Hospital of the Queen's Heart by Ileana, Princess of Romania
A young man, married for only three months, came to us with a long history of stomach trouble, suddenly grown worse. After examination we felt sure it was cancer. When we opened him we found cancer indeed, and so far advanced that Puscariu knew further intervention was useless. We closed him up without doing anything.
The patient's mother and young wife sat in the waiting room during the operation, and once again it was my heavyhearted duty to be the bearer of bad tidings. So I went to them. They rose anxiously as I came in. They were peasants; the girl had graduated from the University of Bucharest and had taught school for a year or two before she married and came to a village near Bran to live.
I greeted them, said briefly that the patient was still under anesthetic and we sat down together. I wondered a little frantically how to begin, and then I began in the middle for I could think of no preliminaries.
"Look," I said earnestly to the girl, my hands nervously tightened into fists in the lap of my white apron. "You do love your husband, don't you?"
She nodded, her eyes fixed on mine.
"And you've been happy together? Your marriage is a good one?"
Her eyes lit up instantly. "Oh, yes, Domnitza," she said quickly. "We are very happy."
"Well, my dear," I went on. "You will have a chance to prove how much you love him. You are going to have to love him as you never did before, and in a much harder way."
She sat very still, her eyes still on my face.
"The operation on your husband has not been successful. In fact, it was hardly an operation at all. Your husband has cancer, so badly that we cannot do anything for him."
"Is he going to die?" she interrupted in a small, steady voice, agony in her eyes.
"Yes." I made no qualifications. She had asked a straight courageous question, worthy of a straightforward answer. "But you can do something wonderful for him before he does.
"He need never know the truth. If you love him enough you can make him believe that all is well with him, that the operation was a success and he will get well. He is not going to live very long, and these last months of his life are in your hands. You can make them whatever you choose—gloriously happy or full of misery.
"Today we did our best for him in the operating room. It amounted to just exactly nothing. Everything, now, is up to you."
She heard me through, her eyes serious and comprehending. Tears trickled down her face as I ceased speaking.
"I understand, Domnitza," she said. "Thank you very much. I will know the things to do."
The mother leaned back against the wall while her daughter-in-law and I talked. In peasant fashion, she had covered her mouth with her hands, and now she stood up, glanced at the icon and crossed herself.
"If this is the will of God," she said, "the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. We will make his last days happy."
None of us lied to the young man; we said nothing either way, but he took for granted that the operation had been a successful one. Every day during his convalescence his wife came to visit him. She brought him flowers and little nonsensical gifts, and their laughter sounded through the ward as they opened them together. Everyone shared their fun. There seemed to be no shadow upon them. She played her role admirably.
But when she left the ward after carefree loving farewells, I was always waiting for her in the passage. She used to lay her head against my shoulder and sob silently in my arms. I did not try to speak comfort to her for there were no words to be said, but she knew that I understood her ordeal, and that I loved her.
We duly discharged her husband, and they went home together. He lived for six months. Soon after he died, his wife went to Bucharest to resume her teaching, but first she came to Bran to tell me the outcome of her tragic, loving guile.
"We had all the happiness of a long married life rolled into those months," she said. "Because every hour might be his last one, I tried to make each one as perfect as I could. It wasn't hard, for really, it all consisted of little things—not hours or days, but moments. You can always take care of the moments! And then I discovered that I was doing it for myself, for my own pleasure and satisfaction. I cannot tell you how our happiness grew, Domnitza—and our love, so fast and so deep—in so short a while. Perhaps because there was no time for silly little quarrels, or my wanting my own way, or wasting precious time in foolish things that don't matter.
"I never knew that there was such happiness in the world. I'm certain that I would never have found it otherwise—only through the loss that I knew was going to come.
"Domnitza!" She leaned towards me earnestly. "Why do we need to be on the edge of the grave to learn this? Just you think—how wonderful if he and I could have had the joy for many years that we had for a few months! But would we, if he hadn't been so ill, and you hadn't taught me to put him before myself?"
