In 1992 Vice President and Mrs. Dan Quayle delivered a C-141 airplane full of medical supplies to Latvia from the United States through Project HOPE. Drs. Christopher and Bertram Zarins were on hand to help with the organization of the project.
Plastic gloves, sutures, medical equipment to monitor blood pressure, and a sterile operating room are commonplace in the United States. But during the Soviet Union’s occupation of Latvia, these medical supplies and equipment were rare and outdated, if available at all.
Disposable items in the West such as gloves, suction tubing, and IV needles had to be sterilized and reused in Latvia. Though they were sterilized, the technique used to sterilize items was a technique that we would never imagine using in a Western hospital. For instance, before operations, hands were sterilized in a communal bowl of strong bleach solution. Gloves were “sterilized” before and after operations by washing the gloves with sterile brushes and soap from an ordinary soap dish used by everyone before and after operations.
Standard but necessary pharmaceuticals such as anesthetics were in need and therefore used sparingly. Patients were given the smallest amount still considered safe and allowing the procedure to be completed. In most cases patients awoke before the last sutures are placed. These were a few of the horrors of Latvian care.
Aside from the frustration of not having proper medical supplies, the physicians, nurses, and health care workers were people that had been well-educated and were aware of what was needed in order to perform needed procedures and care for patients. But as well as a lack of medical supplies, information on new medical procedures and techniques was also unavailable. Libraries did not have up-to-date journals and texts necessary for medical staff members to update their knowledge of methods and equipment. These people were desperate for opportunities to learn about current medical procedures, equipment, and methods.