Luck and Death on the Snowiest Night

A scared young surgeon in Communist Romania faces the storm of his life when an angry midnight mob demands he save a newborn’s life.

The carriage in front of Eddy Marian rolled out of sight and into a ditch, felled during a risky turn by wind tearing through the forest. Moments later, a dissonant tumult of horses neighing and wood snapping — timed with a second gust stronger than the first — came from behind. A babel of curses in a tongue unfamiliar to Eddy filled the air.

With a yell like sonar, a stout, swarthy man holding the reins next to Eddy shouted to his compatriots. Calling back, they confirmed that their carriages had both overturned. There was no righting them: The snowdrifts might as well have been quicksand. Eddy turned in his seat to check on his charge: a jaundiced ghost of a woman, tied to a jury-rigged stretcher — a wooden ladder with hemp ropes. Her prematurely born child was swaddled in a jury-rigged backwoods incubator made of hot water bottles and old blankets.

The wooden ladder and incubator had been Eddy’s improvisation. Florica Lunga’s fellow Roma villagers had needed some way to carry her the twelve miles through a whited-out forest to the nearest town with horses and carriages to spare. Now two of the three carriages were disabled and the main road was still miles away. That the carriage bearing the patient and her baby remained upright was one of the night’s few small miracles.

The blizzard of 1985 would have probably made history — if anyone actually cared about Bacău County besides its impoverished residents. As a newly-minted medical school graduate who was born, raised and schooled in Bucharest, Romania’s capital, Eddy had arrived in this rural region of Romania just two months earlier. It was unfathomable to the twenty-five-year-old Eddy that most of his Roma countrymen continued to live like their ancestors. The Communist regime had so bungled the country’s agrarian economy that the Roma — a nomadic people more commonly (and derogatorily) know as gypsies — still relied on nineteenth-century technologies.

Hand-drawn plows, wooden carts and horses were used to work the land while Nicolae Ceaușescu, the mad dictator, exported all advanced machinery in order to satisfy his obsession with paying down Romania’s foreign debt. This same crackpot regime had forced a generation of doctors to spend their best years in villages far from friends and family. Forced to live in rural exile, many big-city Romanians looked down their noses at their rustic countrymen, even more so at the Roma living in the culture’s interstice, who were seen as a race of shiftless, yet cunning thieves and murderers.

The entire rescue party was caked with wet, heavy snow. Eddy was lucky to have been distributed a pair of rubber boots by the government a few years back. Although his Roma countrymen were not so lucky, they made do. The importance of keeping mother and child alive was their sufficient source of warmth.

The men who lost their rides to the snowdrifts dedicated their energies to hand-plowing snow from the path of Florica’s carriage while bickering about who to blame for the accident, an argument made worse by the fact that no one was actually at fault. Despite the macho name calling, there was a solidarity among Roma that didn’t exist in big towns. The Communist reset of Romania had deleted most of his countrymen’s compassion for one another. Eddy contemplated his traveling companions in silence, having never been exposed to a culture that was free of the taint of secret police informants that permeated so many interpersonal relationships.

When they finally arrived at the flat, wide plane of stark whiteness that had been a main road only hours before, their collective heart sunk: There was no ambulance waiting to take Florica and her son to safety.

Some in the group insisted on continuing in the sole functional carriage all the way to the hospital in Bacău, the nearest place that deserved to be called a town. Eddy refused: “Odds are that both mother and child will not make it if we go with the carriage, especially if it also rolls.”

Still, he admitted, “If we stay here and no one comes, we might all freeze.”

Abandoning the rescue of a sick woman and her newborn to save their own skin would be an unbearable dishonor to the men. The Roma’s only option was to stay put inside a miserable facsimile of a snow globe.

After an interminable silence, Eddy regretted that he hadn’t trusted the Roma enough to bring his watch.

* * *

In my North American-centric ignorance, I imagined Romania as a place bypassed by history and teeming with mist-draped castles. Eddy, amused by my skewed perceptions of his homeland, would fill the evenings with tales of the real Romania, the communist Romania, the totalitarian cult-of-personality Romania that was the closest thing to Stalin since…well, Stalin. His tales were the highlight of my biennial visits to Greece, and confirmed the wisdom of my cousin’s decision to marry him.

A month before the blizzard, Eddy had been in an auditorium in Bucharest with two dozen other students on a freezing December morning. A bored apparatchik read names aloud. Eddy squirmed in his seat, scarcely able to concentrate on the spectacle of his classmates being summoned to the stage, trudging across the fifteen feet as though wearing boots of clay.

