Hospital of the Queen's Heart by Ileana, Princess of Romania
In the spring of 1947, a three-day medical convention was held in the Brasov medical center. Professors came from the medical schools of Bucharest, Cluj and Jassy, papers were read, seminars were held. Puscariu and I were invited to attend, and I sat, docile and patient, through hours of lectures and dissertations, sometimes—quite frankly—not understanding much of what I was listening to. These men were all specialists in their fields, and I was merely a nurse —a nurse with a sure instinct for her work, I will honestly admit, but trained only in the informal school of necessity and stern experience. I was in their learned company because I had built and developed a hospital in the same sturdy way that I had been trained—by necessity, fortuitous circumstances and hard, never-ending work.
When the convention was nearing its close I invited the professors to come to Bran to see what we were doing there. My invitation was accepted with flattering alacrity, and one of the surgeons, a famous one in the Jassy school, agreed to perform a major operation at Spitalul Inima Reginei for us.
They had, of course, heard of our hospital and I believe they were curious, knowing our activity and our growing reputation, and fully aware of my own informal medical background. They came with curiosity—kindly, I am sure, yet alert to note and to criticize any failing or unprofessional procedure.
I am glad to say that they were pleased. As they went through the hospital in groups, pausing here and there to discuss a point together, turning to us to ask a question, I felt more than I ever had before, even at Cluj, that I was accepted as one of their number. This hospital was my thought, my creation, the expression of my love and toil made manifest in the form and pattern that these men knew best—I was speaking their language to them. They listened, they gave me the respectful, comradely attention of colleagues. We were united in the same passion and purpose.
They inspected everything minutely. They scrutinized our nursing methods and the curriculum of my student nurses and expressed their approval. They studied with interest our patients' charts which I had adapted from American models and simplified. They commended sincerely a light stretcher I had invented which we nurses used, unaided by an orderly, to get unconscious patients off the operating carriage and into bed.
They experimented, fascinated, with the physiotherapy gadgets for the rehabilitation of atrophied muscles, which we had improvised with a few strings, pulleys, sand bags and wooden frames. They complimented our ingenuity.
But my cup of satisfaction and pride was full to the brim when I saw their spontaneous enthusiasm for my day nursery and children's ward. This had always been a part of the hospital most dear to me, and I am very much like other people—I do enjoy others' understanding and appreciation of what I, myself, love best.
The surgeon who operated expressed satisfaction with his equipment and with the smooth, co-operative assistance in the operating room. Badillo and I couldn't decide which of us should assist, so we both did.
This was a novel idea, apparently, to these doctors, that it was possible for a small, indigent village hospital to function on such a simple scale, yet possess within itself all the essentials to accomplish, in quality if not in quantity, as much skilled, good work as a large town hospital. They said so, simply and straightforwardly, expressing respect and admiration for our achievements.
Puscariu shared my fervent satisfaction. We found ourselves alone for a moment in the operating room, and, full of suppressed delight, we ceremoniously patted each other on the back like two gleeful children. Badillo put his head in, found us there demonstrating our approval of each other and our world and, after a moment's amused surprise, joined our mutual congratulations. How silly we three must have looked in our triumph—how sincere was our affection and our appreciation of each other.
In the spring of 1946, Max, now a full-fledged physician, was appointed district doctor in Bran, replacing Dr. Stoian. I was delighted with this stroke of good luck which brought him back to our village, for Max was one of the earliest members of the hospital family; he had struggled through its beginnings with me, and had loved and believed in it as much as I.
Mutually beaming, we met in the waiting room under the icon. We shook hands, and he kissed my hand with affectionate formality. Then suddenly, all dignity tossed aside in the joy of seeing him, I threw my arms around him and hugged him. Once again, dear redheaded Max was one of us. In him I had a wholehearted, enthusiastic comrade in my battle for better health conditions in our community.
