Hospital of the Queen's Heart by Ileana, Princess of Romania
It was a great day for me when we made up those sixty fine new beds for the first time, with our own sheets. The wards were large and square, with whitewashed walls and dark stained floors. In the windows we hung gay orange curtains. There were ten beds in each ward, covered tidily with tucked-in brown blankets, each embroidered with a big white anchor.
Why an anchor? Well, when I was young and full of ideas and ambitions I had taken up navigation. I wanted to become a sailor, but the nearest thing I could get to a ship was a yacht of my own. The authorities insisted on my always being accompanied by an officer, but this did not suit me. I wanted to take the responsibility of sailing my little yacht myself, so I made up my mind to study navigation. I passed my examination, and before I was nineteen I found myself a Master Mariner. Thereupon, I had proudly taken as my crest an anchor with the letter "I" on each side of it—"I" for my own name, Beam, and "I" for Isprava, which was the name of my boat.
Since, in the beginning, part of the equipment of the hospital belonged to the Red Cross, I had to mark the things that were mine to identify them, so I used my own crest to do so. This crest I afterwards added to the monogram of the hospital.
It is a custom in Eastern Orthodox countries to have an icon, or holy picture, hanging on the wall of every room in the house. These icons are painted, crudely or exquisitely, according to their period and the country of their origin, and sometimes they are fronted with a beautifully worked gold or silver or brass mask, cut out to reveal portions of the painting underneath.
Accordingly, each room in the hospital had its icon, the wards, the private rooms, and even the kitchen and operating room. In the waiting room an especially lovely, very large icon, fronted with gold, portrayed the Madonna and her Child in soft colors darkened with age. It had belonged to my mother. Before it was hung the usual candela—a vigil light in a wrought-brass container, suspended by thin chains from the ceiling.
The soldiers, and later the peasants, loved this icon, and often they would turn to it even in the middle of a conversation, cross themselves, murmur a prayer, and turn back again. At night when the building was dark and quiet, this spot seemed the heart of the hospital with its dim, never-failing light, and the moving shadows it cast as it swung slightly to and fro seemed to have life and entity of their own.
We were ready to take in the first wounded on the eighth of September, and that was, you can imagine, a happy and momentous day for us! You remember I told you at the beginning of this story about the hasty arrangements I had to make to get the wounded away from Brasov, and that I had accepted the offer of one of the priests in the neighboring village of Bran-Poarta to put the patients up in a schoolhouse which belonged to the church. But now it was the fall; soon the schoolhouse would have to be vacated for the returning children. My hospital was ready in time for us to evacuate the school so that it could be made ready for the children's return.
On a lovely early autumn day, when the leaves of the birch trees were beginning to turn into molten gold and the finger of fall was touching the forests with sharp color here and there, we transported our wounded from the little schoolhouse in Bran-Poarta down the valley to the new hospital. We used all the cars and carts and trucks we could gather together. It was a happy, noisy procession along the dusty road. We all shared an exciting sense of adventure and we all felt, too, that we were going home.
Our patients were frankly delighted with their new abode. They found it comfortable and airy, and they were particularly excited about the bathrooms and the hot and cold running water. Colonel Serbu, of course, was on hand to help us, and he beamed as we all bustled about to establish ourselves before night came. But alas, at the end of that wonderful day he gave me the melancholy news that he would have to leave the community soon, because the new regime (we were already under Communist occupation) had decided that he was not the right person to manage the factory and had ordered him to go to Bucharest. There, they said, was a much better job for him—a job which, of course, he never got. Eventually he disappeared—I was never able to find out where. But wherever he may be, he has my gratitude, for I shall never forget all the wonderful things he did for us. Through him, certainly, my hospital came into being.
I had planned to have our nurses' uniforms conventional gray cotton with white aprons and caps. But no gray material was to be had anywhere. I consulted with the generous textile manufacturer, with whose co-operation Heaven had sent us our wonderful sheets, but he had no gray cotton at all. He ruefully showed me all the cottons he had—bolts of vivid brick-red, rich royal blue, bright yellow the color of egg yolk. But no gray, no blue, not even a quiet stripe. I stood and looked helplessly at them, feeling quite thwarted. It was not a new feeling, and as usual my mind was running around, scenting a compromise.
