Hospital of the Queen's Heart by Ileana, Princess of Romania
One morning I came very early to the hospital for we had scheduled a heavy day of operations. We had very few sterile clothes, nor did we have the facilities to sterilize them quickly, so we were in the habit of scheduling as many operations as we could at one time, one after another, sometimes for six hours at a stretch, in order to make the same sterile garments do as much duty as possible without changing.
Very shortly after my arrival, while I was setting up the operating room with Sister Heidi, I looked up from the array of shining instruments I was arranging and saw through the window a horse-drawn farm cart come lumbering over the bridge and into the courtyard. One of the orderlies, a recovered convalescent soldier, appeared and hauled an old man out of it. He was evidently very sick. It looked as if his entire family had come with him, for a small group descended from the cart and gathered about the orderly and the old man, talking and gesticulating in a ferment.
I went out. I found that his wife was there, his two grown daughters and his son, a young man. They were well-to-do farmer people to judge from their appearance. The women were very much excited, and it was only after a good deal of persuasion and reassurance that we extracted the old man from them and took him into the dispensary for an examination. They followed, and I left them in the waiting room where they paid quick and desultory respects to the icon hanging on the wall and then seated themselves in a row.
I had sent Sister Heidi to summon Dr. Puscariu, and we soon found that the old man had an intestinal obstruction. I tried to find out how long he had been ill, when he had first felt the pain. Getting this information accurately from the peasants was always a problem, for they felt that if they minimized their symptoms and made their illnesses appear to be of shorter duration than they actually were, things would go better for them, the doctors would be kinder and would let them go home at once. But sometimes, as in this affair, their little fraud worked against them, for in the case of an intestinal obstruction the shorter the duration of the condition the more sure is an operation—and an operation was just the thing that the peasants wanted most to avoid.
I was assured that the old man had been ill for two days. They had brought him to me at once, his wife told me. She looked at me blankly, her small eyes black and hard in her heavy face. Her hair was drawn back so tightly that it pulled her eyebrows up with it. I remember noticing those taut eyebrows and the strained hair tugging at its roots, as she answered my questions, and wondering absently if it hurt her. The two daughters sat and stared at me silently. The son stood by the window; he let the women do the talking.
I went back to the old man. His temperature was normal. Pulse and blood pressure were good. There seemed to be every indication of a successful operative intervention. Puscariu and I decided it should be done without delay.
As usual, it fell upon me to break the bad news. The wife immediately demanded facts.
"Is there a certain chance of his recovery, Domnitza?" she asked. "Will you guarantee it?"
"That is impossible for anyone to do," I answered. "The operation is a critical one, but it is the only chance for your husband's recovery. Without it, he will surely die."
"And if you do operate?"
"There is a very good chance he will live."
Her face became purple in her agitation, and her little black button eyes were anxious.
"If he dies, do we have to pay you just the same?"
I was shocked. I'd heard a good many reactions to similar tidings, and they all varied—sometimes they were quite startling. But this was something new. I told her that as a matter of fact, if a patient's life was in danger, we spent in materials and expensive drugs a good deal more than if not. I dryly told her not to worry about the cost; I would shoulder it if necessary.
"Anyway," I added, perhaps a little severely, "the cost of the operation is not the main problem, is it? The important thing is your husband's life."
At this, she began to moan into her hands and then to cry. The two girls joined her noisily. I stood there waiting for them to get through their weeping, and I felt increasingly exasperated. Finally I could bear it no longer.
"You are accomplishing nothing, any of you, by making such a row," I told them. "And I haven't the time to stand here listening to you."
"Ah," exclaimed the elder daughter. "You don't understand, Domnitza. We must know if our father is going to die, because if he is, he must make his will first, and then we must go at once to the notary public to certify it. Then you may operate."
I was speechless. Now I was completely indignant! "If you love your father," I said vigorously, "you'd do better to pray to God for his recovery, rather than call a notary at so serious a moment to discuss how much money you are all going to get if he dies!"