I was silent, for I was thinking, Who knows?
She answered her own question. "I think it is a question of knowing that such a marriage is possible, and then working at it—taking the trouble and the pains to make it turn out."
We had an unremitting struggle to prevent patients from eating food brought in to them surreptitiously by their families. The ways and means they found of hiding it were varied and often original, and our game of finding it was often exasperating and sometimes hilarious. One of our chores at the end of visiting day was to make a routine search for it, for, try as we might to persuade them, the patients would never admit to having any. We looked beneath bedclothes, under mattresses and pillows, under the bathtubs, on window sills behind the curtains, in the window boxes, and even in the wastebaskets. We collected the food, located its owners, scolded a little, labeled it and put it in the pantry, to be given them at mealtime. However, once in a while we were outwitted, and a new hiding place was found.
We had with us for a while an old peasant woman whom we operated upon for cancer of the stomach. She was the most cheerful old woman I have ever known. Nothing worried her. She had a brown, wrinkled face like a leftover apple in the spring, white hair that surrounded her head like an aureole, for her head kerchief was always slipping off, and a merry, dry, cackling laugh. To judge from her casualness and the scant attention she paid herself one would think that the operation was of no more importance than a scratch on her finger.
The operation went well, her condition was good, she was obedient, and her progress was uneventful and unremarkable until her third day. On making rounds that morning we discovered her sitting bolt upright in bed, her rumpled, blue-striped hospital johnny unbuttoned, happy and very pleased with herself. She was thoroughly enjoying pickles which she was eating out of a half-emptied bottle.
Mild and gentle Dr. Puscariu exploded in wrath. For once he hit the ceiling, and very effective he was, too. Who was responsible for this outrage? A patient eating pickles on the third day after a stomach resection, indeed!
We took them away from her and made her lie down again. She was in tears, like a greedy child who has been deprived of forbidden jam. I coaxed her to tell me where the pickles had been hidden and how she got them, for the usual ground had been gone over the evening before in our customary search for hidden victuals, and nothing had been found in her bed.
At last, with sniffles and sobs, she confessed that her family had hidden them in the stove in the center of the ward—it was summer and the stoves were cold. She had got out of bed, crossed the room, taken them out of their hiding place and back to bed with her—she did so like pickles for breakfast!
I will add, since I myself am one of those persons of inquiring mind who always want to know the end of a story, that the old lady was none the worse for walking about and eating pickles when she should have been flat on her back and having broths. She recovered duly and returned to her mountain cottage, her peasant constitution as ironclad as before.
Another old peasant woman who afforded us great amusement came to the hospital with cancer of the rectum. The operation was successful and she was our guest for six months—and when I say "guest" I am being quite literal. She came from a dreadful little shack in the mountains; she had no family and no means whatsoever. She had lived all her life in the roughest and crudest of surroundings. When she came to us she hardly knew how to use a bed, she had no appreciation at all of such cold and repellent things as sheets, and she viewed the bathroom with awe and suspicion.
But before she left us she became a lady. She complained to me if the nurse had not done her hair properly, or if her sheets had not been changed. She kept her bedside table orderly with a precision that was mathematical. She wished her hospital bedgown to be fresh and unrumpled; she preferred the pink stripes to the blue. We discovered that she took her johnny off at night after the lights had been put out, in order to keep it unwrinkled, for we had not enough of them for the patients to change every day. She became absurdly fussy and demanding, and niceties hitherto completely unknown were matters of great importance to her. Her pretensions were a source of continual amusement to us, and the news of her latest foible was a daily conversational tidbit in the staff dining room.
Finally she recovered and left us to return to her hovel on the mountain. One day she made the trip back to the hospital to visit us and to bring what she could to pay for her operation and care. Clutched in one hand were four leeks, freshly pulled from the earth which still clung to their roots, and in the other, half a pound of goat's milk cheese. Of her hospital vanities and airs, there was no trace. She had reverted!
