Hospital of the Queen's Heart by Ileana, Princess of Romania
When our first emergency call came, we had with us a doctor who undoubtedly was one of the most charming men I have ever met. He was a nose and throat specialist. He was handsome, with a fine profile, prematurely gray hair and dark blue eyes. He had the most lovely hands. There was something about them—they had an entity of their own; you felt healing in them. He was a gentle man; he was thorough and patient, and he was understanding of our work, our newness at it and our seriousness. He was a delight to work with, for even his criticisms were easy to take, since we knew that they were justified and kindly, and were made not only to correct our shortcomings, but with the desire to create a system as perfect as possible.
Although he did not remain for long in the hospital, but returned to his own private practice in Brasov, we nonetheless were in continual touch with one another, and when I had several nose and throat cases which needed his specialized care, he would come to Bran to spend a day or two with us, operating and treating these patients, and in the evening joining my family and me for dinner and long stimulating conversations. Besides our work we talked about art, the theater and music, politics and history and literature. He was like a wide open window to the world outside.
Well—this first emergency call of ours came at night, and certainly it had nothing to do with nose and throat. An unfortunate peasant woman was dying of hemorrhage from a premature childbirth. We were not equipped for an emergency of this sort, but we took with us what instruments we thought we could use—I remember I took a pocket lamp among other things, and he took his head-mirror which later proved to be a godsend.
We had great difficulty in getting there. It was night, and we were in complete black-out. It was beginning to snow and sleet; the roads were dangerously slippery. Because the case was urgent, we were anxious; the way seemed endlessly long, and the car seemed to creep inch by inch along the icy road until finally we reached our destination, a most awful little hovel.
We found the woman in a truly grave condition. The room was full of her garrulous friends and relations giving useless advice and noisy consolation to her anxious husband and frightened children; everywhere was the smell of humanity, of blood, of heat, of dirt. The first thing I did was to drive everyone out of the room, then to ask the husband for hot water and all the towels he could find for me. On a little table near the bed I spread a sterilized cloth I had brought with me and set on it our few instruments and bandages. We had no adequate light by which to work, so I directed the flashlight at the mirror which the doctor strapped to his forehead—it certainly had never been used for that purpose before!—and we did the best we could. It was a good best, for we were able to stanch the flow of blood, and then we gave the woman injections of stimulating drugs. Undoubtedly we saved her life.
The next day we took her to Bran. I could not put her in the hospital, for we had no private room for her and the wards were full of soldiers, but I installed her in one of the small houses across the river in the village which belonged to the castle and was unused at the time. I telephoned to Brasov for a specialist to come and see her.
She recovered completely in due time, and she was very grateful to us—but she was not nearly as grateful to us as I was to her. For aside from the workman with the amputated toe, she was our first civilian patient—and we had been summoned to help her. She was also our first woman patient. She opened the door for others to come. Her recovery established the fact to the village that we were there, not only for the wounded soldiers, but for everyone who might need us.
The Romanian peasants have a childlike faith in their royal family. They have a deep conviction that nothing is impossible to them; that they can do anything they wish. Alas, this was far from the truth, and it became increasingly so under the Communist government. But that faith which the people had in me helped me to help them; they were completely confident that I had no interest other than their good. This was of supreme importance because the task that lay ahead of us in the hospital was anything but an easy one.
I have discovered that many people in America do not understand my use of the word "peasant." Here it seems to be an ignoble word; it implies servility, abasement, and its use is thought to be patronizing and arrogant.
This is very mistaken. In all of Europe, as in Romania, the peasant class is much depended upon, respected, and to be reckoned with. The peasants arc the foundation and the backbone of our country. It is the element in Romania which has preserved language, religious faith, nationality, tradition, all that is great and enduring in a nation, through hundreds of years of invasion and enemy occupation.
The term "peasant" is one of dignity. The class is large and although its roots are in agriculture, sons and daughters of farmers leave home and go to the cities and to the universities at Cluj, Bucharest and Jassy and become doctors, professors, priests, nurses, businessmen, writers, actors, musicians, and manufacturers. But no matter what they become when they leave the soil, they never lose their love of it.
