Hospital Ailing in East Berlin as Doctors Flee


The sprawling Charity Hospital, hard by the Berlin Wall, is the showplace of East German medicine, and it is in serious trouble.

Tens of thousands of young East Germans have fled to the West, and this has left the hospital short of doctors and, just as important, nurses.

"We have problems," Dr. Siegbert Thomas, the administrative director, admitted in a guarded interview, "and we are very much involved in finding solutions."

Other sources said that of the hospital's 5,000 doctors and nurses, about 1,100 have fled to West Germany in the last two months.

"If that many people have left Charity," a medical student said, "think what is happening to the smaller hospitals around the country. We hear that the situation in some cases is catastrophic."

East Germany has about 500 hospitals, and the standard of medicine has traditionally been high. But now, medical sources say, there are widespread shortages of supplies and expert help.

Stories are told of bandages being recycled, sterilized but still bearing faint bloodstains; of surgeons performing double the customary number of operations; of the doctor-patient ratio falling off sharply, from 1 to 5 to 1 to 15.

The shortage of nurses is described as acute, with medical students and even orderlies filling in.

On Monday, official East Berlin newspapers reported that 2,000 military conscripts will be sent not to the army but to hospitals, where they will be assigned to help out.

The flight of young people to the West has damaged the entire East German economy, but the deterioration in medical care is much more noticeable than gaps on assembly lines.

"My mother has been told she has to wait three years for a hip operation," a hospital construction worker grumbled during his lunch period in a nearby pub.

He spoke openly of joining the exodus to West Germany.

"A heart bypass operation will take more than three years of waiting," a staff member at the hospital said. Like the others, he did not want his name used.

"Only emergency cases--say acute appendicitis--will get you into an operating room within a week," he said. "If you have connections, it happens quicker."

He said that according to a rumor among the junior medical staff members at Charity, 23 doctors are being reassigned here from the "special hospital" outside the capital used exclusively by senior Communist Party officials and "foreign friends."

At least 50 doctors reportedly signed a petition calling for reorganizing the Communist regime and the entire socialist society.

Charity is one of the oldest important hospitals in Europe. It was founded in 1710 as a refuge from the plague, and a few years later it was turned into a poorhouse. In the late 19th Century, it affiliated with Humboldt University, now the University of Berlin.

Today, Charity's Gothic, red-brick buildings are complemented by a 20-story high-rise and other modern additions to the vast complex.

Charity is a teaching hospital and a major center of medical research. It has 2,000 beds and treats patients free of charge. A medical assistant said the quality of teaching has been quite good but complained that staff members are required to spend too much time listening to Marxist-Leninist lectures.

Medical students are given five hours of political lectures a week, the medical assistant said, "and that is too much--and too irrelevant--with all the other things we have to learn here."

Another student complained that wards are short of personnel and supervised by young physicians who are improperly qualified but who nevertheless "have to make diagnoses and carry out operations."

A senior nurse admitted that there is a severe shortage of nurses because of the lure of higher pay in West Germany. Still, she said, she will stay on here, "because I have a very good position and I am very happy."

"I don't think I could find such responsible work in West Germany," she added.

She said she thought the government could help alleviate the problem by allowing unrestricted travel, among other reforms.

"Young people like to travel," she said. "It is quite normal that they should want to see the world."

She admitted that the woman who heads the dental department, who was to become a full professor at the end of the year, left for the West a few days ago.

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