Suddenly I began to visualize these strong-colored cottons made up as nurses' uniforms. Why not? Why gray or blue necessarily? There was no law about it.
So, moving busily through our wards with their white walls and fluttering orange curtains, graduate nurses were known by their brick-red uniforms, voluminous white aprons with bibs and prim turnover collars held with the hospital's monogram pin. We wore white coifs on our heads. The student nurses—there were always four to six of them—had royal-blue uniforms with huge aprons, bibs and collars, and they wore starched Dutchlike caps which covered their hair. They wore no hospital pin; these were ceremoniously awarded them after two years of service, or if they had performed an especially noteworthy deed.
The ward maids wore yellow uniforms and white aprons without bibs, and they tied yellow kerchiefs over their heads.
I wish I could paint for you the cheerfulness and gay color of those wards, especially later on when our window boxes were built and filled with nasturtiums and geraniums growing in such profusion that the flowers were half inside, half outside the windows, and when the American Red Cross sent us blankets of brightly colored woolen patchwork, warm and practical and merry beyond description. The soldiers loved them—they impudently called their wards "the girls' dormitories."
Our beginning was very modest, despite our pride and exultation over the new building which looked so grand to us. There were only forty wounded for us to take care of, and our staff to begin with was certainly as small as it could possibly be, even for so few men.
In October, Max came to serve as resident doctor. That is not his real name, for I know he is still working somewhere in Romania, and if he should be identified as having worked with me it would go hard with him.
Max was still a medical student when he came to Bran. He was an awfully nice red-haired, blue-eyed lad, and I was delighted when I learned that he was detailed to work with us. I met him first at the Red Cross hospital at Brasov, and we were great friends from the start.
He had the most extraordinary sense of humor I have ever known. To him, everything that happened was a joke. Every situation, no matter how serious, had a laugh in it somewhere. I do not mean by that that Max was a callous person; indeed, far from it. It was only that he was an unquenchable optimist, a person so happy that he must constantly find an outlet for his good spirits. He was passionately devoted to the calling he had chosen, and I don't think I ever heard him complain of fatigue or knew him to do anything for himself if he had not first done all that was possible for his patients.
No matter how early I arrived at the hospital in the morning, Max managed to be there before me. We thought alike; our minds kept apace. Any new idea I conceived for the improvement of or for an addition to our equipment or system he would catch up with enthusiasm. Max seemed to know at once what I wanted and worked with me, persistently and with imagination, to bring it into being.
Then there was my dear Noelle. Really, we two ran the hospital together at first. Noelle was my own age, the mother of three children, a refugee herself from Moldavia. She was a perpetually busy person, dark, quick and intense in her ways. She had alert, bright eyes that observed everything, and a wonderfully curved large nose which gave purpose to her face and to her continual state of busyness. She was a splendid co-worker; having a much more orderly mind than I have, she was better at organizing things, so I left all that to her. She was my chief help and source of counsel, for she had had a lot of experience —she had run a dispensary in her own village.
Maria was the cook, and her daughter, Anna, helped in the wards. They were Hungarian refugees. Maria, short, round and an intensely loyal worker, saw disaster in everything, but even in the face of imminent catastrophe, she saw to it that her people were fed. Maria was a born cook. She had truly the cook's equivalent of a gardener's green thumb. She loved to make things look nice, even when they were composed of odds and ends of leftover leftovers. For even though we were in the country, where food could be grown and raised, the hospital was to know lean and meager days.
Maria's daughter, Anna, was twenty-three, pretty in a dull, rather vapid way, without mentality enough to be a nurse. So she worked in the wards as a maid, and later I put her in charge of our precious linen. She was orderly and unexpectedly accurate in her handling of it, which made her very valuable to us.
