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

The telephone bell rang sharply in my tower room waking me from my sound sleep. I reached out in the dark and found the receiver.


"Yes?" I recognized the voice of Ginia, the night nurse in my hospital down in the valley.

"Dr. Puscariu would like you to come at once. There is an emergency."

"What is wrong, Sister Ginia?"

"He has returned from Brasov bringing with him the patient he was called to see this afternoon. He thinks it is wise to operate without delay and would like you to assist him."

"Thank you. Please tell Dr. Puscariu I will be there just as soon as possible."

I replaced the telephone on its cradle, switched on the light which made great, curving, queerly alive shadows in my vaulted, thick-walled room, and sprang out of bed. I stumbled into my uniform, still half asleep; then I went down the narrow staircase—on tiptoe so as to wake no one—across the little courtyard and silently into the hall, where, after some fumbling, I managed to turn the key and pull open the heavy oaken door. I passed through, not forgetting to close the door carefully behind me, and stood at the top of the long flight of stone steps which led down to the road below. The mountainside rose black and sheer before me, wrapped in its forests and the night.

It was dark, but I could see by the starlight, and I had a little eerie feeling as I ran down the steps and followed the white ribbon of road that dropped rhythmically through the deep shadows down the steep wooded hillside and then turned sharply onto the highway. Here a figure suddenly stepped out of the darkness and confronted me. My heart missed a beat in momentary fright, which was laughed away as I recognized the sentry and he me. He presented arms, and I hurried on along the dim highway.

As I went, I could hear the wide, shallow river rushing by me on my right, but I could not see it in the dark for there were no lights anywhere except in the hospital lying ahead. I crossed the broad wooden bridge which led across the river from the village's only street, to the hospital. The low, wide shape of the building was just visible through the willow trees along the river's edge, and the dark mass of wooded hillside rose behind, dwarfing it. I ran up the shallow steps into the lighted waiting room and went through into the surgery. The last remnants of my sleepiness had vanished, and my wits were keen and clear. I was ready for the emergency that had summoned me from my bed.

Our chief surgeon, Dr. Puscariu, had been called late the day before for a consultation in the town of Brasov, twenty miles away. The patient he had gone to see—a wealthy woman—proved to have an obstruction of the small intestine, not urgent or of long standing, but an immediate operation was recommended. Because of war circumstances and the Russian occupation, hospitals in Brasov had little space for a civilian patient and, what was worse, were without essentials for the operation to be performed. Dr. Puscariu had decided that the best thing to do was to risk the long drive to Bran.

All this he told me when I arrived, slightly breathless and eager. Would I set up the operating room and be ready to assist him? Indeed, yes! As I set about the usual preparations with the night nurse, sorting out instruments to be sterilized, choosing the narcotics and stimulants which might be called for, detailing a nurse to be called for postoperative special care, and deciding which room was to be in readiness for our patient, I felt that I had reached one of the pinnacles of my ambition. Not only the poor and the needy knocked at my door for help; the wealthy, too, in search of medical and surgical efficiency and good care, were beginning now to come to my little, unassuming hospital, housed in wooden barracks that had been laughed at and ridiculed, and to me, the eccentric princess who had a bee in her bonnet about nursing. We were certainly becoming recognized as being both serious in our purpose and professionally equipped to save lives. The humble folk in the village and the countryside had long since found that we were there to help them, though it had been a long and patient struggle to persuade them to come. It is no small thing ever, to win the trust of the poor and neglected, but to gain the confidence of the exacting and fastidious rich was a major victory in my hospital's long-drawn-out fight to exist and to heal for the sake of healing, irrespective of rank or wealth. Yes, we had come a very long way, my hospital and I, in these three years from our beginning with only a small strip of land between a rocky, wooded hillside and a rushing mountain stream, and my own rather hazy professional skill. The whole thing was built on faith—it was the realization of a vision of service to fill a desperate need.

