Penniless, Bruised and Sick

Georgia’s neediest receive much-needed health care

story and photographs by Molly Corso

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In a waiting room in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, 80-year-old Diana Bogonogedskaya sits patiently to see the doctor.

Without the free medical services and medication offered by the clinic, one of several run by Caritas Georgia, “we would have simply and quietly died,” she says with a plain, matter-of-fact tone. At her side, her husband nods in agreement.

Despite the Georgian government’s recent attempts to reform the nation’s health care system, the Bogonogedskayas – and tens of thousands of other Georgian families – still cannot afford medical care. Caritas’s program represents their only hope for healthier, stronger lives.

Started some 14 years ago with a few bottles of donated medicines and the desire to help, Caritas’s clinic in Tbilisi has blossomed into a sophisticated medical program with branches in three regions of the country that offer primary health care, physical therapy, dental treatment as well as free prescription drugs and home care.

According to Divine Word Father Witold Szulczynski, who directs Caritas Georgia, the clinics focus on people who fall through the cracks – elderly pensioners abandoned by family and friends, the homeless and the displaced – but who deserve to “live as humans and die with dignity.”

The desire to help Georgians living at or below the poverty line (who make up more than a third of Georgia’s total population of 4.6 million) has been at the heart of the mission of Caritas since its establishment in 1994.

At the time, a newly independent Georgia had emerged battered and bruised from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, two territorial conflicts and a bloody civil war. Refugees flooded Tbilisi by the thousands, though little in the pockmarked capital remained extant to accommodate them.

This civil unrest accelerated the unraveling of Georgia’s economy and social welfare system, which had been planned, directed and controlled from Moscow since Soviet Russia absorbed Georgia in 1921.

The country’s health care system – which at one time ranked among the best in the Soviet Union – all but dissolved. From 1990 to 1994, for instance, the real per capita expenditures on health care plummeted to less than $1 from around $13.

The nascent government simply lacked the resources to provide its hospitals, clinics and dispensaries with desperately needed drugs and supplies – much less fund and manage an unwieldy, government-controlled health care system. As a result, most health care facilities closed. Those that stayed open deteriorated as patients paid out-of-pocket for the majority of their health care needs.

Interestingly, the very day the Holy See opened its nunciature (Vatican embassy) and Archbishop Jean-Paul Gobel, then apostolic nuncio, submitted his documents to the government for recognition, then President Eduard Shevardnadze asked the archbishop if Catholics could assist Georgia’s needy – especially its refugees. Assisted by Father Szulczynski, Archbishop Gobel created Caritas Georgia using funds from generous donors in Europe and North America, including CNEWA. At first, Caritas provided food and other basics to Georgia’s needy.

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Tags: Georgia Caring for the Elderly Soviet Union Tbilisi Pensioners