Hospital of the Queen's Heart by Ileana, Princess of Romania
One day a prosperous businessman from a near-by village came to us for an examination. He was a Communist, and like many other persons, he was afraid of doctors. So for moral support he was accompanied by Bran's only Communist, a ne'er-do-well of the village, and by two other companions from his own region—rather unprepossessing individuals, also Communists, whom I did not know.
Dr. Puscariu made the examination and found that the man had a perforated stomach ulcer and should be operated upon at once. To perform this operation was hazardous, because if anything went wrong there were likely to be dire consequences for all of us personally, and for the hospital. At the same time, I realized—rebounding optimistically from my instant reaction of dread—that this was an excellent opportunity for us to demonstrate to the new Communist government our medical skill, and also our political neutrality.
After accepting the diagnosis and agreeing to an immediate operation, this "representative of the people" and his friends demanded a private room, a special nurse, the best food procurable and all sorts of extra attentions and care. Truly an impressive exhibition of the fine Communist democratic spirit!
Keeping my face expressionless and the irony out of my voice, I acquiesced soberly to every demand and assured them that I would be personally responsible, as, I added, I always was in serious cases. Despite my sedate behavior, however, I knew that I was being regarded with suspicion. In American parlance, the hospital and I were "on the spot."
The operation, by the grace of God, went well. I must admit that of all surgery, stomach resection is my favorite, for it demands considerable skill on the part of the assistant, and I knew that I had reached this proficiency. I had learned that although I had only two hands, I yet had ten fingers, and I was able to make good use of them all.
Our patient supported the whole thing well and with remarkable lack of fuss. In fact, he was a good patient, undemanding and quite inoffensive once he was separated from his companions. As he came to recognize my skill as a nurse he lost his apprehensiveness, and we got along increasingly well.
I assisted at his operation, and I took personal care of him in the ward as well, attending morning and evening to his bath and general toilet. This was an excellent opportunity for free, informal conversations, and as we chatted I acquired increasingly clear insight into the Communist philosophy and the attraction it had for a man of his type.
Unlike the idealistic young factory mechanic who had brought Marioara to us, this man had gone into Communism for purely selfish reasons. He was the son of a small merchant; he had gone through high school. Materially ambitious, he appeared to have read widely and had a half-digested smattering of many things. He had entered the Communist party because he believed it could further his interests. He knew himself to be of mediocre abilities and had shrewdness enough to realize that espousing a cause whose slogan was equality for all would enable him to rise in the world as he could never do through his own efforts—actually by dragging down to his own stature those who were his intellectual superiors, although he did not put it that way. At the same time, his imagination was fired by certain concepts—collective farming for example. He explained that he, himself, had no farm, of course, and no experience in farming, but he described vividly and with great authority the new Communist system of agriculture whereby the soil would be made to produce as never before. In the future, he assured me, by changing the vegetation, the climate and the seasons, man would no more depend upon nature, but nature would depend upon man. Man would then have exploded the childish myth of God and His creation.
"But," I said, doubtfully, "that will take quite a little time. What about now?"
"Now does not matter," he told me, quite carried away by his own enthusiasm, "for tomorrow will be ours. But of course, we shall have to hurry things up a little. We want the future in our lifetime, and anyone who hinders us is an enemy worthy of the most horrible death."
I was just in the process of bathing his legs at this point, and he got so excited about the marvelous Communist future that I feared for the stitches in his abdomen. I warned him to be quiet and took the opportunity to remark dryly that he must behave himself and lie still today if he wanted to be whole to enjoy the great tomorrow. I said, as I mopped him perhaps a little too energetically with my sponge, that so far flesh still demanded a certain length of time to heal—at least that law of nature hadn't been meddled with.
"Not when Soviet doctors will take over," he happily assured me, but obediently, with a little less gesticulation. "That, too, will be changed.
"Of course, I know you do your best, and very well, too, I must say, Domnitza Ileana. I shall certainly tell the comrades that although you are a princess, you're really quite a decent person."
I thanked him kindly and with a very straight face, and when we finally discharged him, as good as new, he and I parted very good friends.