The wife was a little shamed, I think, for she turned to the icon, perfunctorily crossed herself, then wiped her eyes and agreed with me, nodding her bowed head many times. The mercenary daughters turned on her and berated her, and they fought it out—I meanwhile standing there waiting, my patience wearing thin. The son stood silent, wearily watching his mother and sisters, listening with the hopelessness of a man long since outtalked.
I heard the old man moaning in the dispensary. He cried out occasionally in pain. The nurse's voice murmured something. I heard Puscariu make a comment. I turned swiftly from the arguing women and went in to the side of the old man.
I told him very simply his situation and said that an operation was his only chance of recovery. I asked his permission to perform it.
"Yes, yes," he moaned, looking up at me, sweat standing out on his forehead. "Of course I agree—only please, please do something for me. I have such pain."
His wife had followed me to the threshold and, overhearing the conversation through the open door, began to scream, throwing her hands about. Her daughters joined her hysterically. I closed the door sharply on them and turned to the old man.
"You'll be all right," I said soothingly and pressed his dry gnarled hand. "Be patient just a moment longer."
I motioned to Sister Heidi. She quickly prepared and gave him a hypodermic, and he quieted. We got him ready for the operating table and put him to sleep.
We knew that this unexpected operation would slow up our heavy schedule. Yet it had to be done, and I worriedly regretted the time I had wasted waiting for those women to make up their minds to give me the permission necessary for us to go ahead.
We decided that Badillo should operate since Puscariu had a heavy day ahead of him. I assisted. We found the condition worse than we expected, and despite all our efforts the old man's heart began to fail. Stimulants were administered and he rallied. We finished the operation successfully and took him to the ward, where I put him in a corner bed and put screens around him. He was sinking; we used every means we had to sustain him, but I realized that his strength was giving out.
I was puzzled, and I felt horribly responsible, for it was I who had influenced the old man to agree to the operation. Every indication had been for a favorable outcome. But I had been wrong.
I went to the waiting room where the family were, and I beckoned the son outside, since he did not seem to share in the family hysteria. I told him of his father's condition. The son confessed that his mother had lied to me, hoping that I would not operate. When he said that this was his father's fifth day of illness, and not the second, I understood his collapse on the operating table. I said so. The young man nodded miserably.
"Would you like to call your mother and sisters to see your father?" I asked.
He shook his head. "No, I think he is better off with just you and me."
He followed me back to the ward, and we sat with the old man, one on each side of the bed. He never recovered consciousness and died with one hand in his son's and the other in mine. The young man sat very still, grief and concern masking his stolid face.
This was a most unfortunate way to start a day when so many operations were scheduled. In so small a hospital, news travels fast, and it was disastrous for the patients who were waiting their turn in the operating room to know that the first patient there that morning had died so quickly. I schemed to myself how to get the body out of the hospital as quickly and as unobtrusively as possible. No one must see it.
The son finally spoke. "I just can't go and tell my mother and sisters," he said. "It's going to be terrible." "Don't worry," I said, for he looked shaken. "I'll go."
I couldn't find them in the waiting room where I had left them, and then I saw that they had wandered out-of-doors into the warm morning sun. I went out to them and explained as gently as I could that in spite of our best efforts, the old man had died soon after the operation.
The wife accepted the news quietly; she seemed confused and stunned. Her tears began to stream again, effortlessly, almost of their own accord. But if she took it well, not so her daughters. Both wept, and the elder went into wild hysterics. She accused me of having "murdered" her father, of having "done them out of" their inheritance by operating at once, before a will had been made. She screamed and cried; she threw her hands up to Heaven and called down its vengeance upon me and my hospital.
By this time, every window in the hospital had blossomed with heads, and startled, curious and amused faces watched the scene in the courtyard. I was distracted. This disturbing event, so necessary to conceal, was being shouted to the four corners of the earth. The mountains seemed to echo with her shrieks—surely the very shepherds on the mountaintops had heard the news and were discussing it with each other!
Finally the girl threw herself upon the ground and rolled, still yelling. I think her throat was made of brass.
I had tried to quiet her, to reason with her, to soothe her. Now, alarmed and dismayed at the effect that this hubbub was having on my patients, I leaned down and grasped her shoulders. I shook her. I demanded desperately that she be still. She didn't even know I was there. Nothing stopped her, not even the exhaustion which by this time one should reasonably expect.