Later, Anna married Iosef, one of our soldier patients who became our courier and handy man, driving a horse and wagon or a truck into the mountains for wood, or to my farm beyond Brasov for supplies. He did errands and repairs and the endless small jobs around the place.
Ioana, the hospital midwife, came to us in late September of 1944, to fill our need for a night nurse. She was about twenty-six, dark, pretty, and very petite. The largest thing about her, we used to say, were her eyes. They were enormous and extremely expressive. She needed no words—her eyes spoke everything for her. She was a fine girl of upper peasant stock, well-educated, and she had had her midwife training in the medical school at the University of Bucharest.
I had met her at the Brasov Red Cross hospital in the spring of 1944. We both were nursing there, and that same dreadful summer she helped me to evacuate the wounded to Bran-Poarta because of the bombings. Finally, when my own hospital in Bran got under way a few months later, she came to us. I was completely delighted to have her on my staff, not only because we had formed a sincere liking for each other, but because she was a person whom I could trust and rely upon. I slept in peace, nights, after Ioana took over the night nurse's duties.
But later, Ginia arrived, and Ioana's skill was far more needed in the maternity ward than in the night watches, so she became the official hospital midwife, and Ginia became our night nurse.
Ginia came to us in 1945. I had met her also at the Red Cross hospital in Brasov, and she asked if she could come to Bran to work for me. I was delighted to have her, for she was well-trained and I desperately needed good nurses.
She was dark and well-built. In Romanian we say "are pe vino 'ncoace"—she was full of the "come-hither." I remember once watching her cross the hospital courtyard. Quite unconsciously she carried her head high and proudly, her back was erect and relaxed, and her hips swung in that so-revealing movement of a woman which she can neither hide nor disguise nor change. It bespeaks her and proclaims her. I remember thinking, quite as clinically as one regards a specimen through a microscope, "Ginia is more female than any other woman I've ever seen!"
Later I learned her story. She had met her husband in a hospital in Bucharest before the war, where she had nursed him after he had been injured in an airplane accident. He had been blind for six weeks, and during that time he fell in love with his nurse, just from hearing her voice and because of her gentle care of him. When his bandages were finally removed and he looked at her for the first time, he said with perfect assurance, "You look exactly as I knew you would!'
They became engaged, but within a short time he was imprisoned for political reasons, and they lost each other for two years. As soon as he was released from prison he traveled to Bucharest, where Ginia lived, and appeared unannounced in the midst of a party which her family was giving. To the extreme pleasure of the startled guests and to Ginia's own astonishment, he took her into his arms without ceremony or preliminaries, kissed her and demanded:
"Ginia, how soon will you marry me?"
The wedding was immediate, but their happiness was short-lived, for the war came and he was drawn into the army. She nursed in military and Red Cross hospitals. When the Russian armies flowed into Romania in August 1944, her husband disappeared. Many of our soldiers did so—they were taken prisoner and sent to slave labor camps, or they made their escapes in some way or other and completely vanished.
Ginia was desperate when she first came to us. She settled grimly and energetically to work, welcoming the difficulties and hard physical toil of the hospital as a means of bearing her anxiety and mental suffering. Her patients adored her. She was an excellent nurse, capable of much responsibility, and she had a quick tongue, witty, sometimes even with a sting in it, although she was entirely without real malice. Her soft-spoken, brief jollity stabbed light in the long nights of pain and lifted monotony while her skilled hands brought comfort.
However, five persons and myself constituted our permanent staff at first. Girls from the village came in sometimes to help us, and, although I could not count upon their regular help, I was extremely grateful for the few hours they were able to give. We also had the help of several ladies from Bucharest who had been spending the summer in the mountains away from the heat and, more especially, away from the bombs which during the summer months had rained down upon our capital.
For a time we had to be content with the nurses who were sent us in rotation from the hospital in Brasov, upon which my hospital was dependent. We had four at a time and they were changed each week; some were skilled and trustworthy, others, unfortunately, were less so. I never could depend upon them since they were changed so frequently, and they had no chance, themselves, to build up an attachment to the hospital and to their patients there.