One by one, students stood beside the podium and announced the name of the town where they would spend their medical residency. Most would be sent to a place he or she had only heard of for the first time a few days earlier, selected off a list of medically underserviced rural villages. They would fall behind their non-doctor friends, who were already getting married and navigating the corrupt system to secure an apartment big enough for the children they would eventually be forced to have (Romania had a strict prohibition on abortion and birth control). This was the Romanian definition of a medical residency.

Eddy didn’t do much homework; one shithole was as bad as the next, he figured. When he was called on by the well-fed functionary, he registered a small protest by calling out Bălcescu — one of the dozen nondescript villages named for a long-dead Romanian revolutionary — from his seat. What he didn’t know then is that on the outskirts of Bălcescu existed a Roma settlement, an oddity for a people who don’t typically stay in one place for long.

Eddy had begged his father, a well-known surgeon, to pull strings. The other students’ parents meddled, even though they didn’t have the top-notch marks that Eddy had. He wanted to be a scientist and contribute to the field of medicine. But that would be impossible if he lost precious time in the boonies. He felt worthy of a reprieve. His conniving peers, on the other hand, didn’t deserve to stay home. It wouldn’t be fair, Eddy protested.

His father, a famously stern and severe man, was too proud to ask the Communists for anything, and had his own definition of “fair.” He told his only son: “You are a doctor. You must accept your calling in whatever form. You must get used to practicing in any circumstances — even war.”

* * *

Deflated by a crush of self-pity, Eddy stared beyond the train window at the semi-perpetual grey of a Romanian January. Tomorrow would be the two-month anniversary of his arrival in Bălcescu and time was passing just as he feared back in that cold December auditorium: glacially. There was no one to relate to, and there was a depressing absence of phones. When someone wanted to see the doctor, they would just walk the distance to his door. But in the time he’d been there, no one had come to see him, as the provincial propensity to mistrust outsiders was in full bloom.

Despite the fact that the people of Bălcescu didn’t seem to want his help, he couldn’t help but feel a tug of worry as black clouds like an oil slick rolled towards the train. A sudden dump of of snow started to hide the pristine forests of Transylvania in a blizzard as fearsome as it was unforeseen. His destination, Bucharest, was still hours away. The city he had just left behind would be without a doctor during a freak storm guaranteed to leave disaster in its wake. The loneliness that propelled him on his visit home was no match for his sense of duty and his desire to prove himself. But it was not just altruism that made him disembark at the next stop for the first train heading back to Bălcescu.

Although he resented the Communists for mandating he relocate to the middle of nowhere, the thought of leaving a few thousand people without medical care made him justifiably anxious. If something happened in his absence, he would be accountable, and the Romanian Communists weren’t known for their understanding.

Only a few hours had passed since he left Bălcescu, but the landscape was unrecognizable. A meter of snow had redacted the roads. The flat topography of the valley was now dotted with freshly-fallen drifts as tall as houses. Although he arrived late at night with little notice, a dreary party official waited at Eddy’s home, looking shaken.

The official, Nicolai, informed Eddy that about a dozen men — all Roma — had arrived after his departure, demanding the aid of a village doctor. When Nicolai informed them Eddy had left on a vacation, they erupted in hysterics. The party functionary was shocked by the force and duration of their lamentations. Apparently, when a pregnant Roma experiences convulsions and goes into labor prematurely, you don’t stand in the way of the rescue party.

Eddy began to pack some belongings to accompany his journey with the agitated Roma back to their settlement. Eddy bristled at his assignment. He didn’t like the idea of leaving Bălcescu in the middle of a blizzard, especially when he didn’t seem to have much say in the matter. This wasn’t exactly the kind of heroic aid he’d imagined himself administering back in the modest comfort of the train. The Roma’s staccato knocks at the door cut Eddy’s protest short.

With supplies spilling from a leather case like the ones TV doctors brought on house calls, Eddy walked briskly towards the edge of town in silence with the rescue party. He was at a loss for a way to break the ice with the agitated men and wondered why they had parked so far from his house. The sight of a waiting vehicle was conspicuously absent. Instead, the men led him on foot to the perimeter of the village and into the darkness beyond.

Eddy’s sense of foreboding increased with each step. The Roma threw glares over their shoulders, grumbling about the effect that Eddy’s temporary absence might have on the patient’s odds of survival. Nicolai, in his desperation to deflect the group’s agitation, had neglected to mention that he had approved Eddy’s leave of absence.

