From Russia, with Love

Dr. Helen Lavretsky had to give up her Soviet citizenship to receive the exit visa that would allow her to leave Russia.
Dr. Helen Lavretsky had to give up her Soviet citizenship to receive the exit visa that would allow her to leave Russia.

This past year has been one of hindsight, during which my research activities — like those of so many others — have been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and I have had plenty of time to reflect upon the meaning and direction of my life. We have been living through unprecedented and difficult times, during which the entire world was forced to pause, rebalance and find new sources of resilience and collective wisdom in order to discover creative solutions to its many problems. The surreal nature of the pandemic and the global lockdown has made so many of us look back and ask, “How did I get here?” followed by, “How do I move forward?” Reflections upon our life choices that have led us to our current place can be very revealing and help to define our next chapter.

I typically say that I was born to become a psychiatrist, in part because my mother was (and still is) a psychiatrist and my father was a neurologist, and in part because I was always drawn to emotional suffering in humans, always trying to understand or help out.

Tibetan Medical and Astral-Science Institute in Dharamsala, India

As a child growing up in Moscow, Russia, I was introduced to scientific books about psychiatric and neurological disorders in children at a very early age — before I turned 10. I was reading books about cerebral palsy and Down syndrome and was strangely attracted to the pictures of young children who looked different, with deformed extremities and other body parts, and who clearly were suffering. My first “patient” was my little friend, a 3-year-old boy who was mute, but somehow, intuitively, I understood his wishes and translated them to the adults. I made it my responsibility to show up daily for him.

And even though later I would go through decades of medical training, the essence of what I do for patients today is no different than what I tried to do for my little friend — understand their suffering, translate it to the world and help to alleviate it.

 During high school, I developed an interest in psychiatric research. When I was 15 years old, I took a summer job working at a psychiatric hospital. I watched patients wandering in the beautiful gardens of the hospital grounds where they worked in the greenhouses as a part of their vocational rehabilitation program — a staple of psychiatry in Russia — and tried to imagine what was going on in their minds. For science classes, I performed hypnosis on my classmates, using a pendulum and techniques I learned in a book, and classified their responses. After reading an old French book about phrenology, I examined my classmates’ skulls and described their personalities based on the topography of their heads.

When I began my medical education in 1979 at the Moscow Medical Institute, I immediately joined a research group in the psychiatry department and subsequently published my first paper, a study of psychiatric manifestation in women with gynecological cancers. I started my psychiatry residency at the Moscow Center of Mental Health, and became interested in geriatric psychiatry. After completing my residency, my husband, young son and I left Russia in November 1988, during the third wave of Russian-Jewish emigration that preceded the fall of the Soviet Union.

Such an enormous transition did not feel drastic at all. In fact, for the first time in my life I felt at home and was quite happy. The melting pot of L.A. was more accepting of me than Russia ever had been. There, I was acutely aware that I was different from most everyone else because I was a Jew, even though I did not really know as a child what being Jewish entailed, since all religious practices were forbidden and to practice even in secret was dangerous. My family had tried to leave the Soviet Union 10 years earlier, but we were denied permission, becoming members of a group of Jews known as refuseniks. My father lost his job in the Ministry of Health because of our desire to emigrate. But when President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began talking together, a brief window opened. I was married, with a 2-year-old child, but we dropped everything and left.

After waiting in Italy for our visas to enter the U.S. and taking English lessons from volunteers who helped Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union, we arrived in Los Angeles, where my cousins had settled in the 1970s, in January 1989.

Dr. Helen Lavretsky

Life in Russia was gray. Los Angeles felt free and open. Soon after I arrived, I discovered the UCLA campus, and its marvelous biomedical library and the botanical gardens, where I spent a lot of time while preparing for the medical boards. In the library, I also found, to my great joy, a book written in Russian by my uncle, who had served as the chief psychiatrist of Russia shortly after World War II and was instrumental in the development of neuropsychiatry based on his work on the war-related brain injuries. It had been expunged from medical libraries in Russia in the 1950s as part of Stalin’s purge against physicians and other scientists following what became known as the “Doctors’ Plot,” when a number of prominent Jewish physicians were accused of conspiracy to assassinate Soviet leaders. It felt very special to me to have found it in the UCLA library.

I wanted to continue my training in psychiatry, and entered UCLA’s residency program at the Sepulveda VA Hospital in the San Fernando Valley, and I later completed UCLA fellowships in geriatric psychiatry and neuroscience. The training I received has opened doors to amazing experiences and successes, both as a clinician and a researcher, as well as to new directions in my professional evolution, such as my growing interest in integrative medicine and mind-body practices like yoga, Tai Chi and meditation for older adults and stressed caregivers.

How different my life would be if I had not chosen some 30 years ago to leave my home country and come here. UCLA has provided the flexible space for my many transitions and transformations. My scientific activities have been a big part of my spiritual journey focused on seeking to understand the true nature of human mental and emotional suffering and resilience, where all life events are assumed to provide valuable lessons and “silver linings” that ensure the individual and collective evolution of consciousness. I look forward to this unprecedented opportunity for the reinvention of ourselves, our world and our scientific innovation, and for the global evolution of consciousness as a result of our collective search for peace and the alleviation of suffering.