Hospital of the Queen's Heart by Ileana, Princess of Romania
Perhaps it was just as well for us that the hospital was not large enough to attract the attention of passers-by. Our inconspicuousness was to be our protection. For on the twenty-third of August, before the hospital was half finished, Romania capitulated to the Allies, and the Russians entered our country, pouring in and overrunning it, burning and destroying, bringing misery and terror in their wake.
The armistice negotiations had been under way for a long time, and they had implied that all three Allies would take equal part in carrying out the stipulations. But it proved to be Russia alone who represented the Allies. Amongst the conditions imposed upon us was that the Russians were to have free passage through Romania to the Western front—to Hungary, Czecho-Slovakia and Germany. They were to be provisioned by the countryside, but the stipulations were firm in stating that the Russians would neither occupy us nor interfere in any way with Romanian politics or the life of the people.
However, the Russian Army crossed our borders and occupied us with complete disregard for the conditions agreed upon. There was only a short respite between the cease fire and the horrors of a Russian total occupation. The United States and Great Britain were represented in the country only by small missions which were powerless to enforce the armistice stipulations, and the Allied governments were—understandably, but for us tragically—too deeply involved in the urgencies of the European invasion to help us.
Notwithstanding the tremendous political upheaval, the country remained quiet and intensely loyal to the King.
We were utterly defenseless before the Russian invasion, as one is before a tidal wave that rolls in farther and farther, rising higher and higher, to engulf everything that lies before it. Yet, although it was the end of the world as we had known it, somehow we remained alive. Somehow some of us lived to tell the tale.
In the middle of September, shortly after we had installed our patients, the Russians reached our quiet remote valley of Bran. It was a most terrifying sight to watch them pass through the village along the road on the other side of the river. I cannot compare them with anything save the hordes of Genghis Khan. They seemed to drift along with no sense of order. There was no organization, and they passed by in complete silence. Sometimes there were five of them, sometimes there were thirty, sometimes there were a hundred, sometimes one man slouched along by himself, rifle in hand. Occasionally they came on horseback or in carts; they came on foot or in trucks. (These were always of American make.) There was something savage about the Russians; they were unkempt, small and ugly, with slanting eyes. Yes, they were the hordes of Genghis Khan—armed with modern rifles.
We watched them pass with apprehension and unbelief. Every moment we expected to see them enter the castle courtyard, or cross the bridge and come into the hospital. But they never did. They simply streamed along the road.
The Russian has no discrimination between the poor and the rich; he has no conception of difference in economic status. He simply takes what comes first to his hand; he does not choose the best—it is all alike to him. Therefore, the house nearest the road was the house in greatest danger. All the houses along the village road were looted, the furniture broken and burnt, and what food could not be consumed was carried off. The terrified inhabitants hid their women in the house lofts or hurried them away to the mountains, and only the aged dared to remain behind. But their fate, too, was far from happy, for whether women were young ones or old made no difference to the Russians. They took any unfortunate women they found.
One woman, trying to hide herself, crawled inside one of the great out-of-door ovens which the peasants use once or twice a week to bake bread. A band of Russians found her and dragged her halfway out by the legs. There they held her by force, the upper part of her body still inside the oven, and, when they tired of their sport a little later and went on, they still had not seen her face. She was brought to us in grievous condition.
They valued clocks and watches very highly. They were fascinated by them, and stole them whenever they could. I heard of a Russian who went into a home in Bran to steal a clock. 'The terror-stricken family clung together in the one room of the house, protesting and weeping in fright, and a child in its cradle began to cry loudly. The Russians are sentimental about children, and tiptoeing over to the cradle, this one began to rock it, pointing his revolver meanwhile at the family. Soon the child quieted.
"Shhh!" warned the soldier fiercely in a loud whisper. "Do not wake the baby!" He brandished the gun. "Davai ceas! Give me the clock!"
And he tiptoed out in his clumping boots, gun in hand, his finger to his lips and the clock tucked under his arm.
