Hospital of the Queen's Heart by Ileana, Princess of Romania
CHAPTER 7

In our soldiers' ward, we had a patient by the name of Stirban. He was a tall, beautiful young man with fine features and great gentle eyes with long dark eyelashes. He was very ill indeed. His case had been mismanaged as a result of mistaken diagnosis. The doctors in Brasov thought that he was suffering from tubercular peritonitis, but later we found that he had a very rare congenital defect of one of his kidneys. Nowhere in those difficult times could proper tests be made, for nearly all laboratories had been taken over by the Russians, and essential laboratory chemicals were not available to us.

Since his condition did not improve after six months in the military hospital in Brasov, the authorities decided to send the boy to us, hoping that our mountain air, good nursing and good country food would enable him to recover. But alas! Nothing seemed to help Stirban, because we too lacked the means of finding out exactly what was wrong with the poor boy. Finally after several months' unsuccessful treatment, Dr. Puscariu decided to do an exploratory operation.

Stirban was so weakened by his long illness that the shock of the operation was too much for him. In midmorning, feeling rather hopeless, we wheeled him back to his ward from the operating room and proceeded to do everything possible for him, hoping that he would rally. I sat by him all day. When he woke up, he talked to me rationally as he had done many times before, but this time with a difference. Stirban knew he was dying.

Before he had gone into the army Stirban had been a cioban—a shepherd. He was accustomed to mountain peaks and wide spaces, to a free roaming life and the sweep of wind and sky. Hospital confinement was hard for him. He was homesick, and he loved to talk about his home in the mountains. As I listened to his quiet voice I began to see it through his eyes: a little village cut out of virgin forest, a few mud houses with bleached, steep-pitched roofs lost in the northern mountains, nestling in a green valley. He told me how, in the spring, he would gather together the sheep of the village and start his long wanderings up onto the mountain slopes where the grass was fresh and new, and the air was sharp and sweet. He would spend the summer months alone there with his donkey, his dog and his flock, roaming from pasture to pasture, clad in his enormous sheepskin cape, the traditional garb of the Romanian shepherd. He used to compose little songs as he stood on the mountainside amongst his sheep, leaning on his tall staff, his hands under his chin, in the motionless posture of ciobans for ages past.

He used to talk of the great vault of sky above him and the endless horizons in every direction, lying beyond countless narrow valleys and lesser mountains. He talked about the shifting clouds, now above him, now rising like steam from the valleys below, and the great solitude of the mountains, the immense silence broken only by birds' calls and his own brief words to his dog. He talked of the incredible carpets of brilliant mountain flowers, of still nights and the cold moon shining sharp and white on the mountaintops, of the sunrises and sunsets, of fierce storms and days of impenetrable mist.

He told me about his father who had been a cioban before him, and about the girl he had hoped to marry and now knew he would never see again.

He asked me to write to his parents and tell them what had happened to him; with peasant formality and dignity he sent them his last greetings. His concern was not for himself, but for them and the grief he would cause them by not returning, for they were getting old and they needed him.

He asked me if I thought that on the other side of death he would still have sheep to care for. He said he would like to, because he had loved his sheep and would miss them. I reminded him that our Lord had called Himself a shepherd, too, and since he had so faithfully guarded his sheep on this earth, surely God would find work similar for him in the world to come. That seemed to satisfy him.

When I first knew that Stirban was dying, I had thought of drawing screens about his bed, so he would be alone. But I realized that it would be wrong to shut out the other soldiers in the ward, for they were his companions. They had intimately lived with him through the months of his illness and they felt they should share these last hours with him, also.

The hours passed; his voice became slower and lower. Twilight fell. His companions stood about the foot of his bed. Supper came; some went to eat at the table in the center of the ward, then returned to the vigil while others left briefly to eat their meal.

As shadows deepened in the room, a candle was brought and we lit it. Candles are always lighted when one of the Orthodox faith is dying. To die without a candle is unthinkable. It is one of our rites. I even kept one in the operating room. Sad to say, it was used a few times.

Stirban's eyes moved toward the lighted candle, and he put out his hand; he wished to hold it himself. So I put it into his hand and held his fingers about it that he might not let it fall. Then he asked for an icon, which I took from the wall near his bed and held to his lips for him to kiss. To a member of the Orthodox Church this kiss upon a holy object is one of the solemn rites of his faith. It is an act of deep and profound reverence; it is his way of expressing his absolute trust and at-oneness with God.