During this same spring, Sister Ginia left us. Nearly a year before she had received a letter from her husband who had disappeared when the Russians came into the country in 1944. Miraculously, he had evaded both the Russians and the Germans and had found his way to France. Then by slow and devious means, he communicated with Ginia and asked her to join him.
Ginia had never given up hope for him, and she was almost hysterical with happiness and relief at finding he was still alive, and at the prospect of seeing him again. A long and complicated mechanism was set into motion to secure permission for her to leave the country and go to France. Ginia was oftener impatient and discouraged through this period than when there seemed to be no hope at all. But at last arrangements were completed, and the precious papers were ready. Sister Ginia departed forever from Bran, and another nurse moved through the hospital's night shadows in her place. We missed her, all of us—the staff, the soldiers, the children and the civilian patients, even while we were glad for the happy ending to her story.
Much later, when I, too, had become an exile, I met Ginia again and her husband in South America. I am godmother to their little son.
That summer, the hospital received further encouragement. Miss Eugenia Popa, head of the Regina Maria School in Bucharest, came to spend a short holiday in Bran and visited us. She was the recognized final authority in nursing in Romania. Formerly a doctor, she had realized the great lack in Romania of good nursing to second excellent surgery and, knowing the need of it, she had some years before given up her practice and had gone to the United States to learn American principles and superlative methods of nursing. She graduated from the Nashville General Hospital in Tennessee and returned to her homeland, establishing a school of nursing in Bucharest. She was exceedingly critical; her standards were almost impossibly high, and her course of training was severe and excellent.
Miss Popa inspected the hospital and her approval was as pleasant to us as had been the medical conventions. We had long conversations about practice and theory; I told her about what I longed to do in Bran, in the hospital and in the villages. Her interest did not stop with her glowing approbation; she promised to help by sending one of her best students to act as head nurse, in order to relieve me of much necessary routine and release me for other things important to the growth and development of the hospital, which only I could do.
So, in September we welcomed Lucia Bragda to our staff. A great weight slipped off my shoulders and onto hers. I knew that in her capable, American-trained hands the care of the patients and the oversight of my nurses would be far better than in mine, for now I was away from the hospital so much of the time. Her improvements were immediately apparent, and with a mind at peace I was free to see to the endless procuring of food and medical supplies, haunted no longer by anxiety as to what was happening in my absence at Spitalul Inima Reginei.
That year, 1947, brought a drastic financial and economic change to the country. We had passed through a period of steady inflation; we dealt in thousands and millions. It was almost impossible to keep up with the tremendous rise in prices; we had continually to raise our hospital fees to make ends meet. Captain Boeru, the administrator, and I spent hours trying to figure out ways and means by which to keep up with our growing stringencies. I learned not to worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow's difficulties never proved to be what I had worried about. They were the things I had not thought of. I got to be like our cook, Maria—I waited philosophically for the worst which I was certain would happen any minute. I was content and grateful to get through each day safely and solvently. Each day found us still alive and provided for. In fact, food and hospital supplies kept coming to us from official sources, and my farm beyond Brasov never ceased its yield of food for us. If we did not have plenty, we never failed to have enough. The American Red Cross helped us a great deal, and so did the Swedish Red Cross which, during that summer, sent us a shipment of surgical instruments and gauze for bandages and sponges.
It was the recurrent, everyday expenses which worried me most—the salaries of my doctors and nurses, and the wages of my lay help. Our exchequer was often empty, and a jewel or two frequently found its way from the case on my dressing table to a merchant in Bucharest. I learned sadly that insufficient salaries led to petty dishonesty on the part of my staff, as it does elsewhere, human beings having identical frailties no matter where they are. Aside from the moral ugliness, however, this petty thieving was immensely dangerous to us all, for through the hospital I was handling large quantities of public goods and material unobtainable on any open market.