One day our telephones went suddenly out of order. We discovered that some Russian soldiers passing through the village had cut down the telephone poles in order to get wire for their bootlaces.
During this trying time of the Russian invasion I kept my children within the castle enclosure, and I myself would wait until there was a break in the oncoming Russian stream and then make a dash for it along the road, across the bridge and into the hospital.
This fall of 1944, after the hospital had opened its doors and our work there was gaining momentum, presented an acute household and family problem. My husband and children, being Austrian, were technically Germans at this time. So was Gretl, the children's nurse, and Frau Ilse Koller, who had come with us from Austria. There was imminent danger of imprisonment for all of them. My own danger was less because I had retained my Romanian citizenship at the time of my marriage. It was taken from me by the Communists in 1948, when I left the country.
This problem was solved and danger averted when the authorities interned the German members of my household in the castle of Bran itself. My problem now was to have my children educated despite the summary law which prohibited education to "Germans." We got around it by simply ignoring the order. We kept the children in Bran; Stefan had a private tutor for the school year 1944-45, while the others went to the village kindergarten and school. It was not an ideal solution, but it was the only possible one for the time being, and I had the children close by me, which was the necessary thing.
Since the village school was directly opposite the hospital bridge, they walked down with me in the morning when I went to the hospital and at noontime they loitered around, waiting for me to walk back to the castle for lunch. This I always did unless I was detained by prolonged operation schedules or other emergencies.
In 1945, things were better, and since the three older children needed more advanced instruction than the village school provided, I felt it was necessary to send them away to school. I also felt it was safe to do so now. Stefan was admitted to a famous military school in Predeal, near us in the mountains between Bran and Bucharest, and Minola and Sandi went to a convent school in Bucharest, the Catholic Sisters of St. Mary, where they were exceedingly happy. They came home to Bran only for the longer holidays—Christmas, Easter and the summer, because of the difficulty of transportation and the prevalence of Russians on the road.
We had a fine operating room with an excellent lamp and a splendid set of surgical instruments. This equipment was a gift from the Tohan ammunition factory. It had been installed there, all shiny steel and chromium, when it was announced that the King, my nephew, was coming to inspect the factory. The King was pleasantly impressed, but after the great event it stood, still shiny and efficient but unused, for there was no one to staff it and there was really no need in a factory for an operating room so excellently equipped for major surgery. Colonel Serbu secured it for us and, in presenting it, stipulated that any of his workmen who were injured or in need of medical attention should be taken care of in the new hospital.
It was not surprising, therefore, that our first civilian patient was one of the factory workmen who was brought to us in the late fall with a crushed foot. It was a severe injury which had been neglected, and it had become infected. Max, who examined him, saw immediately that gangrene was setting in, and, since at that time he was not qualified to perform any kind of operation, I had to telephone to Brasov and ask the Red Cross hospital there to send us a surgeon.
They sent Dr. Dragomir; he was under military orders and was the nephew of General Vasiliu-Rascanu, who was later to play an important part in Communist politics. At that time, of course, we could not know this, and the nephew certainly was not infected with his uncle's "pink" tendencies, then or later.
We got everything ready for the doctor's arrival and prepared the workman for his operation, but at this crucial moment Max, who was to assist the surgeon, fell suddenly and violently ill with what we jokingly called "Branita." It was no joke to the victim of "Branita"! Bran's water produced severe dysentery in newcomers to the region, although we who had lived there for some time were immune—therefore, always somewhat callously amused.
When Dr. Dragomir arrived he was told of the situation and that there was no one who was qualified to assist at the operation. We were desperate. Finally I took my courage in both hands.
"Doctor," I said, "I would be glad to help you if you will allow me to do so."
He looked at me dubiously; he was wondering, no doubt, exactly how much I knew and how capable I was. I was a little nonplused at my own impulsiveness, for although I had gone through bombings and had more than once worked side by side with doctors and other nurses, disentangling the horrible bloody confusion of torn flesh and broken bodies after a bomb had fallen on a crowd of human beings, I had no stomach for blood or for work in the operating theater. The sight and smell of blood turned me sick and faint. Yet the need was instant and imperative, and there was nobody else to do the job.