Our peasants looked upon hospitals as places one goes to die. They live a hard and rugged life. They live in tiny cottages perched on distant mountain peaks, in little lost villages scattered far and wide, in tight, narrow little valleys. The roads are bad; communication hardly exists, and the women's lives are so bound to their farms, to their homes and to their children that it is very difficult for them to break away and come to a doctor when something is wrong with them. It took me a long time to convince them that they should not wait to come until pain got too severe or they became helplessly ill; that if they sacrificed a few days from their households and farmwork to come to us they might actually save their lives. This campaign was not won in one day or one month. But certainly, my first woman patient did a great deal to advance my course of education by telling the entire village about our care of her and her gratitude, and by trying to convince other women to trust my little hospital and come to us when they were ill.
My next woman's case was quite different and came most unwillingly to us. One afternoon in early summer I made a routine call upon a bedridden old peasant who lived in one of the side valleys. In order to enjoy a snatched half hour of sunshine and freedom I was walking back to the hospital by a roundabout path, and I came upon a comfortable peasant home nestled against the side of the wooded hill. It was made of whitewashed clay with dark wood shutters and carved portals and porches, with a steep, high-pitched roof and broadly advancing eaves, silvery-shingled.
In the small garden, brimming with flowers, a woman was hoeing. I stopped and spoke with her over the wattle fence.
"Buna ziua—good day," I said.
"Bine ai venit, Domnitza—welcome to you," she smiled at me.
"Your flowers are lovely."
"Da. The weather is good. Crops will be plentiful." I nodded. "As God wills."
She looked extremely ill and tired. I wondered what the matter was with her and if I could help. But the conversation was not to be hurried. She said her name was Veronica.
"You have children?"
"Seven. Two are dead. The oldest is fifteen."
"That is good. She can help you with the work then."
"Da. Yes, she does a lot of it. I do not feel well, as I should."
"What is wrong?" Now the conversation had got where I wanted it.
She made an impatient, vague gesture and leaned on her hoe, ready to talk woman to woman.
"Ah, I am always tired as I never used to be, Domnitza. To work is very hard, yet there is no more work than I have ever done in my house and my garden. Also, I have pain. It comes at noontime and at sundown."
I had observed that the peasants always set certain hours for their pains. The truth was, of course, that they worked so hard and so steadily that they were usually conscious of their discomfort only when they stopped work—for their noonday meal and at the end of their day.
"Where do you feel pain?" I asked.
She indicated her abdomen.
I asked her if she would let me come into the house and examine her. She seemed doubtful, but finally agreed a little reluctantly.
The house she led me into was the usual spotless one of a well-to-do peasant, with whitewashed walls and lovely peasant embroidery everywhere—curtains, cushions, bed covers; soft-colored woolen peasant rugs were on the floor, and on a high shelf close to the low-beamed ceiling there was a long, prim row of colorful pottery plates with matching jugs hanging neatly from hooks just below them. On the eastern wall of the room was the usual icon, a vigil light burning in a candela hanging from a chain before it. A small bunch of dried basil was stuck behind the icon.
I asked the woman to lie down on the bed and let me feel her abdomen, but she objected strenuously. I explained that if she wanted me to help her she must do so, for that was the only way I could find out what the matter was.
Finally she allowed me to examine her, loosening the embroidered woolen wrap-around skirt that the Bran mountain women wear. Through her heavy linen garment which was embroidered blouse and petticoat in one, I could easily, even without very much medical knowledge, feel with my fingertips that she had a large growth. I begged her to come back with me to the hospital and let a doctor examine her.
"Certainly not, Domnitza," she said indignantly. "I will not go to your hospital and let a man touch me! I've never done such a thing as that."
I tried every argument I could think of, but each one met with her resolute refusal, "Certainly I will not come."