In the early summer, the Ministry of Health unexpectedly granted me a large sum of money to build the children's ward and day nursery which we had planned and talked about for a long while. Dr. X advised me briefly and without explanation to spend the money quickly. I understood him to be warning me indirectly about the approaching stabilization, and I followed his advice as promptly as I could. I needed permits to purchase building materials, and when these were finally obtained, I searched the markets everywhere to find materials. I bought bricks, lumber, hardware, glass, cement, wherever I could find them. By the middle of August a goodly pile of material was stacked, ready to be used. Plans were drawn up and approved; we were prepared to start the actual building when the blow fell.
On August 15, 1947, the Communist government established monetary stabilization. Our currency was demonetized to the 20,000th part of itself. The stacks of paper money in our possession were worthless. We had to deposit it all with the "state," represented in Bran by a group of men not at all typical of our finest citizens and offensively important in their new prominence as the Communist so-called "financial commission." In exchange for his money, everyone received new currency to the value of $2.25 apiece, regardless of the amount he had declared and surrendered. Only gold could purchase more of the new Communist currency.
This was especially hard on the peasants who, from long custom and ignorant mistrust of the banks, had hoarded their money at home in a stocking under the hearth or in the barn loft. Now they had literally piles of money not worth the match that was struck to burn it up.
This catastrophe was followed immediately by a huge tax imposed upon everyone, far exceeding the sum allowed each person; therefore it had to be paid in goods. Already the peasants were obliged to give the government 5o per cent to 7S per cent of their crops for export to Russia. Now there was left to them barely enough on which to subsist. There was not one iota of surplus.
Thus was accomplished, deliberately and cleverly, the complete crippling of the country by those who claimed to defend and uphold the rights of the common people against the "bloodsucking boyars" as the Russians were fond of calling our governing class—those same boyars who, in 192o, had divided their entire enormous holdings of land equally among all the peasants in the country.
The economic disaster produced a solidarity among the people which was truly remarkable. They were human enough to disagree thoroughly, often unreasonably, and to bicker enjoyably about many things when times were normal, but now they became of one mind in a spirit of ardent national unity, of oneness in a single idea.
My staff members were certainly no exception to this zeal. The hospital's funds vanished overnight into the hands of the "state." Individuals received their dole of $2.25 in exchange for all they possessed, but we, as an institution, got nothing at all for ours. The "financial commission" declared that institutions belonged to the state; they had no instructions to pay us anything, and we would have to take the matter up with suitable government officials.
We were penniless, and I was thoroughly distracted. I called my staff together and told them what had happened. I said that I had no money to pay their salaries and wages; I had little hope that I would soon be able to do so, and certainly none at all that I could ever make up their loss. I said that I could still house them, and I could feed them for some time to come. They were free to go, or to stay and give their services to the hospital for nothing. I made no appeal; I just laid the facts before them and let them decide. I am proud to say that not one of my staff left me, and none claimed back pay when we began having funds again from the government. True to the phrase which long since had begun to slip through my mind, and of which I was hardly conscious until this time of apparent destitution, we were all banded together in the Bran way of life, with one idea, one purpose and spirit throughout our entire group.
Later, money started circulating again. Through Dr. X, who was at that time still in the Ministry, we were reimbursed in part, and we were given regularly a sufficient amount to keep our heads above water, but only that. There was never enough to fill the holes, nor to go on with the building of the children's wing, nor of the chapel which we had started during the summer in the hospital courtyard, through the generosity of a friend.
It was a replica of the chapel in Balcic which my mother had built and which had held her heart until we were forced to remove it to Bran. Eventually we intended to bring the heart down from its mountainside resting place and put it in the chapel, exactly as it had been at first.
Autumn found the building unfinished, although it was roofed against the winter's storms and the murals had been started, lovely, quite modern things which were to incorporate the faces of the hospital staff and my six children into the frieze. But now it could never be finished, and there it stood, a symbol of our indestructible faith which we started to build in bright defiance of the trend of our times. The trend had certainly balked us so far as the building of our chapel was concerned, but never would the fundamental reality of that virile faith be shaken.