So I slapped her, two resounding slaps. It could have been three—it might even have been four. My slaps seemed to me to resound as loudly as her shrieking had done. But she stopped her noise. She lay there on the ground staring up at me in complete astonishment. I think I must have looked as openmouthed as she, as I stared back at her.
Her brother, who had been watching, took this opportunity to hoist her vigorously to her feet and get her away. Followed by his chastened mother and other sister, he peremptorily conducted her, held firmly by the arm, to the horse and wagon which stood across the courtyard in the shade. He thrust her into it, the others followed, and they drove off over the bridge and down the road.
I stood there watching them go, dumbfounded and appalled at the awful things I had been doing that morning. First of all, an old man had died as the consequence of an operation I had advised. I had scolded his wife and daughters for being practical and thinking about his will —rather tardily, I told myself, still stubborn about the matter—and then I had gone out and beaten his distraught daughter. I was ashamed and confused, and I felt truly grief-stricken. I should never have raised a hand to that awful creature, no matter what she was doing. I knew better. But she was upsetting my whole hospital. .. .
Dr. John came out to me, standing there like a silly statue in the middle of the graveled courtyard. I turned to him in a burst of unaccustomed tears.
"Oh, Dr. John, whatever have I done!"
He was smiling with veiled amusement, but he was suitably serious, too. He put his arm gently around me and led me toward the hospital.
"I don't quite know, Domnitza," he answered. "All I can say is that the nerves of the entire hospital found release in your hand."
After they had brought me a big restoring cup of coffee, strong and hot and black, and I had sat still for a few minutes to collect my wits, I felt better. Of course, everyone had heard about the old man's death—how could they help it?—and the patients who were scheduled for operations that day were in a fine state of nerves. Reassuring, matter-of-fact, kindly words and sedatives quieted them, and the day marched ahead.
The good discipline and organization we had tried to build into the hospital was confirmed and demonstrated all through that day in its undisturbed, tranquil routine. Everything functioned as smoothly as usual, quite as if nothing untoward had happened, or ever could, to upset and disorganize us.
Living in the country, miles away from where the troops were billeted, we in Bran very seldom came into direct contact with the Russians. Their presence in the land was an everlasting menace, of course; we were always overshadowed by the fear of their sudden appearance in the village to carry someone off to concentration camp or to Russia. But it is extraordinary how adjustable human beings are, how quickly they become accustomed to predicaments, how they accept the most incredible situations quite calmly and matter-of-factly after the first shock and the initial indignation. We actually got used to the Russians, and we got used to the misery that they forced upon us. Figuratively speaking, they tightened the screw a full turn, and we felt we couldn't bear it, that we were going to die, that no human could live under such pressure. Then they loosened the screw half a turn backwards. The relief was so great, our gratitude was so profound, that we thought life was very supportable after all. After awhile, they tightened the screw another full turn; we suffered, then they let it go again half a turn, backwards. Once more, in contrast and in relief, life became bearable—although actually we had then arrived at the point of the first full turn, when we thought we couldn't live. But one does go on living and the screw goes on turning.
The problem of fraternization did not exist. The Russians kept severely to themselves except when they wanted something. Then they just went and took. We had an amusing tune at that time:
It was possible at any time, while driving, to be ousted from one's car by a Russian soldier or a band of them, to stand by the roadside and watch it commandeered and driven off, never to be seen again. Persons who were evicted from their cars didn't protest. They were thankful that they did not get shot as well.
Here in America, on a long automobile trip, we think little of having a flat tire along the way. It is merely a bit of bad luck which is part of the day's fortune, a vexation that annoys us, but no more. There, we acquiesced in the same way to the misfortune of having our cars taken from us, or the nuisance of being forced to drive in the opposite direction of our original destination by a Russian thumbing his way at the point of a gun. Those were hazards of traveling in those days; these were the risks I ran in my frequent trips to Brasov and Bucharest.