One night I was awakened by the insistent ringing of the telephone beside my bed. I was being called long distance from a village on the other side of the mountain. I waited while the operator completed the connection, wondering what it was all about, and then a man's voice was speaking urgently to me.
"Altetza—Highness—I am Ilie Ionescu. My son has been run over by a truck—it happened less than half an hour ago. I think he is very badly hurt. May I please bring him at once to your hospital?"
"Of course you may. But you are thirty miles away. You should not lose time. If he is seriously injured I think you should get him to a hospital at once. There is an excellent one where you are. I know the surgeon. He is as good as ours."
"That may be true, Highness. But I know that no one will give my son the care that you will. I have confidence in no one but you. Please—I implore you—let me bring my son to you."
Of course I agreed. I called the hospital and told Sister Ginia to be ready for a serious operation in about two hours' time. Then I called Dr. Puscariu at his home in the village, waking him, and asked him to be in readiness.
I dressed leisurely and went down the castle hill in the dark to the hospital. The moon was in its last quarter —shrinking, but still pouring its white light over the mountains and filling the valley full of thick shadow.
How still—how peaceful it was as I walked along the white road. Only the ceaselessly chattering and running, companionable river broke the silence. Here and there, as my way led under the trees, I heard a sleepy bird. The forests about were a soundless blanket of darkness. For this momentary interlude my mind was at rest and at worship among the everlasting hills, under the undisturbed stars. These were forever; I, and the war, and humanity's anguish were only ripples on this abiding surface of eternity.
I reached the hospital. My mind's momentary farflung scope dwindled to the imminent human emergency. Together with Sister Ginia I finished preparations for our expected patient.
The sun was just climbing over the mountains, touching their peaks with rosy pink, and the valley still lay in the cold twilight of early morning as we went into the courtyard to welcome Ilie Ionescu and his son. The youth whom we carried in and laid on the examining table was more dead than alive. He was covered with cuts and bruises. One of his legs and an arm were broken—we could see that at once. We found his right thigh and his pelvis were fractured, and many ribs. We were certain of internal injuries.
We prepared him quickly for the operating table and put him to sleep. Then we began the long process of repairs. For three hours we worked on him. There seemed to be no part of him that was not hurt. It was a marvel that any person could live through such injuries, yet in this condition he had been brought thirty miles over rough mountain roads in the middle of the night, because his father had confidence in us.
We did our best. We stitched, patched and splinted, and we put him in a cast. At last we wheeled him from the operating room to his bed in the ward. That he was alive was incredible. I wondered how he could possibly recover.
The father was a peasant, a woodcutter, and he had the small means of all these people. To hire a motor car and drive that long distance to us represented an immense sacrifice. I am sure that when he reached us his pockets were completely empty. Yet he insisted upon paying the full usual fees for his son's care in the hospital.
That same day he found a job cutting wood in the forest about Bran, and then he came to tell me.
"Domnitza," he went on, "will you please allow me to stay with my son at night? He will need me to take care of his wants."
"How can you!" I protested. "You will have to work hard all day. Let me try to find a special nurse for the boy."
I felt in my heart that this would be impossible, but it was equally impossible to expect this man, after long days of heavy labor, to spend the nights nursing his son.
"No, Domnitza," he said. "I do not want a nurse. Please let me take care of the boy myself."
I reluctantly agreed. I offered him a bed beside his son's in the ward, but this, too, he refused. He said he was afraid to lie down, for if he did he would go so soundly to sleep that he might not hear the lad if he called. He was so insistent that I gave him his way. For the first three weeks of the boy's convalescence his father sat up each night in a chair beside him, dozing but instantly alert at a sound or movement from the bed. Thereafter, the worst being over, I succeeded in persuading him to sleep in a bed beside the boy's for as long as they were with us.