The steady little flame of the candle cast a soft light upon the face of the dying boy. Like still dark shadows, the men stood grouped about. I knelt down; they followed me, and together we repeated one of the Orthodox prayers for the dead:

"Oh Lord and Master, Almighty God, Father of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, Thou who desirest that all men be saved and attain to the knowledge of truth, we pray and beseech Thee, release from every bond the soul of Thy servant, and free him from every curse. Give him rest. Rest him, O Lord, where all Thy saints repose, in a place of light, in a place of verdure, in a place of rest, whence strain and sorrow and weeping have fled, for Thou art the Resurrection and the Life and the Repose of Thy departed servant."

Stirban opened his eyes and a fleeting smile passed over his face. Slowly his features which had been tense and drawn in pain were transformed before us; a tranquillity came upon them, and then he seemed to withdraw from us in the strange dignity and finality of death. Stir-ban had left us for that "place of verdure" whence all pain had fled.

I pressed his eyelids shut and waited until they remained closed. Someone had removed the candle from his hand and put it on the bed table. We crossed his hands upon his breast and drew the sheet up over him. Once more, we knelt about his bed.

Tired and overwrought, I felt my heart would break; I couldn't pray and I began to weep. At that moment, Dr. Puscariu came in. He pressed my shoulder consolingly and then, as my silent sobs shook me, helped me rise. He led me out of the ward and gently scolded me for having stayed so long with Stirban, for having added this grief to my fatigue and many other anxieties. In his quiet voice he urged me to go home to the castle, to take a sedative and get a good long sleep.

How could I explain to him that I was not weeping because we had failed to save Stirban? Nor was I weeping because I was tired; certainly not because I was frightened, but because I was overwhelmed by the experience I had just lived through. It was a miraculous thing, this sense of having accompanied a soul purified through its own sure faith, to the very portals of life. It was like going on a last journey with someone very dear and near, as Stirban had indeed become to me. As though I had gone with him to a door, which swung open a little, and with that last fleeting smile of good-bye which we had seen he had slipped through it, and the door had closed in my face.

But these are things that one cannot talk about, nor explain to anyone who does not know them already. The memory of Stirban's death stayed with me, and, remembering him, I tried to bring his courage and trustfulness to other deathbeds that I watched beside.


Later that year, I had a similar sort of experience with a man, who, unlike Stirban, had deserted his faith.

One day, at noontime, I left the hospital and went home to the castle. I was exhausted. I was so tired that I wanted more than anything else in the world to shut myself up in my quiet tower room, to have lunch on a tray, to rest my aching body in my beckoning, hospitable bed and my taut mind in a detective story. I toiled up the 368 steps to my tower, promising myself, as encouragement along the way, all these luxuries for the next eighteen hours.

About two o'clock the telephone rang. An excited voice at the other end announced itself as one of the Bran gendarmerie (which corresponds to the American state police) and told me that there had been a serious accident on the much-traveled road between Brasov and Campulung, high above the Bran valley where it takes a sharp curve along the edge of a precipice—a notoriously dangerous stretch. A speeding truck filled with holidaymakers from one of the factories in a manufacturing village beyond our mountain range failed to make the curve and had driven over the edge of the precipice—a drop of three hundred feet. The truck had turned over and over several times, its occupants had been tossed out, some were dead and many were injured.

Peasants had found the wreck and rushed to the gendarmerie post in Bran. The police asked me to get together some of my doctors and come to the scene of the accident at once, to take the casualties back to my hospital.

Suddenly I felt perfectly well. My fatigue had vanished, the pain in my shoulders was no more, and I was scrambling back into my uniform. I called to my husband Anton and my son Stefan and told them what had happened. I telephoned the hospital to give my orders and ran headlong down the many steps that I had so wearily toiled up a short while ago. I jumped into the castle's ancient, battered station wagon and started off in a rattle of stones and gravel, bumping down the steep road to the hospital. Anton and Stefan, racing after me, followed in another car.

