Behind the Iron Curtain part 4 – Healthcare

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

Content warning, graphical description of illness.


Ever since childhood my health was not great. I was allergic to almost anything one can be allergic to, I got sunburned in an instant and to add insult to injury I was wearing glasses. Twice I got blind due to allergy – once when mosquitoes bit my face and it has swollen so much that I could not open my eyes, and once when we were outside with school class and the teacher has allowed us to go into a field of rye. Where a piece of awn got stuck under my eye and again caused my lids to swell to the point I could not see. I had to be led out of the forest by my classmates, and we had to keep in shade because light has made my eyes hurt like hell.

That was not the worst of it. At early age I have developed chronic tonsilitis. It could be treated with antibiotics, but it did not work in the long run. The illnesses came more and more often and a pattern has developed – two to maybe three weeks of relatively normal life, then suddenly my neck tonsils got swollen and I vomited pus and congealed blood during the night wishing I die. Then I developed fever and I could barely eat for a week during which I was on the antibiotics. After the antibiotics (penicillin mostly) have done what they could I was weakly for another week and I had to abstain from any physically challenging tasks and I was excused from gym classes.

Thus about two years have passed in this rhythm. My growth was stunted and I was not behind in school only thanks to my high intelligence and a help from our neighbour’s sister, who was a teacher and tutored me one year during my illnesses.

The problem was of course that I should have been sent for tonsilectomy after the second or third bout of antibiotics at the most. The children’s physician for our district insisted on not doing this because it might, in her words, cause asthma later on. So when the antibiotics did not seem to work in the long-term after years of torturing me, she tried to prescribe a “preventional” course of penicillin, where I was taking half a pill each day. Needles to say this did not work at all, quite the opposite. I developed an allergy to penicillin and another antibiotic had to be used from then on.

She also tried to send me for a month on a recuperation vacation stay in the mountains. Something that was intended for children living in smog-covered cities. Needless to say it was useless for a country kid and I was sick during that vacation too.

My parents have only vocational education and they lacked the knowledge to challenge the physician’s authority. They did the right thing – they delegated the problem to the expert. Unfortunately the expert was an idiot. I do not blame my parents in the least, but I refuse to greet the physician on the rare occasion I meet her although she seems to think I should like her. She should have known better.

I had a stroke of luck in that I almost died and when my parents had to call an ambulance, the arriving doctor was the general practitioner for our district. And he was competent so he explained to them that the antibiotics are now doing nothing for me and are only de-facto poisoning me. And that tonsilectomy is the only viable long-term option. After I got tonsilectomy, the last in a long string of tortures, I could not eat properly for a few weeks, and I had to avoid some foods for a few years, but the wounds healed, one tonsil even grew back, and I only had tonsilitis once or twice ever since and never as serious as it once was.

My story highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of the system.

First strength was accessibility. Each district had a general practitioner, gynaecologist, dentist and children’s physician that rarely were more than two bus-stops or half an hour walking distance away. Hospitals were relatively regularly dispersed, so the travel to one was not too long either. Getting to a doctor was usually not a problem. The same for apothecaries. Whenever I was sick, we could mostly just walk to the doctor and pick the medicaments on the way back.

Second strength was availability. My parents did never need to worry about the costs of any of this. Everything was paid for in taxes, and everybody had available all the care they needed (even the dentist). And they got paid leave to take care for me whenever needed. That does not mean there were no economical decisions made – some rare illnesses might not be treated because the costs were too high for the state to afford. But nobody had to worry about slightly complicated flu bankrupting them, or having their teeth pulled out because they cannot afford the repair.

But the weakness was that people had their assigned physicians and there was no real choice. There was no “second opinion” really available and people did not even know that such thing exists. So if your physician was an idiot, you were foobared.

But I still think that this is one of the things the regime actually got mostly, even though not completely, right.


  1. says


    At early age I have developed chronic tonsilitis.

    Oh gods, I had that in my mid to late teen years. Talk about misery! My throat would swell so much, I could barely swallow anything, and I remember begging for someone to take them out, but back then (this would have been in the early 1970s), the thinking was that it was bad to remove tonsils, because they were there for a specific purpose, blah blah. I took more antibiotics than anyone ever should, for years. Never could get a doctor to agree to take them out, so I still have them. Thankfully, the chronic recurrence stopped when I was around 20, 21 years old.

  2. johnson catman says

    My sister and I both had our tonsils taken out when we were young. I was maybe eight years old, so my sister would have been about six. We shared a hospital room for the stay overnight. This would have been around 1967. There was no pushback from our general practitioner nor the surgeon. I remember that they told me beforehand that I could have all the ice cream I wanted afterwards. Even that hurt to eat though.

  3. says

    Well, SoCal had gone to the HMO system, so I got stuck with Kaiser Permanente, where you could not choose a doctor, or have a second opinion. It might have been a case of them trying to avoid a surgery. Really don’t know.

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