During the four years of occupation I never spoke to a Russian. I produced the car's documents and my nurse's card for their inspection when they stopped me in my journeyings, or when I was forced to accept a Russian hitchhiker. I always had the uncomfortable feeling, in these dealings with them, that I was not being regarded as a person, or that they even saw me; if I was noticed at all, it was as an alien and distasteful object in their way.
We had as patients only two Russian soldiers. One day there was an accident at the same perilous curve on the mountain road between Bran and Campulung where once before a truck had gone over the edge of the precipice, filling our hospital with injured persons. Two Russians were hurt, and they were brought to our door by their comrades and the gendarmerie. We were summoned and told to take care of their injuries at once, their officer meanwhile toying cheerfully with his gun to remind us of his friendly interest in our performance.
Puscariu, Badillo and I set to work. I assure you it is not pleasant nor easy to ply one's task at the point of a gun. But what made me far more uncomfortable was the attitude of the men themselves. Russians or not, they were to me still human beings, and I was full of pity for their poor hurt bodies and their manifest pain. We washed the dirt from their faces, removed and cut away their clothing to get at their injuries, and made them as comfortable as we could. As I held a cup of water to the lips of one, less badly hurt than his companion, I looked into his eyes and smiled. His response was a blank stare, truly as if he did not see me there at all. Neither man evinced the slightest interest in his surroundings, nor the least awareness of us.
One of the soldiers was able to go on his way immediately, after we had patched him up a little, but his comrade had a fractured hip. We enlisted one of our nurses, Sister Seva, who was from Bessarabia and spoke Russian, to function as interpreter. After much discussion with the officer, it was decided that the injured man was to be left with us for the operation of setting the hip, and, as soon as he could be moved, he was to be taken to the Russian hospital in Brasov.
The hip was set, and the man recovered rapidly. During his convalescence he continued his stolid indifference to everything around him. His lack of concern, of heed to his surroundings and those who took care of him, was complete. Bathing him was a little like scrubbing a kitchen table—the response was about the same. Apart from Sister Seva, with whom he occasionally exchanged a few grudging words to make known his wants, I am certain that he did not distinguish between any of us. We were all alike to him—rather unpleasant, temporarily necessary objects.
I have never seen eyes so dull and lackluster as his were. They were not sad, they had no expression of intelligence, thought or feeling of any kind; they were blank, empty; there was complete nothingness in them. Sometimes I had the queer feeling of dealing with a soulless creature; not animal-like, for animals have reactions of pain, antagonism, affection, even gratitude; not like an inanimate object, for inanimate objects have a character, indeed, often spirit. The man was dead inside his body with a deadness that had never been alive. It was a little terrifying; one must see such a thing to believe it, for it is past imagining. We all felt it and discussed it together, trying to put it into words. Was he born without a soul or had it been killed? Was this what Communism eventually did to people? Were we all destined to become like this?
As soon as we could move him, according to our agreement—in fact, our orders—we put the Russian on a stretcher, lifted him into our truck, and sent him off to Brasov in charge of Max and one of the hospital orderlies.
But on his arrival there, Max couldn't get rid of the creature. He went to the designated Russian hospital, stated his business and was summarily turned out at the point of a gun. He went to another hospital, and then another. The same thing happened everywhere. No one dared to take the Russian, and his own kind refused him. Max could not bring the soldier back to Spitalul Inima Reginei for that was strictly forbidden. We would be severely punished for keeping a Russian soldier one hour longer than was absolutely necessary.
Max was in a dilemma, for it was getting late and he dreaded driving those twenty hazardous, lonely miles back to Bran after dark. So he and the orderly devised a ruse to dispose of the Russian. They drove back to the first hospital they had visited, turning into the courtyard at dusk. Before the Russian guard had time to realize what they were doing and challenge them, they leapt from the truck, swung the stretcher out and onto the ground, jumped back again into the truck and drove off at top speed, leaving the unfortunate, helpless patient whom nobody wanted lying on the cobblestones of the courtyard for his fellows to pick up and take care of, willy-nilly.
Max expected pursuit, even a few bullets tossed in his direction, but no one gave chase to the flying truck, and there was no retaliation—we never heard anything further about the matter.
