Abandoned hospital belies state of health care system
As you drive up the progressively deteriorating road through the Balkan mountains the scenery changes. From the flats of the Lower Balkan fields northwards you enter an increasingly menacing landscape of steep hills and rocks, with what is known as the Trans-Balkan Railway line (cutting the Balkan mountain range from Stara Zagora in the south to Gorna Oryahovitsa in the north) meandering alongside a tiny river. Then, about 10 miles north of Dabovo, you take a steep road that was once asphalt. Eventually, you end up by a compound of several massive four-storey interconnected buildings that locals will proudly describe as what used to be the "biggest pulmonology hospital in the Balkans." In the past tense.
The buildings, apparently abandoned, do not bespeak a hospital. But when you enter through some broken glass door and start walking the endless corridors you end up in some fully equipped radiology rooms, next to what a tinted glass plate announces as the Men's Ward Canteen. A library that once had at least 2,000 books for the patients to read now sports just gaping book cupboards and some old magazines. Tons of hospital records, including sensitive staff pay slips as well as private medical records and X-rays, belonging to still living people, lie scattered on the floor. The experience is reminiscent both of a Stephen King novel and of Pripyat, the Soviet town that was evacuated within hours after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. Only this is not the USSR, but Bulgaria, an EU member state. And there was no nuclear blast anywhere in Bulgaria. And there was no need for instant evacuation...
The fact is that what once was a major consumption hospital died with a whimper, not with bang. It did so as late as 2015, when Boyko Borisov, Bulgaria's strongman leader, was in power. The final shut-down order was given by his health minister, Petar Moskov, himself a medical doctor. No effort was made to save at least some of the still functioning medical equipment. Nobody was interested in the lab tubes, the emergency cabinets, the X-ray machines, the operating theatre equipment, the plaster and the band-aids. No one cared about the books.
Urban exploration, or UE as it is often abbreviated, is a relatively new phenomenon in Bulgaria. Various groups as well as single individuals have attempted penetrating abandoned buildings such as the bath houses in Bankya and Gorna Banya, both near central Sofia. Sites of UE interest include abandoned and forlorn factories, cinemas, schools and various public buildings. Most were erected during the Communist period and forsaken in the 1990s when Bulgaria attempted to modernise itself into a liberal democracy. The Communist Party House on top of Buzludzha mountain, featured numerous times in this journal as well as on the cover of our book, A Guide to Communist Bulgaria (2020), has become an internationally well-known symbol of Bulgaria, at least in the eyes of the increasing number of building hackers and mousers. Often prepared to risk their health and even lives by venturing in what is sometimes trespassing into abandoned sites, urban explorers are an inquisitive lot. They are set on going to great lengths to find new locations to explore. And Bulgaria in the 21st century offers plenty of opportunities. Its abundance of latterday ruins, including former Warsaw Pact military installations, erstwhile Air Force bases, silos and runways, factories that have terminated production of anything from city buses to attar-of-roses oil, schools that have not been entered by children for at least 20 years and forlorn train stations that fell victim to the state-encouraged coach traffic, is at least enticing for those who dare to take the challenge.
Except for the logistics, one major hurdle modern urban explorers in Bulgaria face is in fact the almost total lack of information about the sites. They are not in any tourist brochure, town and village authorities will not speak about them, many of the locals will be wary when approached with questions even if you were to speak Bulgarian without an accent. Few people have heard of the Ravnets Air Force base (where current Bulgarian President Gen Rumen Radev used to serve) or the Modern Theatre cinema right in the middle of Sofia, this country's first electric cinema and a monument of culture, now a private property and in ruins for over 25 years. Mystery still enshrouds the Panitsite top secret military facility where Soviet personnel reportedly serviced an assortment of nuclear head missiles. Or of the abandoned International Youth Centre in Primorsko at the southern Bulgarian Black Sea coast.
The Specialised Hospital for After- and Long-Term Pulmonary Treatment at Raduntsi, as its official name was, in many ways belies not only the way public health care was handled under Communism but also how this country's post-Communists ignored and actively destroyed what might have been put to better use.
The first medical facility at Raduntsi was founded by none lesser than Bulgarian King Boris III, in the 1930s. Construction started in 1939, but was interrupted by the war. In the 1950s the Communist Party government resumed the effort. The Raduntsi hospital came into being in 1955. It was supposed to treat as many as 700 in-patients.
The first trouble for the Raduntsi hospital started in the late 1990s when the government of Ivan Kostov implemented its health care system reforms. The idea at the time was to convert Bulgarian hospital and medical facilities into "commercial companies" to be funded by a national Health Insurance Agency. Those that could break even and make a profit under the new rules survived. Those that did not were shut down and went to seed.
The Raduntsi hospital had patients well into the 2010s when its electricity was cut off over unpaid bills. Locals still remember an electrician who tried to connect some rooms to the power grid of the nearby village to ensure the remaining patients did not have to live in the dark.
Since Kostov's reforms, the Raduntsi hospital, which was the only Bulgarian medical facility to treat a variety of rare pulmonary diseases including extrapulmonary tuberculosis, amassed other debts as well, including unpaid wages to staff and outside contractors.
The end came in the mid-2010s when Dr Petar Moskov, one of Boyko Borisov's more eccentric ministers, was in charge of the Public Health Ministry. Moskov, who in a TV interview notoriously misplaced the Raduntsi hospital by a hundred miles, will probably go down in history by what many see as the rather unconventional attempt to have Bulgarians fingerprinted to get medical treatment to make sure they had paid their social security contributions. The idea, which was turned into a law, was later abandoned as it was declared illegal by the courts. But about half a million leva was already spent on procuring the fingerprinting equipment. What has happened to that equipment – and to the cash spent on it – will probably remain a mystery forever. This happened as late as 2015.
In 2021, the Raduntsi hospital is still owned by the Public Health Ministry. It has made a few attempts to sell it. The asking price was about half a million leva (250,000 euros). The bid failed as no prospective buyer showed up.
Some local residents led by a computer specialist, who was born in the Raduntsi village and now works from a home office there, make some efforts to at least prevent vandals and thieves from penetrating the ghostly ruin. Valentin Nedkov is usually very happy to tell, in English or German, the story of the Raduntsi Hospital, where his family used to work. He will also take you on a guided tour to what once was a major medical facility that has become a part of Bulgaria's unhappy post-Communist history.
Urban exploration remains very far off the radar of any Bulgarian state agency. The government of Ukraine, for instance, is making loads of euros on letting private companies operate guided trips into Chernobyl. It has also turned major Soviet ballistic missile installations and an underground submarine base into museums. Citing safety reasons, however, the Bulgarians keep Buzludzha under lock and key. And anyone will be hard-pressed to finger lesser UE sites like the one at Raduntsi.
Important note: We do not encourage any accompanied or unaccompanied visits to the former Raduntsi hospital. Doing so may be hazardous to your health. By entering you may be jeopardising your own life and/or the life of others. This article is meant for entertainment purposes only and is by no means to be interpreted as a guide into what is the property of a Bulgarian state agency.
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners