his first harvest and proved that good grape varieties could be grown in Poltava governorate.
Everything was going well until a big disaster struck. His son Volodymyr, a student at St. Petersburg University, became interested in politics and joined a terrorist organization in his youth. He was assigned an extremely difficult task — to assassinate the governor of Poltava, named Katerynych. As fate would have it, Katerynych was a close friend of their family, and Volodya had known him since childhood. The cheerful, friendly uncle often came to visit their Poltava estate, drinking tea and bagels and chatting for a long time. And now he had to kill him.
This did not fit into the young man’s coordinate system. Volodymyr did not dare to admit to his friends that he was indecisive and soft-hearted. That he felt affection and respect for the class enemy. So he found the only way out of the situation — to commit suicide.
His death was a tragedy for his father. How so? Why? How many gunshot wounds could be stitched up, but his own son had shot so accurately that neither a scalpel, nor silk thread, nor sterile bandage could help. Sklifosovsky was in desperate despair. He immediately retired from business and went to his estate to grieve. From that moment on, he forbade his family to call him «Joy». After all, what kind of joy is it when there is so much grief and misery? From now on, it’s just Yakivtsi.
From that day on, Mykola Sklifosovsky settled in Poltava region forever. At first, he tried to distract himself with public affairs, but what good was that? And his health began to fail. The surgeon suffered a cerebral stroke and seemed to recover, but not for long. On December 13, 1904, he died suddenly at the age of sixty-eight. This death saved the scientist from even more pain and despair, as all of his children had lived too short lives.
His son Mykola died during the fighting in the Russo-Japanese War. Oleksandr — during the Civil War. His daughter and wife were killed in 1919. One war overlapped with another. Sofia and Tamara continued to live in the family estate, although they talked about leaving more than once. It was just that Sofia’s toes had started to necrotic as a result of diabetes, and her daughter could not leave her mother to fend for herself.
On that October day, when the parents’ garden was dressed in brocade and gold, Bibik’s makhnovist detachment seized the village. Naturally, the rich estate caught their eye. The bandits flew in, stunned by the beauty and good housekeeping, and began to clean up the mess: robbing and destroying.
They say that Tamara was raped and hanged upside down, and her old mother was hacked to death with shovels. And all because they saw a portrait of Mykola Vasylovych over the fireplace in the uniform of a tsarist army officer and became furious like wild animals. Even a paper signed by Lenin stating that Sklifosovsky’s family was not subject to repression did not save them.
There is a slab on the surgeon’s grave next to the obelisk. It bears the emblem of medicine: a snake and a bowl with the inscription: «Shining to others, I burn myself». There is a monument with heartfelt words in front of the main building of the Poltava Clinical Hospital: «From the surgeons of Soviet Ukraine and grateful Poltava residents».
And that was it. There was a life and it is gone. Only a name remained. A name which the entire civilized world still worships.