We lived in the country, and despite the realities of war and its stringencies, life at Bran followed a flexible and varied pattern. When the high tension and the pace of hospital activities became unbearable, there was a lovely accessible outdoors to escape into for a moment's respite, for its breath and its beauty to come to us. There was limitless opportunity for the unexpected, and for diversions that town life, with all its cultural pleasures, could never provide.
Wherever there are country children there are animals, and my six children are no exception.
Clip-clop-clip-clop-clip-clop we frequently heard in the middle of a morning's work. We looked up from our tasks, smiling in anticipation; patients eagerly crowded to the windows, those who could move about hurried to the courtyard. Across the bridge, we watched a singular cavalcade approach: my youngest daughter Herzi, then four or five years of age, was coming to pay the hospital a visit, attended by her retinue. She was a rosy-faced, golden-haired picture of health as she sat firmly on the back of a mangy black donkey called Mugar (a mispronunciation of the Romanian word magar, meaning donkey), and accompanying her was an original and diverse company of dear friends.
In her arms she lovingly carried a purring, orange Angora kitten, not at all disturbed by this means of transportation. On one side of the donkey tripped lightly our spotted fawn, Rehli. On the other, a tawny, smelly billy-goat gamboled clownishly, followed by a small, anxiously hurrying black lamb bleating its rebuke at being left in the rear. Some distance behind this company, on a course of its own, trailed a strange, dazed-looking animal one had to know in order to recognize. This was our beloved Baciu, a ram with a crooked horn and a broad and naked, charred black scar across its side and flank.
Rushing about and among them, importantly rounding them all up and making a tremendous noise that impressed no one, was Tom, a lumbering puppy of mixed lineage. All this company was held together neither by command nor leash, but by the voice and laughter of the child in their midst.
One of the waiting, welcoming soldiers lifted Herzi from the donkey's back, and then, still clutching the orange kitten tightly to her, she solemnly walked through the wards, wishing each patient a polite good morning. Her bodyguard waited patiently outside in the courtyard, taking quick nibbles at the forbidden fruit of our luxuriant, cherished window boxes.
Baciu never-failingly tried to have a go at entering the hospital with Herzi, for he felt that after all he belonged here, too. He was one of our patients.
When he had been a woolly lamb, he was kept in a pen with his relations, not far from the hospital. During one of our furious mountain thunderstorms he was struck by lightning. He was not killed, as he logically should have been, but he was a very sorry sight indeed when Barbu, the gardener, brought him to us. He had a frightful burn across his right shoulder and side and down his flank. The wool was completely burnt off—it never did grow back again. We anointed him with salve, more in an effort to still the pain than in the hope that the burn would ever heal, and we bedded him down in Maria's kitchen, where she did twenty-four hour duty in tending him.
To everyone's surprise but Maria's, he recovered, and he became the privileged pet of the hospital. He used to trip through the wards, going from bed to bed, playfully joining groups of ambulatory patients who warmly welcomed him, accepting the fondling and the tidbits as his due. When he was well again, however, he was put back in his pen with the other sheep, where he was destined to become a hero.
During the war years there had been little hunting in the mountains by the peasants or sportsmen, and consequently, the wolves had greatly multiplied. In winter and early spring, hunger drove them to the valleys and even into the villages. We felt no anxiety about our animals, however, for they were quartered near the hospital buildings. But one night the wolves attacked our sheep pen, within sight of the very windows of the wards. They made silent and short work of our flock there. Except Baciu. He fought them off, and we found him next morning in the midst of his dead, torn and rended family, one of his horns all but torn off, lacerated and bleeding, but still standing gallantly on his four legs. He was childishly glad to see us, and we petted him, consoled and praised him extravagantly.
He came to the hospital once more to be pieced together, and he accepted his medical attention and his familiar place in the kitchen with the nonchalance of a habitué. Again he recovered from what would have been annihilation to a lesser animal.
Baciu never doubted that he belonged to the hospital and as before, he wandered where he would, through the wards, into the waiting room, even the dispensary. Once his freedom of the place acutely embarrassed us during the inspection of a stuffy and thoroughly formal general. It was hard to explain Baciu satisfactorily to him, or to make clear the fact that he really was a dear, even though he looked like a nightmare, with his scarred, nakedly woolless side and flank, his lopsided horn and his red eyes.