Dr. Dragomir accepted my offer since he could do nothing else. He told me what to do, and I followed his instructions: I washed my hands, scrubbing them for the prescribed twenty minutes, and put on sterile clothes. Then I faced him across the operating table while the night nurse helped the patient onto the table, settled him and gave him a local anesthetic. The operation, as I know now, was a simple one; it was a matter of amputating the toe and getting the bone out of the socket. At first, in my anxiety to do what was expected of me, I did not find the ordeal as difficult as I had expected, but, when the moment came for me to hold the flesh apart and watch that bone being worked out of its socket, suddenly my knees went weak; I felt perspiration running down my back, my stomach seemed to rise into my throat, and a terrible feeling of nausea came over me. Dr. Dragomir looked up and saw my greenish face.
"You've got to stand it now," he said to me tersely. I knew he was annoyed; I didn't blame him. He had enough to think about without a silly woman on his hands about to faint.
I did my best. I felt dreadful, yet I stood there, willing myself to stay on my feet. How I did, I don't know. Certainly my strength of will was strained to the utmost. When at last that bone was dislodged, Doctor Dragomir heaved a sigh of relief and looked at me. "Now, you may go," he said. "I can get along without you." I felt humiliated, but, quite honestly, grateful.
I put the instruments down and went toward the door. Anna, the ward maid, opened it for me, and then the next door, until I got out into the courtyard.
I stood and breathed deeply. The warm sun on my shoulders felt good. Beyond the willows I could hear the chattering Turcu as it flowed past. The air was sweet with its freshness, and I gulped it into my lungs. I was furious with myself for having felt so ill and for not being able to stay with the operation—for having failed when I was needed. I wanted so much to be strong and to endure! Suddenly, standing there, I felt a new force enter my body, a new strength. I stood for a moment, savoring it, feeling my nausea and my fear drain away.
Then I turned and went back. I signed to Anna to open the door once more for me. I walked back into the operating room. I had not touched anything with my sterile hands and clothes; I returned to the table, picked up the instruments I had just laid down and assisted the surgeon to the end of the operation. Probably my help was not very efficient, but it was certainly better than none at all, and I had overcome, at least for the moment, one of my greatest weaknesses. I was exhilarated when we returned the workman to his ward, for I felt that the new operating room and I had been "inaugurated," so to speak, at the same time.
Dr. Dragomir seemed satisfied with proceedings and, with delicacy and understanding, made no comment on my momentary desertion. He gave us instructions for the care of our patient, since he had to return immediately to Brasov, and told us to call him if anything should go wrong. Happily, nothing did. But now I knew that we must have a qualified doctor.
This matter of a resident doctor was a very vexing one indeed, because we were still entirely dependent for our staff upon the Red Cross hospital in Brasov, which was under military rule. The only doctors available to us were army ones. The Brasov hospital needed its own surgeons and had none to easily spare to us—yet it was a surgeon we chiefly needed. The Brasov hospital finally agreed to an arrangement whereby its doctors would come to us for a week at a time, in rotation. This proved to be a complicated and unsatisfactory arrangement, because even if the doctors had all been entirely amiable and co-operative—which, alas, they frequently were not—we hardly had time to get used to one before he left and another came, and then we had to get used to other methods, other ideas, other techniques all over again. And so on and on. They had no time to become au courant with the state of the patients in their charge. Amongst these rotating doctors there were some truly fine men, skillful and serious, with whom I worked very happily. They had a real, though brief, interest in what I was trying to do; they taught me much that I needed to know and helped me to organize my small hospital for its maximum efficiency. But there were others who decidedly found it no pleasure to come to us for a week in the country, to live in a small and rather primitive house, and to have to take charge of sick and wounded soldiers, not permanently their cases, in whom they had absolutely no interest and no time to become interested.