Another Communist came to the hospital definitely to stir up trouble. He was an ordinary workman in the Tohan factory, which had been so instrumental in building the hospital. He was not really ill, and he was belligerent from the start. One afternoon while I was absent from the hospital, he succeeded in picking a quarrel with the one other man who was in the ward at the time. It became so violent that they hurled things at each other, breaking some of our precious equipment, and finally smashing a window.
When I made rounds with the doctors next morning, he made a scene and because of the—as yet—unrepaired window accused me of having housed him in inhuman living conditions, although it was June, and nights were warm. (One of the things we had most to fight was to accustom the peasants to open windows in the hospital. The windows in their houses were never opened. In the winter they remained shut to conserve precious heat, and in the summer, windows still tightly closed, the whole family slept outdoors on the wide porches.)
After a few days, our troublesome patient was discharged and he went straight to the Tohan factory management and lodged a protest. The director, who had been appointed by the Soviet government to replace Colonel Serbu, wrote me an exceedingly rude letter demanding redress.
I scented danger. Why this sudden aggression against me? We had been on excellent terms; indeed, the factory and the hospital had been working together hand in hand. Attack such as this could only mean one thing: they intended to dislodge me. But how, and why?
I thought of appealing to my Communist-patient-number-one who had been so pleased with the treatment he had received in our hospital, but I knew that he would sustain the point of view of his comrades. I knew that the Tohan factory director was both weak and timid; he wanted to be well regarded by both sides, for at that time no one could know which side would win. I felt that I would gain immediate advantage if I took the offensive with him. So I telephoned the factory and asked him in no uncertain terms to call upon me at once.
He came. I received him icily and demanded an explanation of his letter. He displayed no bravado at all, and admitted readily that he had been forced to write the letter by the Communist factory hand who had been our patient. If he had not done so, he would have been denounced to the .Party as unco-operative and favoring me. He was quite aware that the whole thing was a put-up job. He said that he had hoped I'd be disgusted with the letter, throw it away, and forget about the matter. I told him I regretted I was not a mind reader, and so had not known his intention. I assured him that in the future I would certainly thus dispose of any communication of his. His wits were slow and he couldn't think of an immediate answer which seemed suitable, so he bowed himself out. But I knew there was more to come.
Sure enough, a few days later a commission of workmen presented themselves to me, looking uneasy and a little sheepish, evidently not at all happy to find themselves there. However, their spokesman, a short, brisk, officious person, came immediately to the point. He announced importantly that they had come to investigate our inhospitality and ill-treatment of their comrade, who had been ill and had placed himself under our care. He reminded me, chidingly, that the workmen deserved the best possible attention—after all, the hospital was rightfully theirs. Had they not all worked to build it?
I looked past him to the group.
"Were you men paid for your work?" I asked them collectively.
"Yes, we were," the men nodded.
"Did any of you give of your free time?"
"No," they admitted. "But," insisted the spokesman, "our comrade was in a room with a broken window, and he had insufficient care."
"What did he suffer from, and what did he not get?"
"Well, that we don't rightly know." The man's voice dropped a note in spite of himself.
"Did or did not the window get smashed in a fight?" "Yes, it did." The men nodded in prompt agreement with their leader's answer.
"Then what is this all about? You have no more right to this hospital than anyone else. You gave no money to it; you did not even give your work free of charge as I have been doing for over three years. What is it that you want of me?"
"We want to protest."
"Then go and protest to someone else, and let me go about my work for your other comrades who have as much right to my time as you have and need it more, being ill. You are preventing me from doing my work for your own people. I could lodge a serious complaint against you for doing that. Now, don't bother me again. Go away, and pray that I may forget your faces so that when any of you come next to me, ill and needing my attention, I will not remember who you are. I shall do my best to forget."
I turned on my heel and went into the building, clicking the door behind me, leaving them standing there in the courtyard. The enemy was routed for the time being, but it was a distinct warning of what was brewing against the hospital.
Not long afterwards one of the men did return to us with a nasty carbuncle on the back of his neck. A carbuncle is always a serious thing; this one was particularly extensive, and it necessitated long and painful treatment. Faithful to my promise, I "forgot" that he had been one of the commission which had come to "protest" to me. But if I had tactfully "forgotten," he had not, for he soon began pouring out the whole truth of the affair, apparently with a desire to vindicate himself.