The stabilization and destructive taxation were but the prelude of what was to follow. The entire country was firmly shackled in absolute dependence upon the Communist state. From the King to the least peasant, we were financially and every other way at the mercy of a despotic power which, in the name of freedom, had virtually reduced the people to slavery. After the first impact and shock, life struggled on as it has a way of doing, and on the surface seemed quite the same as before. We went about our daily business as if it were still our own.
Despite political and economic difficulties, the hospital was steadily growing in efficiency and morale. Its progress was apparent in the constantly mounting number of patients who came to us, and the varied and complex surgery we were called upon to perform. The violent restriction of the times notwithstanding, we had nearly everything we needed. Somehow, it had all come to us—not without effort, of course, but we at Spitalul Inima Reginei had no lack, when there was lack and actual privation all around us.
A deep foreboding becalmed the land, and the hope of everyone dwindled to a pin point. We settled down to a long, dogged daily endurance, our faces turned toward restrictions and inevitable want. Even our countenances changed. A worried look appeared and stamped itself on people's faces; laughter died out. If the sun still shone as before, and if nature was still unquenchably lovely, beauty had departed from our lives.
Summer slipped imperceptibly into autumn; the hillsides turned a blaze of color as they had done for hundreds of years before. Beech trees were coppery and purple, and at their feet meadows were spread solid with the pale mauve of autumn crocuses. A light fresh fall of snow sprayed the mountaintops and outlined them brilliantly white against the deep blue sky. In the castle garden, dahlias and zinnias and marigolds rioted together in strident color. Nature's beauty was in aching contrast to the drabness of our lives and our outlook.
That autumn, my last in Romania, is forever etched on my brain. I can still hear the merry river tumbling over its stones; the sound of children's voices in the day nursery play-yard coming clearly through the keen, frost-touched air in the morning; the winy, languorous, brilliantly colored afternoons, rich with belated hot sunshine. I remember the clop-clop of the horses' hooves on the hard-packed village road and the bleating of sheep as the flocks followed their shepherds back from the mountainside pastures where they had spent the summer. And always, the distant barking of dogs in the village.
I hear a tune of doina, and the fragrant scent of that last sweet crop of hay is in my nostrils. With almost unbearable longing I feel, hear and see with my mind's eye all those scenes that are home to me and that are gone forever. An aching, overpowering homesickness fills me, and I could weep my heart out for it. Bran, Bran, beloved Bran. . . .
Christmas came. We made ready for it with our usual joy and anticipation. My children came home from school for their holidays, as children do everywhere at this season. The convalescent soldiers went out one gray, wintry afternoon to cut down the beautiful symmetrical fir tree they had picked out weeks before for the hospital's Christmas tree. Singing carols, they dragged it back over the snow, several ropes tied to it, each man hauling on one. The very act of singing and listening to Christmas carols is a kindler of joy. Our soldiers' voices carried clearly through the keen, early winter twilight, and we heard them coming long before they reached the courtyard. We went to the doors to listen and felt our hearts warm and lift to the familiar airs. Thus we heard the first carols of the season—always an event—and we felt that Christmas had been ushered in.
We set up the tree in a ward which at the moment was empty. Patients and staff shared in trimming it; we used chains of colored paper and bits of ribbon, cut in strips and pasted in links which the children and the bed patients had been making for weeks, gilded nuts and apples hung from strings. Precious hoarded candles tipped each branch, waiting to be lit.
I had a useful gift of clothing for each member of the staff, and for every patient we had secured a small icon and prayer book, and a sewing kit. The sewing kits came from the American Junior Red Cross—I wonder if the children who contributed them ever imagined how much pleasure they gave.
The Glee Club under Dr. Puscariu's direction had been practicing the old carols. We cut pine and fir branches and decked the wards with them; their nostalgic scent overpowered and banished the usual soap-and-antiseptic hospital atmosphere. As Christmas Eve approached and our small preparations were complete, every one of us felt the same thrill and expectancy that we had known on the other Christmases in happier times. Oppression notwithstanding, Christmas was still magic—it had not changed.
