Orthodox America


  A Self-Sacrificing Life, Doctor Ivan Leshko-Popel


     There are many quiet and unsung heroes among the laity, whose Good deeds and spiritual exploits remain largely hidden. May the following life take its rightful place upon a candle stand where it can shed its light abroad in our hearts, warming them with the noble beauty of self-sacrifice.


      In mid-December 1903, in the town of Ekaterinoslav, there died an army doctor, Ivan Vasilievitsh Leshko-Popel, a man not yet old. about 45 years of age. His death shook literally the whole town. Night and day hundreds of people streamed to his coffin, and a great multitude gathered for his funeral.

     "Just let me have a last look at the dear one, al least through the window," begged an old workman on the street who was too feeble to squeeze his way into the house.

    On the day of the burial, a crowd of poor folk, almost paupers, awaited the bringing out of the body. Wreathes were carried out of the house: porcelein wreathes, wreathes of flowers, metal wreathes, wreathes from his medical colleagues, wreathes from fellow army personnel, wreathes from grateful patients.

     "And what about us?" asked the poor. "After all, he was our doctor. Are we going to bid him farewell empty-handed? We should also give him a wreath."

    Someone took off his cap and threw into it a five kopeck piece. Dirty, gnarled hands reached into pockets and "precious" coins showered into the cap: kopecks, two kopeck pieces, three kopeck pieces. It was counted up: two rubies and some change. They went to the store.

"Give us a wreath for our dear doctor."

     No luck; there was nowreath for two rubles. The prices were much higher. The proprietor came out.

"For whom is the wreath?"

"For Ivan Vasilievitch."

    "Give them a nice wreath," the proprietor ordered. "And inscribe it as they request? To our dear doctor, from his grateful poor people."

     The doctor-asectic Ivan Vasilievitch Leshko-Popel was born September 5, 1860 in the town of Rogachov in the Mogilev proyince. He was educated in the Mogilev secondary school, then in the natural history branch of the Petersburg University, and finally in the army medical academy. In all his years as a student Ivan was considered an "odd fellow," an impression which he continued to ei ye to ordinary, insensitive people, even after his professional reputation was established.

     His classmates could not remember that the young Vanya ever hit, teased or otherwise offended anyone. On the contrary, he would always seek out and befriend the weaker ones. If someone was a slow learner who tried hard but couldn't manage his lessons, Popel would try to help him. "Please, let's study together," he would say to one of those having difficulty. "I find it easier." And he would make it seem as if the slow learner were granting him a favor.

    In the upper classes, Popel became a real tutor. But even here his oddness revealed itself. While the other tutors received expensive, well-paid lessons, Ivan Popel arranged to give lessons for next to nothing. And on top of that he spent 3 to 4 hours a week tutoring free of charge.

     "What's a poor lad to do?" explained Popel abashed when they laughed at his tutorial earnings. "If a father can't afford an extra 10 rubles a month, must the student therefore lose a year? Time, my friend, is more precious to the poor than to the rich."

     At the university Ivan Vasilievitch gave lessons with the same financial results: he expended a great deal of time but earned little.

    "Riches carry many temptations," he would joke good-naturedly. "Once you begin to receive lot of money, all kinds of whims enter your head. To receive less is better for the Soul."

From his meager earnings Ivan Vasilievitch often helped his poorer classmates.

    "Popel, you're rich, a capitalist," his classmates laughed. "You always have extra money." "A rich man is not he that has a lot of money," Ivan Vasilievitch jested in return, "but he that spends little."

    At home during summer vacations, Popel was also forever taking care of the poor; he'd invite some ragged beggar in, then he'd discover some poor old sick woman and busy himself with sending her to a hospital; then he'd treat some children with rolls. Sometimes they would deceive him. "Well, what of it?" he would say calmly. "Better that I be deceived in my opinion of who is poor, than to fail a poor man who has hopes that I'll be able to help him."

    When Leshko-Popel entered medical school it became even more difficult for him financially. There was no time for private tutoring. All his time was taken by his studies. There was a wide range of subjects and the examinations were tough. The students used to complain that the professors were too demanding, but Popel was in favor of strictness. "If I were a professor," he said, "I would drive my medical students without any mercy. For goodness' sake, a doctor is entrusted with the most precious thing there is--a man's life. What leniency can there be here where the most exact and thorough knowledge is requited.'

    As a student of the fourth class he found himself a "follower." Under his care in the clinic there lay a gravely ill woman who worked as a cook. There was little hope in her recovery. The patient herself sensed this and was becoming worn out. "I don't feel sorry for myself, but for my son," she cried. "He's nine years old. What's to become of him?"

Popel was touched by the sick woman's grief. He comforted her, questioned her, and one day said: "Would it be easier for you if you knew your little boy, was taken care of?"

"My dear, yes, then I would die with a prayer on my lips and peace in my heart."

"Then don't fear, Auntie Irene, I'll take your Kostya."

"Are you serious?" the sick woman could  not believe her ears." Word of honor."

"May God bless you. Now I no longer need to fear death. I trust you and am at peace concerning my son."

     The following day towards evening the sick woman died, and the next morning Ivan Vasillevitch took Kostya home to his apartment. The boy slept on top of a trunk in Popel's small, crowded room; for his board Ivan Vasilievitch scraped up 6 rubles out of his nearly empty pocket.