War had been raging over the face of Europe for six years. In 1941, when Germany declared war on Russia, Romania joined the Axis. She had little choice in the matter. In her short alliance with Germany, Russia had possessed herself of Bessarabia and Bucovina, Romania's eastern provinces, which angered us. Russia was our traditional enemy. She had overrun our country many times in the past, and the Romanians were and are profoundly anti-Russian and non-Communist. We have never trusted Russia, and, when the crisis came and we had to choose sides, we wanted none of her.

Germany offered us the return of our lost provinces, and, although the Romanian people were very cool, not to say cold, toward the Nazis, German friendship was preferable to Russian. It had to be one or the other.

But quite apart from sentiment, the cold facts are that had Romania joined the Allied forces in 1941 she would have instantly become a battleground, and the Germans would have promptly occupied her as bitter enemies instead of overbearing friends.

In 1944 the German armies were in retreat, and the Russian armies were close to the Polish and Romanian borders. In May, the Nazis, in order to defend themselves in the west from the Allied invasion of France, and also in the north where they were very vulnerable, withdrew their best troops on the eastern front, leaving their allies there to their fate. Our Romanian Army had been greatly scattered and depleted during these three years of war and was unable to defend us. Also, we had depended in a large measure upon German support for armament, with which they now ceased to supply us. We were completely helpless and wide open to the Russian invasion, which was prompt in coming.

At first I had been in Austria, my husband's country, where I had turned part of our castle in Sonnberg, near Vienna, into a hospital for the war wounded. But now, in 1944, as things grew worse, I returned to the country of my birth as one would return to a mother's arms in time of trouble. My mother was dead, but I could return to the home she had left me and to the people she had loved, to whom I felt so closely akin. In defiance of what seemed reason, I took my children away from the seemingly safer West to the East where the terrifying specter of Russia loomed large and overpowering on our frontier. But I knew I was in the land where my safety dwelt in the hearts of the people themselves. This feeling was wholly instinctive, and sober fact was soon to prove me right.

I had already placed my children Stefan, aged twelve, Marie-Ileana (Minola), eleven, and Alexandra (Sandi), ten, in German-speaking schools in Brasov a year before, to remove them from Nazi influence in Austria and also from the continual expectation of bombardment. At that time bombing had not yet begun in Romania; the first air raid came there in February, 1944. The three younger children—Dominic (Niki), eight, Maria-Magdalena (Magi), six, and Elisabeth (Herzi), four—had remained with me in Sonnberg, which up to the time I left had had no air raids, although, as I have said, we expected them daily. When I came back to Romania I had no definite plan to remain there; it was the only safe place I knew of for my children, but I had no idea when we left our home in Sonnberg that we would never see it again. We traveled with only what was necessary for a short stay; everything else was left in Austria. Anton, my husband, was then still serving in the Luftwaffe and did not follow us to Bran until July of that year, when he was discharged from the German Army. (see I Live Again page 174)

Life was too urgent and demanding, then, to look far ahead. Every day was full of excitement and tension. I did not know what was going to happen next. I settled my six children and myself in my little castle and then looked about to see how I could be of use, how best to take my place in the community and help Bran's people, as Bran was sheltering us. And as I lived and worked there, teaching and taking care of the people of Bran, I found that I, myself, was being taught in turn. Through the four years that followed, witnessing their resistance to the Communists, I learned from them how to face danger, ordeal and death with quiet patience and fortitude and an absolute faith in the goodness of God—discipline that was to stand me in good stead in the years to come, although I could not know it then. Living and working with them was full of emotion and incident. Sometimes the mutual schooling was painful, often it was difficult, and sometimes it was so comical that we all laughed together. But always it was a rich and satisfying human experience. Hard and terrible as those years were, it was yet a wonderful time of my life.

It is always difficult to decide where to begin a story, because whatever we do is a consequence of so much that has gone before. But since this is principally the story of my hospital, I shall start on the day I decided, against all practical reason, to build it.