For six months, during the long, slow process of mending, Ilie worked in the woods by day and at night watched over his son. The lad recovered completely, and one day they left together, the father's arm flung across his son's shoulders, crossing the courtyard and the bridge to go back to their village across the mountain. As my eyes followed them, I felt gratitude and a certain sense of privilege to have witnessed such a demonstration of fatherly love. Somehow—unjustly, I know—I more readily associated such capacity for sacrifice and tenderness with a mother's love. Yet Ilie Ionescu had shown a depth of selflessness and natural affection that equaled any woman's finest devotion.
I have told you many stories about the peasants. Now I will tell you about an aristocrat, my friend and childhood playmate. She was a recluse, handicapped by a dreadful disease which pushed her to the sidelines of life, isolated her from her friends and family, denied her a normal woman's life of love and motherhood. Yet she conquered her misfortune, and, although her life was limited, I learned from it things which I took with me when I left Bran to go into the unknown. For she was wise.
Her name was the same as mine, Ileana, and in age, too, we were nearly alike—she was six months older than I. Her mother was dead, and she had been brought up by four aunts.
"I had four mothers," she used to say. "Not just one!"
But however fond of the little girl and well-meaning they were, her aunts disciplined her mistakenly. The strange attacks Ileana had during her childhood were not temper tantrums, as they thought, nor were they hysterical efforts to attract attention to herself. They persisted despite punishment; they became worse.
Finally, when she was twelve, her disorder was diagnosed as that most tragic of ailments, epilepsy. For years thereafter her family took her from specialist to specialist, from hospital to hospital, to Vienna and Paris, to London and Berlin. But nowhere could she find help.
During her years of illness, of travel and sojourn in the hospitals and sanitariums of foreign countries, Ileana withdrew into herself. She was sensitive, and she increasingly cut herself off from her girlhood friends, for she felt that her illness distressed people.
After many disappointments her family finally accepted the bitter fact that Ileana was incurable. Her wise father, realizing that there was no place for her in the harsh outside world, bought her a small house in the Schei, near Brasov, and there she lived quietly and contentedly a life adapted to her handicap.
It was an odd little house of weathered, dull yellow adobe with dark, carved wooden shutters and balconies. It clung tenaciously to the side of the mountain, and its windows looked down onto the village roofs and tree-tops. It was built like a miniature fortress around and above a great carved oaken door, ironbound and iron latched. One drove through it—and also through the house itself, as it were!—into the tiny courtyard at the back, where unexpectedly a hidden garden burst upon one's delighted view like something out of fairyland. The sheer-rising mountainside sheltered it, and one found color and bloom there from March until November. Snowdrops and hardy chrysanthemums alike blossomed through early spring and late autumn snows. Peace lived there in that garden. I used to think that when it had been driven from the world it fled to that small secret spot, and there it found sanctuary.
Ileana lived with her nurse and a maid; her days were occupied by gardening, her constant reading and the beautiful needlework which is a never-ending part of every Romanian woman's life.
I had married and gone to live in Austria during one of Ileana's stays in a foreign sanitarium, and when I occasionally returned to my own country for brief visits to my mother I seldom had time to go and see her. Thus we grew apart.
But during the war years we found each other again. After I returned to Bran in 1944, I spent several months nursing in the Red Cross hospital in Brasov, and I went to see her, at first out of a sense of duty. Poor Ileana, I thought—she is so alone; it is the only decent thing to do.
But soon I found that I wanted to go to her lovely little house. I looked forward to its peaceful hospitality after days full of pressure and woe in the hospital. Soon I began to realize that she was giving me far more than I was bringing to her. On the days when she was not well I sat beside her bed. When she was better, we sat in the sun in that wonderful little garden or worked together in the kitchen garden. When it was chilly we talked before the open fire in her tiny drawing room, the coffee pot on its spirit lamp between us.
She was a casual, gracious hostess and her conversation was full of original flavor and humor. She had a knack of twisting a commonplace phrase, of casting a fresh light on an accustomed subject dulled with familiarity, sharpening it and making it new and arresting.
She confided to me how tragically her illness had separated her from her family. They were all normal people, bursting with health and vitality. Their lack of understanding of invalidism, which is common to people who have never been ill, was a trial to Ileana, and her illness, in turn, frightened them. I gathered from what she said—or rather, inferred—that they were a little ashamed of it.