On Christmas Eve I laid aside my familiar red uniform and its white apron and coif, and I put on a silver evening gown with a little clinging train. I took my remaining jewels out of their hiding place—my mother's beautiful sapphire and diamond diadem, my diamond bracelets, the great diamond cross hung on my grandmother's ropes of pearls, my diamond and ruby earrings. I put them on.
How strange and unfamiliar I looked, staring back at myself from my dressing room mirror. I knew that I was looking at a ghost from the past as I surveyed my splendor. (Did I know it was the last time? How did I know? . . . )
The children came clamoring into my room, dressed in their best, and we gaily started out, crunching down the dark snowy village street to the hospital and the Christmas Eve party.
The staff and the ambulatory patients had assembled, and there was a gasp of pleasure when I took off my fur coat and head shawl, and my shining gown, glittering jewels and the diadem appeared. The nurse they knew and loved had turned into a domnitza of the past. They were delighted; they knew I had done my best to honor them by wearing the finest I had, the splendor and prestige of yesterday—theirs as well as mine—which I was sharing with them once again. I was not out of place in this guise, here in my country hospital with my simple people. My magnificence was not a gesture of superiority; indeed, thus I was more a part of them than ever.
Sister Lorie had dressed up her fat little daughter as a diminutive Father Christmas, and the other tiny children ran about as small Christmas angels, in little white nightgowns and white and gold paper wings which sometimes hung askew.
We began our Christmas party with the reading of the story of the Nativity according to St. Luke. And then followed the distribution of gifts, interspersed with carols. The staff and patients together presented me with a huge bouquet of my favorite flowers, freesias. Today, when I find freesias in a florist shop and smell their overpowering sweetness almost giddily, I am transported back into that white-walled room full of the Christmas fragrance of evergreen and burning wax candles, its warm orange curtains drawn across the windows shutting out the night and the threatening new world. The great Christmas tree mounts toward the ceiling, its candles blazing, and about it are grouped these people, my people—the excited children with their shining faces, Dr. Puscariu and his family, Dr. John and Dr. Lucy, Barbu, the gardener, already rosy and mellow with Christmas cheer, Captain Boeru, Maria, Anna and her Josef, Badillo, Max, dear Noelle who had come from Bran-Poarta for the celebration, Ioana and Vasile, never far apart, usually hand in hand, all the nurses, Rosa and the other patients—dear, familiar, lost faces all, wreathed in smiles, turned toward me in affection and comradeship. . . .
I moved among them, distributing the gifts with the merry assistance of my children, and then we went through the wards to the bed-patients, accompanied by the carolers and all the others of the staff. Eyes lit up as I came in my glittering finery. They called me their Christmas Princess, and there was the same tone of affection and possessiveness in their voices as they said it that was in the "Domnitza!" "Domnitza!" of everyday demands and urgencies and needs.
Afterwards we had our simple Christmas feast—little cakes, cozonac, our traditional, tall-loaved holiday bread, and wine. There were more carols, dancing to an accordion and fiddle played by two of our soldiers, and then we said our good nights.
My heart was filled to the brim as my family and I walked home that Christmas Eve. The children were chattering in excitement around me, and I politely, absently, answered them, but within I felt an almost holy silence. Danger, privation, anxiety, we of Spitalul Inima Reginei shared them together, yes, but we shared more than these. We shared love and dependence upon each other, the good companionship of hard work and mutual trust. We had the best part of life. Ah, I was a wealthy woman, I thought. I had the love and trust of true and simple people. I knew an unbreakable bond with them—the service of others.
As I walked, I lifted my heart to the still white stars in that cold, black winter sky. "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men," we are told the angels sang in a sky full of glory, that first Christmas Eve. But I could only say silently, my heart so full of gratitude that it was near to breaking:
"Thank you, God—oh, thank you!"