It happened in the village of Bran which lies on the banks of the Turcu, a tumultuous mountain stream that winds down a narrow valley between two high Carpathian ranges, just where the mountains take an east to west direction after having stretched for miles almost north and south. Looking north in the direction the river flows, on the right stand the Bucegi, high and rocky in places, sloping and gentle in others. The high plateaus where the sheep graze are green in the summer and in spring are red with Alpine roses. On the left is the Piatra Craiului, the King's Stone; a high and narrow rocky ridge, it stands silhouetted against the sky above the lower wooded hills. The villages are scattered far and wide upon emerald-green slopes where the forest seems to stand back to let the rich grass take over. From afar, they look like a handful of toy houses that a child has thrown upon a rumpled carpet. Near the river and its several tributaries, the houses gather close together about the church, the school and the village administrative buildings and a few small shops. The houses are built of beams and clay, with high-pitched roofs and jutting eaves, covered with shingles that have a lovely silvery sheen. The whitewashed walls stretch to bind the houses to the stables, thus forming an inner courtyard, so that each homestead is a little fortress of its own. From Roman times until this day they have been so constructed, originally as a defense against invaders. In years of peace the walls keep the yards free from snowdrifts through the long severe winter.

In prehistoric days, the Turcu must have had quite a fight to get out of the mountains and onto the Transylvanian plateau. For here the steep rocks come sharply down to form a short, narrow gorge, at one point obliging the shallow noisy river to change its forthright course into a hairpin bend. Upon the promontory thus made, Teutonic knights of the twelfth century built a stronghold and threw a broad wall across the old mountain path along the river, so controlling the only existing route north and south. The wall now is crumbled down into the forest, moss-grown, ruined and almost forgotten. But the staunch little stone castle still remains; built to endure, it is scarcely changed by the passing centuries. Foursquare to the winds it stands, its turrets and towers overlooking the valley and plain, a lovely romantic remnant of the great past, a silent victorious monument to untold skirmishes with invading hordes. For hundreds of years it was a garrison and knew only the sound of soldiers' tread, their rough shouts and brawlings. In more recent times of peace, the echoing voices of exploring children wakened it to momentary life. It was after the First World War, when a grateful and newly united people presented it to their loved queen, that it became a home. She enlarged the windows and whitewashed the walls; she filled it with flowers and lovely precious things that she had collected in her travels. She planted a garden in the small rocky courtyard. She let the sunshine in and gave the squat, tiny fortress a soul.

Today it stands once more lonely, deserted and waiting, once more part of the slow procession of the centuries, a monument of the past crumbling again into ruins. It has ceased to be a home and its soul has gone into hiding.

This is Bran, beloved little castle that my mother left me, which for four eventful years protected and sheltered me. It was more than a home to me; Bran was a way of life.

One early summer day in 1944, I stood outside the little hospital in the dusty road that ran through our village, feeling defeated and dejected. Half an hour earlier, full of confidence, I had gone to see the resident doctor, who was also mayor, to ask him to allow the Red Cross to use the village hospital for wounded soldiers whom we were anxious to evacuate from the much-bombed town of Brasov. I had been politely but firmly refused, bowed out and left to chew the cud of my disappointment in the dust. As I looked at the small, seldom-used hospital in tranquil, undisturbed Bran, I was remembering vividly the pandemonium, during the bombings, in the Brasov hospital which had no air-raid shelter. Impotent rage filled my breast. But when my vision cleared of anger, I saw that the building was actually much too small for what we needed—there was not room enough in it for all our patients.

Then my troubled eyes fell upon a green and pleasant spot across the river. It was narrow, fronted by a row of ancient willow trees, their gnarled, exposed roots clutching the riverbank, and backed by the gentle, wooded foothills of the Carpathians. What an ideal spot for a hospital, I thought, if only there was a building on it! And having a fertile imagination, I promptly saw a whitewashed, rambling house there, with nurses scurrying in and out, and patients pacing contentedly in the garden and along the river paths.

A wonderful idea—yes. But the lot was empty and houses do not grow overnight like mushrooms, I reminded myself, idly. The nearest approach to houses that grew overnight were barracks . . . somewhere I had heard that one could buy them from the German Army. Now who had told me that? Ah yes, I remembered! I snapped out of my musing; my thoughts sharpened and focused. I would go this very moment and call up the friend who had told me about them.