A few inefficient Communist workmen in the factory, accused of being lukewarm and incompetent, conceived the scheme in order to establish themselves favorably with their superiors in the Party. They would secure my hospital and present it to them on a platter, as it were. Our objectionable patient had been sent to us purposely to make trouble in order to give them a hook to hang the whole business upon. Most of the commission members had protested against serving: through long loyalty to the crown they respected me and my property; they trusted me and had confidence in the way I ran my hospital. They had no wish for a change in its administration. But effective pressure was brought to bear upon these reluctant ones by the removal of their ration cards; they had to take part in the protest or they and their families would go hungry.
Of course, the plan to get rid of me and take over the hospital failed because it had not been well thought out. But it clearly revealed to me the danger wherein we stood, and how the current of the times was running. A few rowdies could endanger the welfare of many.
This was the first of several brushes I was to have with the new regime. Sometimes I was in much more danger, but I always got through safely.
One day I found myself in the strange situation of shielding a man who once had been persecutor, from his erstwhile victim whom once I had successfully protected from him. This affair had an ironic, farcical aspect because the actors were the identical ones in each case but in reversed roles, while I myself remained in my own original role, that of protector to them both.
The former victim, now the pursuer, who had been sent by the police to search the castle, doubted my sincerity when I emphatically denied any knowledge of his quarry, once his own pursuer. This was not surprising, since he must have remembered my identical denials at that time!
He was considerably handicapped in his search by his personal obligation to me. I had difficulty in keeping a straight face, and so, no doubt, had he. But we played our parts beautifully; we said and did the appropriate things, and even in the presence of danger I couldn't help feeling that I was in a play! At the end of the interview he momentarily dropped the part he was playing.
"Why do you do it, Domnitza?" he asked me in a different voice, very human, very confidential, even friendly. "I thought you were on our side. On whose side are you anyway?"
"On the side of the unfortunate," I replied promptly and truthfully.
"You are too good!" he said. Did I detect a shade of warmth in his voice?
"There is no too good," I told him. "Some of us do things for a cause; others for money or power; still others for love of some person. Or out of hatred or revenge. Even," I finished, "for the love of God."
"Such an attitude is idiotic in these days," he said scornfully. "There is no such thing. We are not living in a fairy tale. You make yourself ridiculous."
"I don't really mind being thought ridiculous," I said. "But tell me something, just for the sake of curiosity—when I protected and hid you that time, did you find me ridiculous?"
He said nothing at all. I had got him there!
"You see," I went on, "you, for one, have a very excellent, very personal reason for being glad that there are such idiots as I in the world. And now"—I stepped aside—"you may search. The house is yours. You know that you will find no one."
"I do not doubt it," he said cryptically. "I don't pretend to understand you, Highness, but I bow to you." And he did, low and ceremoniously, and bade me goodbye.
If he had searched he certainly would have found the man I had hidden because I had not had time to conceal him well. I often wonder now, when I cannot sleep at night and my mind wanders out into the spent past, did I save two lives, or only one? I can't decide. But I am apt to find a smile about my mouth as I conjecture!
I had been absent from the hospital one morning and had not assisted at the operation scheduled then. When I returned in the afternoon I found the nurse on duty overburdened with work, so I offered to take her place by the bed of the patient who was just coming out from under the anesthetic.
Our patient was the wife of the Communist director of the Tohan ammunition factory with whom I had brushed in the matter of the outraged factory worker. She talked irrationally about her children and her husband, but I paid slight attention, for I was used to these ramblings of patients as they emerged from their anesthesia. Also, I had other things to think about.
Soon, however, I heard my name mentioned. The word "Communist" came into her babbling, and she went on to say how "they" were planning to take the hospital away from me because they considered my work detrimental to their propaganda.
I listened now quite frankly. She said that I was too popular with their own workmen. This, she fretfully explained to me, was very harmful to the Party. So they had conceived a plan which would succeed better than the first one had. They would take over the hospital in such a way that I could do nothing about it, however clever I was at turning their own reasoning against them. Their idea was not to compromise me directly, because they had found this was difficult to do. She said no one doubted my sincerity or my honesty. Furthermore, I myself was putting money into the hospital, and so they couldn't accuse me of appropriating funds that belonged to the state or to the people, or of misusing the small fees that the patients themselves paid.