At the hospital, we manned all the cars we had at our disposal and our one truck—alas! we had no ambulance. Anton drove one of the cars, Stefan another, Badillo a third, and a military chauffeur we had with us took a fourth. The string of cars followed me as I shot out of the courtyard and across the bridge, flying along the road to the scene of the accident, a half-hour's drive.

Gendarmes and a few peasants had labored to bring the injured persons up the side of the precipice on their backs or on improvised stretchers, and they lay side by side along the roadside waiting for us. They were oddly silent. Badillo and I moved swiftly among them, administering first aid, injecting morphine, heart stimulants and blood coagulants, while the others loaded them carefully into the cars with the help of the gendarmes and the peasants.

Back we sped to the hospital with them, driving as fast as possible without undue jarring. The staff was waiting anxiously for us in the courtyard. As gently as we could we unloaded the injured and laid them in rows in the admission room and the corridor. A few could walk. Two of the truck's passengers were dead when we arrived; one was a young woman. The police took charge of the bodies.

There was the most incredible confusion and noise. Our small institution was not equipped to cope with twenty-five or thirty emergency cases at once. The first shock had worn off, and they were all crying in pain and clamoring for help at the same time. Their voices filled the hospital and could be heard across the river in the village. People from the village came in to help us. There seemed to be neither room enough nor hands enough to deal with them all as quickly as we wanted to, and as they needed and demanded. One did not know which broken body to attend to first.

Web gave them morphine and antitetanus serum; we gave them barbiturates to allay their pain until we could get to them. We separated the men from the women, the dying from the slightly injured. The fluoroscope was in continual use; one after another groaning or screaming patient was brought in and put under it.

An older woman had both legs completely smashed, and her spine was evidently broken in two or three places. She could not possibly live; we made her as comfortable as we could and just laid her aside. She was very drowsy and quite composed, even cheerful. We let her go to sleep without making any effort to rouse her, for it was useless to try to save her. We were grateful that she had no pain.

There was a young girl whose spine was broken between the shoulder blades. We had no hope of saving her either; we could only make her as comfortable as possible until she died. Her sister lay beside her; one of her legs and an arm were broken.

A man whose leg was very badly fractured was put immediately into bed with a provisional splint. He had been the organizer of this holiday expedition, a peasant and the Communist leader of the factory. He was in a severe state of shock and was very frightened. We were told that the young woman who had been killed outright was his wife, and we decided to keep this knowledge from him for the time being because of his condition. Once we had settled him he did not seem to need our immediate supervision, so I went back to help with the others.

As I was working at the bedside of one of the women, loud screams sounded above the bustle and confusion of the ward.

"I cannot stand it! I cannot bear this! Why doesn't someone do something for me?"

I turned around and saw a wild-eyed girl standing in the doorway beating herself with her fists. She was certainly hysterical, but she seemed to have the use of all her limbs and, although her clothes were disordered and her hair was tousled, I saw that she was not hurt. Mindful of my patients I went swiftly over to her and tried to quiet her.

"Be still!" I commanded. "There are others here far more seriously hurt than you are. Sit down, now—I'll get to you just as soon as I possibly can."

I attempted to lead her to a chair, but this didn't suit her. She twisted lithely out of my grasp and faced me, stamping her feet and shaking her fists in the air.

"No!" she shrieked. "Now—now! I want to be attended to now! I cannot bear all this! You must do something for me now!"

I knew she was shocked and hysterical, but my own nerves were so strained that I knew if she did not stop screaming at me, I, too, would become hysterical.

"Stop that noise!" I said crossly, but she would not listen to me. Opening her mouth wide she screamed the loudest screams I have ever heard a human being produce. I felt that I was being goaded: I just couldn't bear the noise, and to my amazement I found myself doing a shocking thing—I slapped her with all my might, two great resounding smacks.

I shall never forget the astonishment on that girl's face. She stopped in the middle of one of those awful shrieks, and stared at me, her mouth wide open with a stillborn scream. Then her face drained suddenly of color. I saw she was about to faint, so I sat her down quickly on the chair and, taking her head firmly between my hands, pushed it between her knees and pumped it energetically up and down. The ward, forgetting their own dreadful woes and pain, watched the little scene in startled silence.