The fact that I had no money and nothing with which to furnish a hospital seemed to me quite a minor detail. I knew that I could get part of the money by selling a lovely bracelet I possessed—quite valuable but with no family associations. This I decided to do as I eagerly hurried home and climbed the endless steps—first those from the road, cut out of the living rock, then another long flight along the outside wall of the castle to the great oak door, then across the sunny, flower-filled courtyard and up another narrow stairway to my apartment; 368 steps in all! But that day I did not count them or notice them at all. I was much too busy building a hospital in the air. Once in my tower room, I rang up my friend; I told her of my budding plans and asked her to find out for me about ready-built barracks.

I'm afraid I was an absent-minded companion at dinner that night, for I could not stop conjuring up in my mind all sorts of wonders. By the time I got to bed, I had a flourishing hospital; the war was over; magically, there was a school for nurses, and we were lovingly and antiseptically serving the peasantry from all around! A lovely daydream—yet one that was to come even more true than I could possibly imagine then.

Next morning I was more sober about the whole thing, as one is likely to be in clear morning light, and I began to take stock of the difficulties. For one thing, that lovely space of ground, although mine, was let to an employee who had planted potatoes on it, and he would have to be persuaded to renounce his crop and be paid for it. Also, to want to sell a jewel is one thing, but to get a good price for it is quite another. I would have to go to Bucharest, driving over the mountains, along frightful roads, and once in Bucharest there were the frequent air raids to be faced. All this would take time and risk, and the need was immediate. Something had to be done for the wounded, now.

Our village priest had offered me the church schoolhouse farther up the valley of the Poarta, a tributary of the Turcu, for the refugees, but so far I had not needed to use it. This building could be turned into a temporary small hospital. So immediately after breakfast, I set off in that direction. I found a warm welcome from the priests and the villagers, and they were willing and ready to help me in every way. Plans for turning the schoolhouse into a hospital were discussed and preparations begun, and when I left I turned to my other plans with a quiet conscience.

Upon my return to the castle, I found that the Commanding General from Brasov, Nicolai Tataranu, was waiting to see me. Tataranu was a tall, swarthy, rugged-looking man, immensely charming. He was an old friend of my mother's, and our paths had very often crossed; he was a great soldier, a man whose independent opinions and explosive expression of them had so often landed him in trouble with his superiors that he now had a command of rather minor importance. He was the sort of person who lets you have it straight from the shoulder.

"What is this I hear, Domnitza?" he stormed at me immediately. "I never heard of such nonsense. Have you no children to think of?" I gasped, for I could not understand why he was scolding me. "Sell your jewels to buy a barracks for a hospital? Whoever heard of such a thing! I shall not permit it! Your jewels are to go to your children!"

On and on he scolded. I let him talk for a while until he stopped to catch his breath, and then I gently reminded him that after all it was my bracelet, and, if things continued as they were going just then, probably no one would inherit anything anyway; a hospital would be a lot more use than a bracelet, but if he objected, let's talk about something else.

"Not a bit of it," he said, "because I have come to make you a proposal. Instead of selling your bracelet you shall let me give you an old army barracks; in fact, I will give you two." I could hardly believe my ears.

"Wonderful!" I schemed to myself, "The bracelet money can go into the construction and equipment." But I was careful not to speak my thoughts aloud. I gave vent only to expressions of extreme gratitude.

His voice was rough, but he was a most kind person, and I knew that he would in the end help me further than he had promised, or perhaps intended. After listening to the visions I had of my hospital and all I meant to do, he left me, grumbling a little, his violent opinions still breaking out in short explosive remarks, but with promises that he would do his best to help me.

Now I could turn my thoughts to furnishing these wonderful barracks which were going to be mine. I looked far and wide for the furnishings I needed; of everybody I met I inquired where I could get them. The Red Cross promised me a few beds to start with, but tables and chairs were out of the question. There were none to be found.