     After graduating from the academy, Popel was assigned doctor of the reserve battalion in Ekaterinoslav where he remained until his death 15 years later. It was a time for him of ceaseless labors; he knew neither rest, nor days off, nor, if you will, close friends. At seven in the morning he would begin receiving patients. Poor people, workers, blacksmiths, locksmiths and other tradesmen, old women from the market place, washer women, poor Jews--all crowded to see him. Leshko-Popel would examine each one carefully, give a word of encouragement, write out a prescription, often giving them some medicine there on the spot.

     After the clinic he would begin his round of house calls. With rapid strides the slight figure of the doctor would traverse the town from one end to the other. The thin coat was rarely buttoned--no time. The day was short and there were many sick people--and all in various parts of the town and on the outskirts. Later a bicycle was found, and the same thin coughing figure began to fly about town with the wind.

    "Ivan Vasilievitch," one of his patients somewhere would say of an evening, "won't you stay and dine with us?"

    "I have no time. But could I have a little something to take along with me?" asked the doctor hurriedly, not having had a bite to eat all day.

    One of Ivan Vasilievitch's regular patients would not let him leave her before he had eaten a piece of beef-steak and had drunk a cup of coffee or tea. "If you don't feed the poor dear, he’Il forget about food altogether," she would say.

     Ivan Vasilievitch returned home late, in a state of total exhaustion. He went to bed and slept like a log. But often during the night the door bell would ring; some poor peasant from across the valley had called asking for Ivan Vasilievitch. Other doctors living in closer proximity had declined to come at this hour, but the worn-out Popel could not refuse; he got up and went. In the morning at seven o'clock the reception of patients began again, and another round of visits. And so it was for fifteen years.

    Once, when the air , was fragrant with the bloom of spring, some acquaintances met Popel in the town park. He was passing through. 'Let's sit down, doctor."

    A smile ran across the pale fade of the tired doctor. "Yes, it would be nice to sit down and rest." But he glanced at his watch and hurried on his way. "I have no time. Today I have many sick people to attend."

     Ivan Vasilievitch had a large practice also among the wealthy. Here he made good money and could have made himself quite a fortune had he so desired. But he could not. Everything he earned from the rich he gave to the poor.

      There came to see him an impoverished schoolgirl with an emaciated green face. Anemia. Popel prescribed iron pills. "Take before eating."

"Can they be taken before tea?"

"God forbid. Tea and iron--make ink." "What's to be done?" asked the skinny girl in bewilderment. "Mama and I never eat dinnor; we just drink tea with rusks."

     The doctor gave her a packet. "Give this to your mother for some meat." The packet contained three rubles. And for the next two months the widowed seamstress and her daughter received a package of meat daily from the butcher. "It's paid for," they were told.

      Once Ivan Vasilievitch was called to a blacksmith’s dwelling on the edge of town. A family of seven. The smith was afflicted with rheumatism, the only laborer in the family. They lived in a hut; it was cold and damp-moisture gathered on the walls in rivulets. What hope could there be of curing rheumatism here? But they couldn't afford to leave. In three days a dry apartment was found, a half year's rest paid in advance--Dr. Popel's arrangement.

Ivan Vasilievitch Leshko-Popel was no ordinary doctor; his healing arts were directed as much towards the soul as towards the body. He knew how to comfort people, and he was a guardian angel to all the poor. There was nothing he would not do for the sake of alleviating another's suffering.

      A young girl across town was dying of tuberculosis. She was beyond medical help. Nevertheless, Popel stopped in to see her every day, warding off despair and bringing sunshine to her last days. "Why do you waste your time in coming to see us?" asked the mother, fully aware of her daughter's condition. "If it brings some hope, some joy to the sick, surely it is not in vain," answered the doctor.

      Finally it was clear that the candle was burning itself out. Friends persuaded the worn-out doctor to rest himself at one of their country homes. He came--and at once discovered some sick people in the nearby villages. He began treating them, busier than ever. "Go with God , Ivan Vasilievitch," said his friends. "It's better for you in town."

     Constantly forcing himself towards the good, the doctor-ascetic soon reached the end of his earthly sojourn. He fell ill and disregarded his condition until he collapsed-when it was too late. Even the special medicine sent for by his colleagues could not help.

    He received the Holy Mysteries. "Here is the end. Everything has been done for the final journey. Death. If I'm sad, it's not because I'm dying, but because there is so much left to be done." He smiled weakly, then turned to his children:

     "Live in harmony together. Love one another. Take care of your mother. Lighten her load, and help others as much as you can, that their life, too, be made easier."

     He said nothing to his wife, but simply looked at her with a gaze which conveyed a gentle love for one who had cast warmth and light on the difficult path he had chosen.

    That is all there is to the life of this simple doctor. It is a touching story of a profoundly good man, and what is best of all-it is true.

    Friends and admirers of the doctor erected a handsome memorial in his honor. This is good. But it would be better still if we could preserve even a small piece of Ivan Vasilievitch Popel in our hearts, and somewhere, somehow manifest the spirit of this self sacrificing doctor-ascetic, for therein lies a rare beauty which can adorn our souls in this life and lead us into the higher realities of the world to come. 

From a longer account in Russian Ascetics of the 19th and 20th Centuries (in Russian), Holy Trinity Monastery, 1966.

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