The girl recovered with astonishing promptness. She sat up, eluding my hands; her face was rosy and cheerful, her eyes perfectly natural, their wild glaze gone. She looked up at me with a sheepish grin, and then said in a matter-of-fact way, looking about her:

"Where is my kerchief? Now what did I do with it?"

I picked it up off the floor where it had fallen and handed it to her. Like everyone else, I was speechless. With the wide eyes of the entire ward upon her, she carefully tied it on her head, smiled again a little anxiously at me, got up and quietly walked out.

Suddenly I burst out laughing, and after a moment the whole ward—those who could laugh!—joined in, patients and nurses alike. It was an odd sound to hear in the midst of this grim business. But the incident broke the terrible tension, and we went on with our work of putting to bed, washing, dressing, and bandaging and cleaning up.

One girl in her teens didn't seem to be hurt except for many bruises, but she took her turn under the fluoroscope with the others. A slight shadow suggested internal bleeding, so we put her under anesthesia and got her onto the operating table as quickly as possible for an exploratory operation. We found no bleeding—we only discovered that just before the accident she had had a very good meal!

We got her back into bed, and next day when I made the morning rounds with the doctors she welcomed me in ecstasies. She was aglow with excitement and told me in a torrent of words how delighted she was to be at last in my proximity. She had dreamed of this all her life! She had collected my pictures for years and had made scrapbooks of them! Whenever I had appeared in her village or in neighboring ones, she had been there to see me! She was simply thrilled at being where I was! How glad she was that the accident had happened!

We had our teen-ager with us for seven days, and as soon as she could walk, she followed me around like a dog. Wherever I turned, there she was standing and gazing at me. I literally tripped over her, but she never objected. She never ceased telling me of her adoration. If I was too busy to listen, or not there, she found someone else to tell it to. I was touched and amused—and sometimes annoyed, for it is not only embarrassing to be worshiped, but it is most inconvenient to have it happen in a hospital full of sick people where there is no time to sit down and be a satisfactorily glamorous teen-ager's idol!

During the evening I was hastily called to the bedside of the badly injured Communist. The gendarmes, in their procedure of making an official report of each casualty, had managed to get to him in the general excitement and had stupidly told him of the death of his wife.

The man's grief was violent and terrible to see. I sat down beside him while a sedative was given him, and I tried to soothe him. His despair was impenetrable; he hardly saw me nor understood what I said to him. I felt myself up against a barrier that I couldn't get through or around. I spoke of God, and of our faith, but the words meant nothing to him. I could not get over to him the things I wanted to say in consolation. I formulated words in my mind but they were left unsaid—I knew they were futile. The man had faith in nothing. He had no belief in God or in a life hereafter. We did not speak the same language although we were both Romanians.

Later he poured himself out to me in a torrent of angry grief. He told me how he worked his way up in life, how he had joined the Communist party; he told me about the things he had planned to accomplish, of the wonderful companion his wife had been and how impossible life would be without her. She had not become a Communist as he had, nor had she lost her faith in God. I tried to assure him that she was all right. She had surely found her way to God because she believed in Him, and now she was safely beyond pain and trouble; probably her only remaining chain of bondage to this earth was sorrow over the state he was in. But he could not accept the truth of my words. He hardly seemed to hear them.

I saw that the best thing I could do for him was to be silent and listen to all he had to say and to give him as much physical comfort as I could.

The man had taken to himself new doctrines and new ideals, and so convinced was he of them that he had become the leader of his Communist fellow workers in the factory. But his new tenets were of no use at all to him when he was brought face to face with the realities of pain and death and the loss of a person he dearly loved. Besides, I think his conscience tormented him. The party had been drinking as they drove to their picnic, and he admitted that he had encouraged the driver to do so as well.

We kept him under sedatives, and I was with him as much as my demanding schedule and duties would let me. At first he did not seem to be physically in a grave condition. He had multiple fractures, which were serious enough, but nothing that time, patience and care would not mend. Two days later however we discovered that gangrene had started, and his leg was so badly injured and infected that it was necessary to amputate it, taking it out from the hip.

It was a terrible operation, one difficult for a patient to support even when in good physical condition. At first it appeared to be successful, but after a few hours our patient began to sink, and we knew then that there was little hope for him.