I was not pleased with the plan, but we simply had to have a surgeon close at hand, and I was forced to be satisfied with the arrangement as a temporary measure, meanwhile hoping that something better could be worked out.
Our concern was not entirely with our wounded soldiers. People began to come to us from the village—a child who had hurt himself playing, a woman with an infected finger. They would wander shyly up to our door and ask for help—help which I gave with the greatest joy. You see, it had been my dream for many years to be able to help those who came to me, needing it. I remember dreaming, when I was young, how dearly I would love to have the gift of healing, for it seemed to me most necessary to relieve people's bodily ills and suffering before their other problems could be solved. Now, in the growth of my hospital, a new phase of my life seemed to be opening before me, in which this dearest of my desires would be fulfilled.
It had been my mother's great longing, also, to have the gift of healing. And as I worked in the sunny wards and directed my little staff, it came to my mind that this hospital which was built on ground that had been hers, for the people of the mountain village she had loved, for soldiers whom she had looked upon with pride and called her soldiers—she, who during World -War I had been called the mother of the widows and orphans, the mother of the wounded—this hospital should be hers. I had always wished to build some sort of monument to her in Bran. I had thought of erecting a bronze statue; I had thought of a lovely public garden; I had thought of a school; but somehow I had never thought of a hospital. And then I knew suddenly that here before me was the thing I wanted to do. My hospital, of course, would be dedicated to her memory! But I did not want to call it Regina Maria. There were other hospitals that bore that name. I decided that I would call my hospital Spitalul Inima Reginei—the Hospital of the Queen's Heart.
For had she not written a letter to her people when she lay dying, and in this letter had she not willed that her heart be taken out of her body and placed in a silver casket, and that the silver casket should be kept in a little church by the Black Sea—a church that she herself had built on a beautiful flowering terrace in Balcic, a place which above all others she had loved? And she had willed that this church should be always open, so her people could come to the place where her heart lay, as they had always come to her for help when she was alive.
Alas, this beloved spot of Romania's ground had fallen to the Bulgarians in 1940, but I had been able to take away the silver casket containing her heart. I brought it up into the mountains of Bran, where now it lay, cemented into the living rock of the hillside, in a chapel I had built for it. The path wound up to it through a flowering rock garden so the people could come and pray, and sit, and think, and rest in the surrounding loveliness. Was it not natural that the hospital which lay at the foot of the hill that held her heart should also bear her name? Here was perfect accomplishment. This was the monument that would have pleased her more than any other. It was the kind of thing she would have liked me to do.
But not everybody saw things in the same light that I did. The village doctor, Dr. Stoian, who was also mayor, the one who refused to let me bring my wounded soldiers to the little Bran hospital, did not like at all the idea of a new hospital next to his. He objected to it on the ground that his patients might leave him and come to me. (Which was entirely logical and understandable, I told myself.) He foresaw a great financial loss to himself. As a matter of fact, he was quite wrong in this apprehension of his, because people had long since ceased to have confidence in him and went to him only because there was nobody else to go to.
He had once protested vigorously when we had cared for a child who had cut his leg badly. He threatened to report us to the authorities for doing a thing which was forbidden—using a military hospital for civilian use. At that lively moment of verbal skirmish I had not the slightest idea if we had, or had not, the right to do so, even while I stoutly defended myself and what we had done. Immediately I rushed to find out the truth of the matter, and to my delight I found that exactly the contrary was true; the military hospitals placed in rural districts were obliged to render service without pay, except for materials, to any civilian who asked for help. As our mayor therefore could not work against my project on the official level, he tried an unofficial—not to say, unethical—way; he talked against me to the doctors who came, one after another, for their turn to take charge of my hospital.
I discovered this quite by accident. I had been absent from the hospital on an errand one morning and was returning when I met an old man hobbling back across the bridge toward the village. I stopped and spoke to him.