I think Baciu was what we call curios la cap: funny in the head—certainly he was very stupid even for a sheep. But he was also a hero of no mean quality. We used to consider his singular appearance and wonder why we had saved him, for no one wanted him, yet who could slaughter him? He was one of us.
The aristocrat of Herzi's band was a fawn. She came from far in the north, where her mother had suddenly and inexplicably appeared on the battlefield and had been killed during the action. A soldier picked up the tiny fawn and put her into a passing army truck to remove her from certain destruction. The truck passed through Bran, and the driver left her with my children. She was very small and very young; she could not have been more than a week old when she came to us. She had long thin legs no thicker than my finger, and her fine ribs showed pitifully through her gaunt little sides. Her great liquid brown eyes looked up at us helplessly. They broke—and won—our hearts.
We called her Rehli. The children fed her from a bottle, and she slept under the kitchen stove of the castle to keep warm. Gradually her strength grew, and she could take more substantial nourishment. She loved and trusted us from the first; she never was afraid of human beings, and she played with the children like a puppy. She gamboled around the breakfast table, graciously accepting morsels; she played with Tom, the puppy, who regarded her as an equal, and she followed Herzi wherever she went.
Still, there remained in her a streak of the independence of the wild, and as she got older she would go off by herself into the forest. She reappeared at mealtimes, however, and she always came when the children called her, suddenly materializing out of the forest in great soaring leaps, seeming not to touch the ground as she came toward us, clearing like a bird any obstacle in her way.
One day she did not return. We called and called her in vain, and our hearts grew heavy with apprehension. Could someone have shot her? Had she been killed by wolves? Three days passed. The children were inconsolable and talked of nothing else.
On the third night there was a tremendous thunderstorm. The mountains echoed with the continual crash of thunder and the crackling of lightning. The wind swept the rain in great sheets of water against the castle walls, forcing the smoke of our open fires back into the room by its violent blasts. We were snug and secure behind the solid walls of our little fortress-castle but our thoughts were outside with Rehli, somewhere in this vast torment, alone in the wet forest.
Soon after supper, I stopped the children's anxious conjecturing, for they were in a state, and I packed them firmly off to bed, sorrowful and protesting. After a while, I climbed the stairs to my own tower room, directly above the outside flight of steps to the castle door. But the uproar of the tempest would not let me sleep. I found myself listening for some sound beyond the storm. As the old grandfather's clock in the hall outside my door began to wheeze, gathering itself together to strike midnight, I thought I heard a cry. Oh, was it? Could it be? I strained my ears—yes, it seemed so! Or was I imagining what I wished for so dearly?
I sprang from my bed and threw open the latticed window. I leaned out into the wild night, rain pouring in upon me, drenching me through my thin nightdress. A flash of lightning ripped open the sky, illuminating clearer than day every detail of the valley, the lashing trees, the strong rough castle walls, the long flight of stone steps. And Rehli—and Rehli! For there she stood, pressed against the fast-closed, sturdy door, crying to us to come down and let her in.
I flung a warm robe over my wet nightdress, and there were wings on my bare feet as I flew down the stairs and swung back the heavy door on its protesting hinges. Rehli gave a little cry of welcome and danced into the hall on the tips of her tiny hooves. She shook herself; the wetness flew about her like a sparkling cloud. Talking to her in my relief and joy, I went back upstairs to my room, she tripping along beside me like a companionable and affectionate dog. She settled herself gratefully before the fire.
I ran to wake the children and tell them the glad news. They scrambled out of bed and swarmed into my room, crowding around her, noisy and loving and welcoming, and Rehli stood amongst them, her head high, her lovely ears twitching, her delicate, perfect legs close and straight—a bewitched princess indeed, holding her court!
But one day, much later, Rehli went out to her forest and this time she did not come back. It was late winter, and the wolves were hungry. We had heard them howling in the forest at the edge of the village. Today, still, we speak of her lovingly and with sadness.