All this came brokenly, although sometimes it was remarkably clear, quite as if she were conscious. I pieced it all together as she rambled on.
"You see," she said gravely, "one of the things we can do is to trip people up through their own virtues. We have only to find where their weak spot is. Now Princess Ileana's weakness is her intense loyalty, and of course you understand that loyalty to anything that is not the Party is wrong. So we are going to lay a trap and catch her in the meshes of her own loyalty. We will find something wrong with her administration and then accuse and imprison one of her people. This will not be hard to do, because everyone makes little mistakes sometimes. That's all we need.
We know that she will immediately jump to the defense and take the blame on herself if she can. When we have got her to compromise herself as much as possible, we will come forward with the indisputable facts, and voila! we will have her!"
She smiled foolishly up into my face with that benign, drunken look that people have when they are coming out of their sleep.
"How wonderful it will be when we get this hospital! You know, it is the best in this region. Oh, it will be a great day for the Party when we can say 'the Hospital of the People' instead of 'the Hospital of the Queen's Heart'!"
I sat turned to stone, and my heart a great hollow ache.
"It makes me laugh," she babbled, "when I think of all her pompous 'virtue,' all that 'loyalty' of hers, all that `service for the people' that the princess is pretending. . . . Oh, I don't know," she went on after a moment, turning her head restlessly on the pillow, "she may mean well in what she is trying to do, but what use have we with her kind? None at all! They belong to the old feudal times—to the days when the faces of the poor were ground down into the dust by the great ones in the castle.
"They only imagined themselves to be loved by the people. Well, the end to that has come. There'll be no more descending from the castle to minister to the unfortunate and the poor. The poor will exist no longer, and the unfortunate will have to fend for themselves. No, we do not need her kind any more, and the sooner we get rid of her the better."
At this point the woman retched violently. I seized a basin and held it for her. I wonder, though, which of the two of us felt the sicker. Then she quieted down, and lapsed into a murmuring half-slumber.
Sick at heart, almost physically sick, I got up and left her. I called another nurse to come and take my place beside her bed. I did not intend to have her wake to full consciousness and find me there—recognize me, and perhaps even remember vaguely the drift of what she had been saying.
I knew that now was no time for ethical silence concerning the confidential disclosures of this patient. I must act on the information she had unwittingly given me. I would go through all the hospital papers; I would call my doctors and personnel together and tell them of the great danger in which we all stood if one of them had committed the smallest indiscretion.
But the next day, when I made morning rounds with the doctors, she was full of smiles as she greeted me, delighted to see me again after so many years. She reminded me that we had been Girl Scouts together when she had been quite a little girl. Her pleasure at seeing me again seemed perfectly genuine. What was the truth? 'What had she told me? How did it accord with her behavior to me afterwards? Perhaps this upset me most of all. I would have felt easier if she had been distant with me or even surly. A horrid doubt was sown in my mind that others who met me with smiles, with warm and loving handclasps and apparent gratitude in their hearts, were also plotting against me.
This incident gave me some of the most painful hours of my life. It put such dread in my heart that I walked through my remaining days at Bran with watchfulness and apprehension. I redoubled my precautions, and tightened my supervision and control of everything that came and went through the hospital. This increased surveillance added infinitely to my already heavy burden, and very often my fatigue seemed to accumulate mountain-high. I found myself working double hours, resting hardly at all, and underlying everything was my gnawing sense of guilt, feeling myself a poor and indifferent wife and mother because I was always too tired and hard-pressed for a normal home life.
It was difficult to explain to my personnel, whom I had so trusted and to whom I had heretofore given such absolute liberty, why suddenly I was pulling in the strings, why I was being so severe about the smallest lax detail, why I counted every medicine and every drug, every sheet and all provisions over and over again, and why I checked and rechecked the books so assiduously, finally allowing no one but myself to make entries in them—things I had never done before. I explained to them that I did it, not because I doubted them, but because I knew that we were being watched, and the smallest mistake made by one of us would bring our enemies pouncing upon us all. The cost of the slightest irregularity would be more than our hospital and our lives; it would be our freedom.
