Where weddings can bring sickness before health
Each year, hundreds of Ukrainian newlyweds and their guests need treatment for food poisoning - victims of over-the-top hospitality
It was meant to be the happiest day of her life. Instead, Yulia Yukhimets' wedding ended with her being rushed to hospital, weak, pale and hooked to an IV - together with nearly 60 guests.
"I have always wanted all of this, but look how it ended," Yukhimets, 20, a slim and shy blonde, said from her hospital in the town of Ruzhyn, where she was taken in an ambulance from a nearby village this month.
Every year, hundreds of Ukrainian newlyweds and their guests need medical treatment after suffering food poisoning at wedding banquets. They are victims of Ukraine's cult of traditional big wedding hospitality, which calls for treating guests to more food than they can eat and the hosts can safely prepare. Most often, the poisonings take place because the home-made food at village weddings is not properly refrigerated while it is prepared in huge batches over several days.
After registering their marriage in a civil ceremony, the wedding party headed for the first day of celebrations at the bride's home in Nemyryntsi, a small village in central Ukraine, surrounded by corn and sunflower fields. A large tent went up in Yukhimets' garden and about 150 guests sat down to toast the bride, a primary school teacher, and her groom, Oleksandr, 29, a mobile phone salesman. In line with tradition, the tent was covered with birch branches and a maroon carpet was hung behind the newlyweds' table, decorated with an Orthodox Christian icon.
Yulia's mother, Valentyna Hrabchak, was in charge of whipping up the once-in-a-lifetime event - one that local custom dictated should last at least three days with a minimum of 35 dishes, not counting desserts.
She slaughtered a home-grown pig two days before the wedding and summoned 20 girlfriends to help with preparations. Together they served up a colossal feast, all home-made.
The food was delicious and the party was fun, complete with a lemon-eating contest, traditional Ukrainian songs and a wedding dance. The next day, Yulia and Oleksxandr were wed in a church and the celebration moved to the groom's house. But already by the afternoon, many started feeling unwell. First, suspicion fell on men drinking too much horilka, or Ukrainian vodka. But after the bride, the guests and even the musicians suffered fever, stomach aches, vomiting and diarrhoea, it became clear that something else was to blame.
Yulia was rushed to the Ruzhyn central district hospital in her pyjamas, having just changed out of her wedding dress. She and others were given antibiotics and intravenous drips. Some were in such bad shape that they were carried on stretchers and rushed into emergency care, among them a two-year-old boy. Fourteen of those who fell ill were children.
There were so many wedding patients that the hospital quickly ran out of beds and drugs. Some patients were put on trolleys in the corridors of the hospital's infections unit; a rich villager donated money and medications to help fellow townsfolk. A week after being admitted, most patients were feeling better and some were being discharged.
Hrabchak, who did not get sick, blamed the eggs she bought at a local store and used in most of the dishes. She said the food was all home-made and properly stored in refrigerators and a cold cellar.
Mykola Zozulya, the hospital's head doctor, said that lab tests showed that the infection was caused by salmonella. He frowns upon lavish weddings, saying preparing and eating so much food is a health hazard: "It's our Ukrainian mentality: we want for the table to collapse under the weight of the food."