Once she quoted a poem to me a little sadly, as we talked about her family. It was written by a man who had lost his mind and had been institutionalized, but who still had times of lucidity. The poem told how strange the world seems to the person whose rational hold upon it has slackened. I remember only one line of it, for it applied to her:
She had watched her friends grow up and marry, have children and live normal lives, while she lived apart, isolated in her own precarious world of illness.
But she was never lonely. Thrown back upon herself, she found companionship in her shepherd dog, her cat and her cage of parakeets. There was another world always awaiting her between the covers of books, and she knew the way of escape into beauty through music. She told me about her discovery of the Bible, and the strength and sustenance it gave her. She said that as she studied it she realized that her own struggle, which she had thought unique, was the common struggle of the human soul through the ages, the thorny path from tribulation to wisdom that is shared by all mankind, the universal groping out of darkness into light. It gave her perspective to know this, and comfort, that after all she was like other people.
She had come to realize that not only she, but all people suffer—from many things. Each man has his own Gethsemane, and each carries his own cross, sometimes in plain view of the world, sometimes hidden. It seemed to her that suffering is one of the conditions of life, as inescapable as breathing. She felt that she was one of the fortunate ones, for she had found a peace that those out in the busy world rarely achieve, since few have time enough to be still and know themselves, to plumb their own depths.
Ileana and I grew much closer in 1946 when it was necessary for her to come to Bran to have minor surgery done. Without comment or protest she supported the unpleasantness, the violation of one's intimate privacy which surgery demands as a matter of course. She was amenable and cheerful, anxious to be as little trouble as possible to everyone.
Here at Spitalul Inima Reginei, as in her home in the Schei, I loved to sit with her and talk. Her tiny private room in the women's ward took on the serenity of her house, just by her occupancy of it. It was good to be able to come to her when I had done the rounds and the endless chores, when I had met and dealt with the constantly arising emergencies of a hospital day. There was always so much to talk about, and sometimes we found ourselves laughing hilariously together like silly, lightheaded schoolgirls. Oh, the good medicine of wholehearted shared laughter!
Our conversations took many and different directions. Her mind was like a well from which I endlessly drew her deeply considered ideas and conclusions. Because of her illness, Ileana had never had a formal education, but she had been through the difficult school of life and it had taught her many things that are not found in books. We talked about pain—both physical and mental pain—and what it does to people, how it develops or deteriorates something within them. It dawned on me that pain, through its vehicles, the body and mind, is a spiritual experience, a schooling by which one may either grow in stature and strength, or collapse into self-pity and self-centered oblivion.
Seeing Ileana's affliction, caring for my patients in Spitalul Inima Reginei which harbored so much suffering and fortitude, I began to understand the meaning of pain. I began to see it, not as one of the misfortunes of life to be avoided at all costs or to be deplored, but as a discipline and a process of distillation. I perceived that through pain it is possible to learn patience and understanding of others —compassion. It is a means whereby faith and reliance upon God are laid bare, for when we reach rock bottom, when man's skill and science can be depended upon no longer, or when the world becomes our adversary, we simply and instinctively turn to what has been there all the time, our individual oneness with God. He cannot be escaped although we try our best to do so. He can only be denied and lost sight of, for He is ourselves—our true indwelling nature which we bury deep under sophistry and false values. We are given the opportunity to find this out when pain breaks down the barrier between.
"It is almost as if we who are ill, or in deep trouble, are singled out for our schooling," said Ileana one day. "As if God lays His hand upon us and says 'Come apart with Me from the others—I have something to teach you. I will show you a way to find Me, for I have so much to give you if you will take it.' "
Either, then, we gladly come to see His presence in our lives and they take a new direction, or we choose to continue in our blindness and our former ways which lead to loneliness, cynicism and lack.
Those who have experienced this transformation will understand what I write. Those who see only the words and feel no impact from them, have yet, I think, to learn the lesson of pain.