There is a deliberateness about all peasant conversations. Centuries of oppression and living with the enemy have taught them a circuitousness of speech; one works hard to get a kernel of information; there is a dignity and ceremony imposed upon even a simple exchange, and it may not be hurried.
"Mosule, unde to duci? Old man, where are you going?" I asked.
"I am going home, Doama. There's something wrong with my leg."
"What is wrong with your leg?"
"That I do not know. That is what I came to the hospital to find out."
"Da? Yes? What did the doctor say?"
"The doctor said nothing, Doama."
"But are you sure you saw the doctor?"
"Very sure, lady. He told me to go away and to see the village doctor instead."
I dropped down on my knees and pulled up his trouser leg. I saw a nasty open sore.
"But you can't go away without this being bandaged, Mosule!"
"So I thought, too, Doama, but the doctor said I was to go to Dr. Stoian."
"Have you been?"
"No, I haven't been, and I cannot go, because I cannot pay him, and he will not bandage anyone unless he is paid first."
"Then you come straight back with me to the hospital," I said indignantly. "I will bandage you myself."
I marched him back across the bridge and left him in the dispensary, sitting obediently in the acquiescent dignity of patient old age until I could cope with his problem. Meanwhile I went outside with fire in my eye to look for my current resident doctor. I caught sight of him scuttling away along one of the footpaths by the river, doubtless hoping that I would not see him. I ran after him and called him back.
"Vino 'ncoace, Doctor! Come here!"
He stopped, as of course he had to. He was annoyed at being brought back.
"Why did you send the old man away?" I demanded.
"Altetza—Highness—I am not under orders to take care of civilians," he told me flatly. "I am here to attend the military."
"You are wrong, Doctor," I said. "Regulations impose the contrary upon the hospital. We are here to serve civilians as well as soldiers."
"I feel it is unfair to the local doctor for us to take in the peasants," he answered me. "Dr. Stoian has been practicing here for a long while."
"Doctor, anyone who comes here to the hospital and asks for help is to be taken care of. No one is to be sent away. There is to be no discrimination. Those are my wishes."
He was correctly, courteously rude. "Highness," he said, "allow me to remind you that although you are at liberty to attend anyone when and as you wish, you may not dispose of my skill and knowledge if I do not wish to give it." He bowed slightly and with finality—I felt as if he were putting a period at the end of his sentence.
I agreed coolly—and inside furiously—that this was certainly true, and that I could not make him co-operate with me if he did not wish to do so. Nor, I added bitingly, did I want the assistance of a doctor who gave his services grudgingly. I cordially assured him that he need never worry about being asked to come to Bran again; I would request that he be replaced immediately.
Despite my usual shrinking from unpleasant scenes, I was relieved to have him go, but I knew that this tilt was only a skirmish in the hospital's controversy with my friend, the mayor-doctor of Bran, who did not want us there.
If I had been sure that the mayor really cared about his patients, if I had seen that his hospital was active, that his heart was in the right place and that he had an actual concern for the peasants who lived about, I certainly would not have thus nourished the hostility which I found in him from the first. Indeed, I would have striven with all my might to bring about the friendliness and co-operation which we eventually arrived at and which was a very long time in coming.
But the mayor was plainly more interested in the welfare of his own pocketbook than in the welfare of his patients.
I felt that finally something had to be done for the care of the neglected "little people," those without money, or influence, or any importance at all, who have no self-assertion and who suffer and die in silence. They cannot speak for themselves, they do not make demands. Unfortunately, in Romanian hospitals as in hospitals elsewhere, it was the person of importance or influence, not necessarily even the wealthy, who was given the hospital's best attention. On his recommendation or casual comment hung the hospital's reputation. But the unknown, the uninteresting, the simple people who could do neither good nor harm—they were treated perfunctorily or even neglected, and that I could not bear. Bran, I decided, would be different. Here, everybody was going to have the same treatment, the best we knew how to give them. The only recommendation necessary for admission to my hospital would be illness or injury. I knew that this was what my mother would have wished.