Maria's kingdom was the hospital kitchen. Intent with concentration, her round, good-natured face shining red and moist from the heat under her tightly bound kerchief, she moved from stove to worktable, to larder and back to stove again, purposefully, unhurried. She was never moody, never bad-tempered, but always philosophically resigned to the disaster she knew was imminent. Although the worst hadn't happened yet, it would, any minute.
The kitchen was actually quite a large room, yet when one stopped to realize that she cooked there ultimately for more than 125 people, it seemed small. The big red brick stove stood in the middle of the room, with its great caldron for making the thick Romanian soups called ciorbas, which were a major item of our diet, and the two cavernous ovens. Along the walls, under the windows, were ranged tables for working, and between them were cupboards and shelves.
In the course of time, one would find convalescent women patients sitting or standing at these tables, preparing vegetables for the ciorbas, or doing other time-consuming tasks which Maria could delegate to her volunteer helpers. She kept a critical eye on everything that went on in her kitchen, moving continually between the stove and her patient-assistants.
The women loved to work there for a while each day, interposing the everyday tasks to which they were accustomed at home into the unfamiliarity of their hospital sojourn, and gossiping in the way of women everywhere. There was a steady flow of cheerful conversation. Voices were rarely raised except in sudden quick laughter. The companionable hum of shared work was comfortable to hear. Certainly many an operation was described in detail over the ciorba kettle. All the patients, men and women alike, helped in various small ways as soon as they were up and about. Participating in the chores of the hospital helped to make it theirs. It was a part of our way of life.
Skillets and pots and saucepans hung in orderly rows on every side, a happenstance design of black iron usefulness against the spotless, whitewashed kitchen walls. One side of the big square room was walled off into a small dishwashing room and a food pantry. In the latter was kept our precious sugar and rice, and our hoard of instant coffee—its value above rubies!—sent to us by the American Red Cross. It was used by the staff and given to special patients. Our people preferred tea usually; they are not accustomed to coffee. This treasure house was always kept locked, and only I possessed a key.
Across the hall was a depozit, a large larder closet where we kept our food supplies and which was Maria's especial responsibility. She always knew, to a pinch of tea or a single dried bean, exactly what was there.
Food was trundled from the kitchen to the wards on tables which had been fitted with casters. You can imagine how awkward it was until the corridor was built across the back of the wards. The meals were served from the large table in the center of each ward. Patients who were able to get about came to the table and ate there. Those who were not were served by the others and ate on their knees in bed. We were not able to procure trays for a long while; then one day someone gave us a dozen, but by that time we had our meal procedure rather well established, and the trays were used only for bedridden patients, or for those in private rooms.
The hospital diet consisted of food which the peasants were accustomed to. Breakfast was black bread, raw fat bacon cut in strips and tea with sugar and a little rum.
Dinner was a ciorba, made whenever possible with meat, and sometimes soured with sauerkraut juice or borsch, always accompanied by mamaliga, thick cornmeal mush eaten as potatoes or bread, which is a national Romanian staple food; cheese made of sheep's milk, and whatever fruit was in season in the neighborhood—pears, apples, plums, apricots, grapes. In the winter and spring we had stewed dried fruit. We dried our own, and since it was thoroughly ripe when we picked it and full to bursting with sweet juice, no sugar was needed when it was cooked. Sometimes we gave the patients preserved fruit in the winter, but very rarely because sugar was hard to get.
Supper consisted of vegetable soup and a simple salad made of leftovers, with mayonnaise when we could get it. Tea went with the meal, or milk when it was obtainable.
There was no butter, very little milk, very little sugar and seldom eggs. Sometimes peasants brought us a few as a gift, when the hens were laying plentifully and they had eggs to spare. Later, patients were urged to pay us in produce, since food was much more valuable to us than money.
There was cider and fresh grape juice in season, but never an orange or lemon. My aide-de-camp, who lived in Bucharest and took care of my affairs there, gave me a magnificent Christmas present one year—two lemons, golden, fragrant, nostalgic reminders of a luxurious, vanished world where such exotic delicacies were unremarked and taken for granted.