However, I was told that a munitions factory not far from us, in a neighboring village called Tohan, had a department which also manufactured simple furniture, and if I could get into contact with the manager of the factory I would be certain to get what I needed. This I proceeded to do, but it wasn't as simple as it sounded, because Colonel Serbu, who ran the factory, was a difficult man to get hold of. Furthermore, the poor man happened to be ill at the moment I was looking for him. Even then I did not give up, but sent word that I insisted upon seeing him.

At last, one afternoon he appeared at the castle. He did not look too well, and he did not look the slightest bit pleased at my summons, either. He was a portly, unprepossessing-looking gentleman, and, although he had excellent manners, he was evidently in a hurry and a little impatient with me. I proceeded to do my best to charm him. I explained to him why I had called him and why it was so all-important for us to build a hospital as quickly as possible in the quiet remoteness of Bran. Since he was a man of imagination and great practical wisdom, as well as experience in organizing and developing enterprises, he forgot his hurry in his immediate interest. He pressed me for details as to how I meant to set about building my hospital. When I told him about the barracks which General Tataranu had promised me, he was indignant.

"Asi, nici Band! What nonsense!" he burst out. "You simply cannot build anything proper out of those old barracks, Domnitza Ileana! Don't imagine I don't know all about it! I was in the army, and I know what they're going to be like. Drafty and rickety! You certainly must not accept them!"

"But I have accepted," I cried. "Now what shall I do? I can't offend the General!"

He assured me that there would be no difficulty, that if I asked the General politely and charmingly to let me build the hospital substantially, using suitable modern barracks which he, Colonel Serbu, proposed to give me, instead of the old weatherbeaten ones, he could not possibly object or be offended. But there was one condition to Colonel Serbu's offer. He would erect this hospital building for me out of the new prefabricated barracks which he already possessed if I would induce the General to give him an old barracks in its stead, since he was obligated, by contract, to deliver a building to the army. Of course I agreed to try to do this, though I felt somewhat dubious about it and wondered if such an odd transaction could be carried through.

As soon as Colonel Serbu left, I telephoned the General and implored his help. He was somewhat astonished and seemed just a little bit offended that I had found somebody who could do more for me than he. But finally I showed him that without his first generous act I could never have got anything better, and, mollified, he agreed to make the deal. An old barracks was promptly sent to Colonel Serbu, and the Colonel sent the new one to me.

It was June, and the news from the front grew steadily worse. I remember going to see General Tataranu in his office; he used to sit with his back turned to a map of Europe that hung upon the wall. He could not face it. He would say to me, jabbing his thumb over his shoulder toward it, "I just can't look at it. Look at the immensity of Russia—and see how terribly small we are."

Yes, we were terribly small, and outside of a miracle, what hope was there for us? Still, I had continually in mind, those days, the story of St. Francis, who, while working in his garden, was asked by one of his disciples what he would do if the world were to come to an end on the morrow. St. Francis answered, as he continued hoeing down the rows, "I would go on weeding my garden." So I decided that whatever happened, I would go on building my hospital.

And go on building my hospital I did—though that is not quite accurate, for I, myself, did very little toward the actual building or even securing the materials or the money. Somehow the hospital grew by itself. I seemed to do nothing but just believe in it and the good it was going to do, and from the most unexpected places, from people I had hardly heard of, help came pouring in. Even the peasant employee, who had planted the hospital site in potatoes, withdrew and donated his entire crop to us. It is almost unbelievable, but I never had to sell that bracelet. We still have it. I almost feel that I should have put it in a golden frame and kept it always as a talisman for my hospital, the assurance of accomplishment of all those things I tried to do. But life is sometimes difficult and urgent, and I feared that one day I might be again tempted to sell it. Therefore, several years later, after we had come to America, I gave it to my eldest daughter on her graduation day, and so the danger of parting with it was put safely beyond my reach.