At last I went away, but I could not let the matter rest. I told our current resident doctor about her and asked him to go on the same walk with me a few days later and talk to Veronica himself. We found her again in her flower garden, listless and ill. I introduced the doctor, and finally after the same protestations and arguments that I had heard before, she consented, unhappy and outraged, to let herself be examined. The doctor immediately confirmed my findings and told her that unquestionably she should have the growth removed, for it was certain to increase in size.
She refused flatly and with dignity, wrapping her skirt about her and tying it with finality. Now she was really offended, and as defiant as she dared to be.
So we left, but I could not forget Veronica, and I often felt troubled about her. A few months later, when fall had come to the valley, I decided to return and see how she was getting along. I could not face the long winter, wondering about her and probably worrying a little. For when the heavy snows came I could not get to her.
I drove up the valley to the path that led to her house and left my car, going on foot the rest of the way. I found her in a much worse state than I expected, for the growth had increased quite astonishingly. I had had almost no experience with a case of this sort, so it was to me rather a dreadful revelation that a tumor could become so large in such a short while.
As I examined her, her husband came in from the fields. Concealing my alarm and with as much poise and professional authority as I could muster, I explained to him how necessary it was for his wife to go to the hospital to be operated on and the growth taken away.
He seemed to understand perfectly and to agree with me, but with characteristic peasant dignity he said that it was up to his wife to decide what she wanted to do. I turned back to her and began to try to persuade her.
"Veronica, listen to me!" I implored. "Inside you is a thing like the fledgling of a cuckoo in another bird's nest. It will continue to grow and grow, crowding all the organs inside you as the cuckoo fledgling crowds the baby birds that rightfully belong there, until they fall to the ground and die. But this growth will get larger and larger until it reaches your heart, and it will squeeze it—so!—against your ribs, and you will gasp for breath, and you will have much dreadful pain. And it will continue to get bigger and bigger, until one day it will crush your heart—thus—and you will die!
"All this you choose rather than to live for your family. You choose to orphan your children, to let them grow up without your guidance and a mother's love and care. You choose to leave your husband alone and sad. All because you will not trust me, Domnitza Ileana, whom you have known all your life, who will care for you with her own hands!"
I stopped, having run out of words and breath and beseeching. She watched me with intent eyes. The children of assorted sizes ranged themselves beside her, round-eyed. Anna, the eldest, was crying a little.
"Domnitza, you say truly that I shall surely die if I do not go to the hospital?"
"Da, you surely will," I said emphatically.
She glanced at her children and at her husband who was standing silently beside the door. She looked frightened at last.
"Vai de mine! Woe is me! I do not want to die! I will go."
I felt great relief. I had convinced her! I was quick to profit by her moment of weakness and fright, and before she could collect herself and change her mind I got her to pack a few things in a satchel and come with me right away.
We walked down the valley path to my waiting car. I put her into it with her bag and whisked her off to the hospital.
There I got her into bed and promptly telephoned for a specialist to come out from Brasov. Two days later we operated on her, now quite unprotesting since she had made her decision. I couldn't help feeling a little triumphant when we removed an enormous growth, the size of a pumpkin. We kept this prize to show to her and her family when they all came gravely to visit her. They were much impressed by it and by the good care we gave her. They marveled that she recovered so quickly and felt so well afterwards.
Our peasants are extraordinarily healthy and resistant to disease and illness. They are resilient; they recover faster than they themselves expect. When Veronica returned to her home she was loud in her praises of the hospital and everything that it had done for her. She used to go around and tell the other women, "Look at me! How well I am! I was sick and I wouldn't go to the hospital. Domnitza came and made me go. If I hadn't, I would be dead now. But I'm not dead. Domnitza cut me open and made me well!"
When she visited an ailing neighbor she was small comfort. "Look at me," she berated her. "You go down to the hospital, and you get yourself looked after by Domnitza Beam. Don't be stupid as I was! An operation isn't bad at all."
And thus the news traveled from mouth to mouth through the villages and the valleys. Little by little we gained the peasants' confidence. The reputation of the hospital grew, and its scope of service slowly widened.