I assisted at the operation early in the morning, and I did not see him again until hours later, when he had emerged from his anesthesia. He welcomed me frantically and with wild eyes and once more began his tirade of hatred and resentment against the world for the way it had treated him, seeming to feel that the very act of pouring out to me his grievance and distress would miraculously right his wrongs and give him surcease. I took both of his hands in mine and spoke to him gently and insistently, calling him out of his state of fury and grief.

He quieted; I think he knew that his end was near. His defiance and rebellion had got him nowhere and at last he seemed to realize that telling me about it, over and over, would not help him. The man felt lost! He was suddenly frightened; after all, there might be another life after death, and, his childhood teachings still strong in his subconscious mind, he knew that having denied it, he had renounced the faith of his forefathers. I told him that he need not be afraid; that even now, if he was sorry for his denial of God, if he realized his mistake and turned back to Him with humbleness in his heart, God's love was still there waiting for him as it always had been. I said that forgiveness is always there for those who will return—the door is never completely closed upon them.

His mind was perfectly clear, and he flooded me with questions. "Do you believe that He existed all the time? That He did not abandon me because I denied and forgot Him? Is there really forgiveness for a man as wicked and sinful as I? Do you think I shall ever find my darling wife again?"

I told him that I was certain he would be restored to his wife. I strove to find the right things to say; I prayed that I would use the particular words that would reach him.

I sent for the village priest, but he had gone that day to Brasov. There was no one to help me. I had only my own faith to rely upon and my own very insufficient knowledge. It was extraordinary to sit there beside the dying man and watch the struggle between his new convictions and his old faith. This new philosophy called Communism had bolstered him up and had been adequate so long as life was easy and without stress, but now that he was faced with crisis and death his fine new reasoning had nothing in it to sustain him.

Unlike confident, untroubled Stirban, this man, who had turned away from God and denied the faith into which he had been born, was afraid to die. There was nothing peaceful about him; there was only stark terror.

I spoke over and over of his love for his wife. Somehow I wanted to keep it before him constantly, like a light in his darkness, feeling instinctively that his one genuine, truly fine feeling would lead him safely through the vacuum he had built into his life. I told him that she was waiting for him, if only he could believe it; that if he could not believe he would find her, he never would, and she would wait for him in vain.

I have sometimes watched dying persons struggle against death as against a threatening physical presence, thrashing out blindly to ward off someone or something. I have watched many people die, and it is plain to me that those who so fight against death have inner contention as well. Perhaps they realize that they haven't made the most of themselves and the opportunities they had and instinctively try to grasp hold of life for another chance. I think that often these frightened persons have never realized that the spirit is as much a part of man's inherent nature on earth as the body and the intellect. They have ignored it and have never accepted and grown in it as a matter of course, as they have in the other two. Since the consciousness and development of these three components free, as they integrate, the life of a human being, those persons who have denied the spirit during their lifetimes realize what they have missed at their hour of death and feel their enormous lack, for the growth of the spirit is the one thing we may take with us when we go hence.

On the other hand, persons who go quietly are those who have lived, consciously or not, in their spirit as well as their body and mind. Willing or merely resigned to part from life, they accept the will of God, unquestioningly trusting in a personal Divine mercy and in the eternal order and goodness of things.

I discovered that the dying Communist quieted when I held him in my arms. He seemed to lean on both my spiritual and physical strength and to sense that I understood him despite all his bewilderment and bitter rancor.

"Don't leave me, Domnitza!" he would cry, over and over. "Don't leave me, I'm afraid!"

I held him like a child and promised I would not leave him, that I would go with him as far as I could, and then he would need only to step over the threshold to the other side and, surely, loving souls would meet him there.

A nurse slipped into the room; I signed to her to light the candle of the Orthodox dying. She put it on the table and stood on the other side of the bed. He spoke for the last time.

"Tell me again," he whispered, "that God has not cast me out. Can I believe again?"

I promised him he could if he wanted to and that he had nothing at all to fear. He could no longer speak. His head rested on my shoulder and his hand clung to mine. I silently prayed that his old faith might wake in him again; that he might truly rest in peace.

The other nurse and I watched beside him, and as twilight came, so did the end. We saw a quiet calm smooth out his twisted face, and, as I removed my arm and laid him back upon his pillow, I knew that he had returned to his God and found his peace.