I shall add that nothing ever actually happened to wrench the hospital from me. The Communists took it over after I, myself, had left the country. I know that it is still operating—a little bit of myself remaining there to serve my beloved people of Bran. My heart always warms a little when I remember that. . . .
A quiet, slack afternoon at Spitalul Inima Reginei rarely occurred, but one day we found ourselves with one. There were no operations scheduled, no emergencies appeared. All was quiet and seemed to be proceeding routinely. I decided that this would be a good opportunity to divide a large shipment of flour we had recently received into rations for the hospital staff. There was no place large enough to work in except the dispensary, so we had our paraphernalia spread out there on a long low cabinet along the wall—paper bags, flour scoops, and scales. Dr. Puscariu was there, and Badillo, Dr. John, Sister Heidi, one of the nurses. We jokingly decided to say, if anyone came in, that we were preparing plaster bandages for fractures.
Suddenly a villager, Dan Tomascu, who, incidentally, was tutor to my eldest son Stefan, came running at top speed across the bridge to the courtyard and dashed breathlessly into the hospital, his eyes popping. He could hardly talk, but gasped that the police were after him for certain of his anti-Communist activities—they had been at his front door as he rushed out the back. Instinctively he had come to me to hide him.
There was no time to take him to the castle where there were ideal hiding places, which I had used successfully several times before; and I could not compromise the hospital by hiding him there. I thought fast. An inspiration came to me. I turned to Dr. Puscariu.
"I know what!" I exclaimed. "He has an intestinal obstruction. He needs an immediate operation!"
Puscariu's eyes lit up and his teeth flashed. Without further words, he and I dashed into the operating room and began to scrub. Sister Heidi followed us, threw the instruments into the autoclave to be sterilized and started it going. Badillo tied a gown around himself and got the ether ready. As we worked swiftly we kept peering out the window which opened onto the courtyard. So far, no police!
Dan was literally the center of it all, for he stood in the middle of the operating room undressing himself. Heidi thrust a hospital johnny at him, snatched up his clothes and whisked them away. After standing a moment at the window for a last searching look across the bridge and into the village, Dan got himself up onto the operating table, Badillo clapped the ether cone over his face, and despite his excitement, Dan went quietly—or should I say eagerly?—to sleep.
Dr. Puscariu and I discussed, as we scrubbed, how much cutting would be necessary to give the effect we needed. He decided to cut through the skin only—it would produce plenty of blood and we could sew it up nicely; he thought it would be impressive enough.
But we hadn't time to carry out our plan. We had hardly started to work when the ominous tread of the police was heard outside. Dr. John met them in the waiting room.
"We have information that Mr. Tomascu is here," we heard.
"Mr. Tomascu is not here," Dr. John's voice replied steadily.
"He ran this way," insisted the police.
"He did not come here," Dr. John said. "I have been here all afternoon, and I have not seen him."
"We will search."
Puscariu looked up at me sharply. Wordlessly I agreed, and saw his scalpel go deeper, through the layers of muscle, into the peritoneum. He lifted out the intestines—it seemed that all twenty-one feet of them appeared instantly, overflowing the patient, a fine and credible sight for the police to see.
And just in time, too! The door opened and three men stood in the doorway. Puscariu looked up with a great scowl, and, not leaving the patient, I turned toward them in indignation.
"What do you want?" I demanded. "Get out of here at once. There is an operation in progress! Do you want to kill the patient?"
Badillo watched delightedly, his sharp, impudent blue eyes vigilant over the edge of the mask. Dr. John's anxious, cadaverous face showed like a conspirator's over the shoulders of the policemen.
The three, glued to the threshold, stared in horrified fascination at the display of pink intestine. After a moment of apparent paralysis, they withdrew, one murmuring something that sounded like a broken, slightly shocked apology. They had been so startled at what they had seen, which is really quite simple although alarming to a layman, that they had not thought to look at the face under the ether cone. Dan slept peacefully on. In relief, we exchanged mask-hidden smiles and then stuffed the yards of vital organ back into its rightful place in Dan's peritoneum. Then we sewed him up.
I kept him shut up in one of the little private rooms until he had healed; then he escaped from Bran and went into hiding. I often wonder what has become of him.