Science and Technology

Notes from Underground

Mine over Matter: The Soligorsk clinic is 420 meters (1,378 feet) below the Earth's surface. The mine's healing powers are attributed to the absence of microorganisms and the positive effects of the salt-saturated air. Patients undergo treatment for asthma and other respiratory diseases (Photo: Yuri Ivanov)

The door closed with a clang, and the cage began its slow crawl downward. It stopped at a depth of 420 meters.

After several minutes of walking, we reached our destination. For the absolute majority of people, mines are associated with penal servitude and the hard labor of miners. They certainly have nothing to do with medical rehabilitation. Well, that point of view is all wrong. Having spent time in the mines owned by Belarus Potassium underneath the city of Soligorsk, a Novye Izvestiya correspondent became convinced of the healing powers possessed by a unique speleological clinic.

There are only a few underground vaults in the world that have been rendered inhabitable. In the middle of Australia, underneath the scorching desert, there is an entire town named Coober Pedy. It owes its origin to a field extremely rich in opals. From time immemorial, people have been digging underground in search of all sorts of minerals and other treasures of the earth—but for the purpose of medical treatment?

Speleo-therapy [the use of caves and mines to cure diseases] received official recognition rather recently. At the end of World War II, the German population near Klutert Cave [in western Germany] hid underground from Soviet aircraft attacks. It was later discovered that the underground environment not only saved them from the bombs but also, in an astonishing way, cured many bronchial-asthma sufferers. This fact did not go unnoticed by doctors, many Belarusan ones included.

It was still a long way off, however, before the clinic in Soligorsk came into existence. Naturally, not every cave possesses a healing effect. It was thought for a long time that the local area was unsuitable for rehabilitative purposes. Anatoli Bogdanovich, who later became the clinic’s permanent chief medical officer, was able to prove the suitability of the potassium mines for the treatment of bronchial asthma, chronic bronchitis, and other respiratory-tract diseases.

I ask him what the primary secret is of speleo-therapy. “It’s a combination of several favorable factors, including isolation from the effect of the sun,” he answers.

Even if you are in good health, you can feel that the mountain range creates a kind of screen, protecting people from cosmic and man-made radiation. The underground vault has its own peculiar freshness, which can apparently be explained by the almost complete absence of microbes.

Besides, we all know from childhood that one of the most efficient means of treating angina and the common cold is gargling with salt. In the mines owned by Belarus Potassium, salt is literally dissolved in the air. You walk a hundred meters and can sense its distinctive taste on your lips.

Whether it is summer or winter up above is of no consequence. In the speleo-clinic, it is 16 degrees Celsius [60.8 degrees Fahrenheit] year-round. Patients stay in the surface building, descending to the mine for just six to 12 hours, depending on whether they have been prescribed the daytime or nighttime treatment. The former, though shorter in duration, is considered more effective. As the clinic can accommodate only 120 people at a time, those lucky enough to obtain admission for treatment at the clinic are prepared to take their treatment at any time of the day.

In all fairness, we should note that the nighttime treatment has its own special charms. A lot of people who suffer from bronchopulmonary difficulties have a heightened level of sexual activity (at least at the clinic). Once, after lights out, the medical staff caught a couple on a pingpong table, using the equipment for purposes for which it obviously was not designed. Mankind’s stronger half is in an advantageous position, since women predominate among the underground clients.

“Do the miners wander in here after work?” I ask Valentin Polyansky, a Belarus Potassium official in charge of the clinic who accompanies us on this tour. “Well, what is the lock for, then?” he says, grinning.

Before entering the clinic, the Novye Izvestiya correspondent had to pull special covers over his feet. A sterile environment should be maintained throughout the entire 3,500 square meters of space occupied by the clinic. For that same reason smoking and wearing perfume are strictly forbidden.There are two levels of wards there: One level is situated in the potassium bed; the other is in the rock-salt mass. In this way, Soligorsk’s physicians can move their patients around depending on the latters’ individual requirements.

That is not the only trump card the Belarusan clinic possesses that sets it apart from similar clinics abroad. One more distinctive feature is the treatment of the air piped into the clinic. Initially, all the harmful impurities are removed from the air; that is, the microclimate is equalized. Also, to prevent the spread of infection, each ward features an individual ventilation system. Air containing germs is immediately removed from circulation.

In all other respects, the ward furnishings can be called ascetic: hospital beds, night stands, and lamps. At bedtime, the electricity has to be turned off so that the patients will go to sleep instead of wandering around the clinic. On the whole, doctors welcome active behavior in patients: Along with the pingpong table already mentioned, there is a volleyball court and a discothèque. But everything in moderation.

According to doctors, 100 percent of patients report improvement of their condition after treatment. Sometimes the recovery is complete; sometimes there is a dramatic decrease in asthma attacks and other symptoms. In order to maintain results, chronic patients ought to undergo annual treatment over a three-year period. Now and then a stay in the mine yields an unexpected side effect: There have been cases in which psoriasis has disappeared. The vault’s beneficial influence—the elimination of the adverse effects of the outdoors—can be observed on everyone. Few miners would otherwise live to be 50 years old.

Nevertheless, it is not that easy to get into the clinic, because, as we’ve said, there are a limited number of vacancies. Economic circumstances have forced doctors to seek commercial patients from abroad. Thus, in the near future, the captain of a fishing boat is coming from Holland to improve his health. Russians can also head underground by this route.

Some time ago, construction on the clinic’s second phase commenced. Alas, it had to be suspended because of a shortage of funds. This promising project is now awaiting investors, who do not drop by the mine often.

“Well, did you look at everything you wanted?” Valentin Polyansky asks us. Having received an affirmative reply, he uses a special explosion-proof telephone to find out when the cage will make its next trip up. We return, licking the salt from our lips.