It was a quarter-sized scaly itchy rash, an unwelcome souvenir from my short, but tender friendship with a neighborhood kitten, whose solemn funeral my friends and I staged earlier that week. “It seems to me you have a skin fungus. That is the only explanation for this rash. This is what happens sometimes to little girls who play with homeless kitties in the street. You’ve been scratching it, haven’t you? Try to keep your hands off of it, or you will spread it to your parents and your sister.” I vaguely remember the doctor, or the examination, neither can I recall the proposed treatment. Before I could object, I found myself onthe train, holding a small suitcase with clothes, on my way to the outskirts of the city, to the “Children’s Dermatological Dispensary.” I was to spend two weeks in the dispensary, undergoing a series of tests and treatments, in isolation from parents and friends for fear of my possibly contagious skin condition.
This was a part of town I had never seen before. Wheat fields stretched as far as the horizon to the right side of the road, small farms to the left. In the middle of the village, the Children’s Dermatological dispensary, consisting of four buildings and a gated park. On admission, a physical exam was followed by a scraping of the rash, “for tests,” the doctor said. “Three negative tests and you can go home.” I was assigned a room and ordered to wear a scarf on my head at all times, to prevent the spread of lice. It was explained that visitors were not allowed at the dispensary, the course of treatment would continue for two to three weeks, and phone calls would be permitted twice a week. My roommates were two girls who seemed to be overjoyed to see me. “Hi, you don’t look sick. Show us your rash. Do you think it’s contagious? We are glad you are our roommate, we were afraid that Galya is moving in. See that bed in the hall? That’s where Galya sleeps, because no one wants to be her roommate. She has dirty long nails and boils all over her body. She’s been here for two months.”
The days started in building number one, our so-called campsite. Kids aged five to eighteen shared these living quarters, with three to four people to a room. We were to uphold a reasonable cleanliness environment, which meant trying to wash our hands and brush our teeth daily, and wear a head scarf at all times. Building number two contained the showers, which our “camp counselors” urged us to attend at least weekly. Building number three housed the cafeteria, and also served as living quarters for the nursing staff. The cafeteria was a meeting place for the patients and what seemed like a playground for the doctors’ pharmacological experiments. Every morning we would receive a different assortment of pills, a bouquet of colors, shapes, sizes. I neatly picked out the sweet round orange Vitamin C tablet, saved it for dessert, and quietly disposed of the rest. Positioning myself so that I could see the entire cafeteria, I amused myself by watching the other patients and trying to guess whose skin condition was more contagious. There was Galya, a twelve-year-old girl with the boils, who “failed” all her skin tests. Sergey, the oldest boy of eighteen, with fungus decorating his trunk and arms, never washed, and scared the smaller kids by telling them that they would contract his fungus. There were rashes, ulcers, crusted scaly lesions, boils, alopecia, all living under the same roof, in a big “dermatology children’s camp.” Building number four was the “treatment center.” Every morning after breakfast, everyone headed to this structure for a fifteen minute daily ultraviolet light therapy. Hence was our healing process.
My recollection of these two weeks of my life in the summer of 1985 is faint at best. I reminisce about playing “cops and robbers” in the park, hiding in a ditch, covered in mud. The neighborhood kids laughing and pointing at us from behind the gates of the dispensary, calling us “Fungi,” making fun of our headscarves. I recall sitting perched up on a fence, watching the sky unwrapping before me the most beautifully haunted sunset, the sun changing colors through a spectrum from tender yellow to the brightest magenta. Lounging on top of stacks of fragrant hay with my newly-made friends, counting the stars, listening to crickets. If it were not for the pills, the ultraviolet light therapy, and the bland hospital food, this experience could be enjoyed as well as any other chidlren’s summer camp.
By the end of the two weeks, the rash stopped itching, my third skin scaping came back “negative,” and my mother was on her way to pick me up. On the train ride home, I thought that some day I might find out the names of all those pills I should have been treated with.