I had chosen the spot where my hospital would stand, or rather it had chosen me. The building was unfinished wood, long, narrow, uncompromising and wholly uninspiring. I am sure it would have been discouraging to any who had not seen clearly, as I had, the vision of the completed hospital, before the uninteresting, meager material came with which it was built. But I always saw it as it would be, a hospital—never as it had been, a barracks.

Then the wonderful thing began. The hospital began to take shape. It seemed to my astonished eyes as if actually it grew out of the earth! Colonel Serbu drew plans and supervised its erection, working day and night, too, it seemed to me, to "bring it to a good finish" as we say in Romania.

Every morning and evening we two would meet in the unfinished building, to check its progress and to talk over the frequent changing of the plans. We soon realized that the one long building would not be nearly large enough, so two smaller barracks were secured through the magic of Colonel Serbu's enthusiasm and placed at right angles, one at either end of the larger building. New ideas seemed to spring simultaneously into our minds. We discussed their practicability and convenience, drew them into our rough plans, and in no time at all we watched them taking shape before us.

On the twenty-second of July, although the building was still unfinished, we were able to have the hospital blessed. You see, in Romania, as in most Eastern Orthodox countries, we never begin anything—a new home or any enterprise—without first having it blessed in a ceremony by the Orthodox priest. We decided that this day, the day of St. Mary Magdalene—my mother's namesake—would be the right one to choose. It turned out to be a beautiful day with a wonderful blue sky and full of sunshine, and everybody I invited to come to the ceremony took part in it with such real rejoicing that it did my heart good. It did the hospital good also, because presents came in upon us from every side.

I think it would be interesting to tell you how the hospital was laid out. It was, as I have said, in the form of an open rectangle. In the left wing was the main entrance, the waiting room and office, the dispensary and the operating room. The middle part was composed of six wards made of three prefabricated units, each consisting of two large rooms with a bathroom and small entry between, opening off a small porch. Alas, since there were no connecting doors between the units at first, one had to go out-of-doors to get from one ward to another. In bad weather and in winter this was very trying. Later on, I was able to add a wide brick and cement corridor across the back of the building, into which all the wards opened.

In the right wing was the kitchen, the washhouse, a little nurses' sitting room, the staff dining room and the laundry. This was the original extent of the hospital. Yet small as it was, it was completely efficient, and even with our very small staff we could keep it in good condition. In 1946, we added a wing opening out of the admittance office, which housed the pharmacy, laboratory, X-ray room and the physiotherapy room.

I had collected everything necessary for the hospital—beds, mattresses, pillows, towels, blankets, almost all the necessary instruments, the essentials for a very good operating room, bedpans, kitchen utensils, caldrons, kettles, pots and pans, mugs and basins, bowls and plates, forks, knives and spoons, glassware—but one thing was still missing. Sheets. Whatever I did, wherever I went, it was impossible to find any sheets, because everything was requisitioned by the army or by a ministry. Finally, I became thoroughly discouraged about the situation, and in despair I talked it over one day with a dear friend, Ilse Koller, who had come with me from Austria to Romania. She lived with me in the castle and played a great part in building up the hospital, both by her enthusiasm and constant encouragement and by the help she gave me sewing, counting, and registering all the precious materials and equipment we had got together.

"What can I do without sheets, Ilse?" I said to her. "How can I start the hospital unless I can find some?"

She looked up laughingly at me from her work. "Why do you limit the power of God to sheets, Domnitza draga?" she said. "Look what He has done already!"

I considered the idea, a little self-reproachfully. True, indeed! He had miraculously provided everything else—why should He stop at sheets?

And He didn't. Shortly thereafter, a cotton-textile manufacturer passed through Bran and saw what we were doing. In his generosity he wanted to help and, after inquiries, heard of our need. Presently there arrived at the castle two and a half changes of linen for each bed in the hospital, as well as a fine stock of dish towels, hand and bath towels, accompanied by a receipted bill for the entire lot.

I have never since foolishly put a limit to God's power to work through my hands. This was a lesson I have never forgotten, and it has helped me to go safely through years of privation and trial, personal danger and oppositions to this day.