Trudging through a snow-steeped forest like a P.O.W., he felt wordlessly compelled forward by the men marching around him: two in front and two behind. He asked them their names, and they each responded with the Romanian equivalent of “John Doe.” His paranoia about Romania’s most infamous underclass, combined with his ignorance of their identities or his destination, resulted in a sinister feeling. Eddy could hardly make out any of the men’s faces in the moonlight. He could never have found his way without them; therefore he couldn’t find a way home if… He hesitated to dwell on reasons for a hasty exit.

In the outlines of the dark, Eddy could make out the occasional house, the sightings becoming more frequent until it was obvious they’d reached some kind of permanent Roma settlement. Sepia peasants walked out of daguerreotype shacks to ogle the visitor; Eddy’s arrival quickly becoming the centerpiece of local gossip — second only to the dying woman to whom he was being escorted, having just given birth to her premature child.

The small mob swelled, and, lacking the fastidious insistence on personal space possessed by city folk, almost floated him to the sick woman’s door. The Roma poured in after him as though the one-room dwelling was their own. The only space left for Eddy was a path to the sickbed, which he traversed with a timid air of bonhomie. The sentiment wasn’t returned.

Two garishly dressed middle-aged women were the first to address him directly. As one ladled hot soup into a bowl, the other took Eddy’s jacket. They bade him sit and removed his shoes. Then the older woman motioned towards his pants and shirt. He looked down. Eddy had felt so out of his element that he failed to notice he was soaked head to toe from the blizzard. Everything except his underwear found a home on a railing near the fireplace.

Diagnosing a patient is stressful for a young doctor, but doing it in your underwear in front of two dozen gawking people looking over your shoulder while offering a constant stream of unsolicited advice is less than ideal. Eddy covered for his nervousness by working fast. “Where is her baby?” he asked the self-identified midwives.

As the nurse unwrapped the child, Eddy’s heart sank. Even with scant obstetrics training, it was obvious that this wasn’t a finished baby. And there was nothing he could do for a preemie, not without an incubator. But, the locals seemed not to understand the danger mother and child were in. From their comments, Eddy began to suspect that they believed his incompetence to be the main cause of Florina’s worsening condition. The young, naïve Eddy, raised on Roma-as-boogeyman myths, believed his fate to be intertwined with that of his patients. Suddenly tense, he simply nodded and took notes on a scrap of paper handed to him as requested, going through the motions of being in control of the situation.

The child could not be saved, not with medicine and not with hope. Florinca’s chances did not seem much better. In the candlelight, her skin had turned the color of old Plexiglass. The distinctive yellow hue also marred the whites of her eyes. She had the frame of a strong woman, and a face weathered beyond her years by her life lived in a medieval parenthetical to the modern world.

The only medicines Eddy had with him had been smuggled out of Bucharest’s central hospital by his father, who knew what technological privation awaited his son in the provinces. Even these meager supplies were rudimentary by the standards of the day and mostly consisted of pain-reducing meds, catheters, and disinfectant. Eddy’s experience was limited to stocked and ostensibly modern hospitals. It was like handing a computer scientist an abacus.

Each passing minute without a diagnosis was like sixty small failures to those in the room. The eyes of the crowd fixated on his every move. Eddy’s mind kept returning to one thing: only one aggressively indifferent Communist party official knew his whereabouts. Suddenly, someone grabbed Eddy’s arm. Florica spasmed wildly on the bed. Eddy was staring into the face of a massive seizure.

* * *

With the sun of the second day rising, two men brusquely entered the house and informed Eddy he was coming with them. A village down the road had a phone and he needed to lend his authority on a call placed to the local hospital. Horses wouldn’t do — they needed airpower to break the blizzard’s siege.

The newborn preserved despite the unblockable cold, but a trip in this weather would kill it. Preemies need constant warmth for their weak lungs and heart to stay functioning. Florica’s condition was perilous as well. A catheter had prevented sepsis, but she would need surgery to remove the gallstone that kept her from urinating.

The village with a phone was a two-hour walk through thigh-high snow. The silent and uneventful trudge gave Eddy his first uninterrupted time to think. He knew the hospital would balk at his request for a rescue helicopter but the Roma wouldn’t rest until all attempts were made, no matter how futile.

The psychic burden of his predicament, mixed with the lack of sleep, was like quaffing a leadership tonic. After the hospital’s operator snickered at Eddy’s request, first for a helicopter, then for something as basic as an ambulance, something snapped in him.

Returning to the settlement with only the flimsy promise that an ambulance would meet them at the main road, far from the Roma settlement, Eddy barked out his orders to those surrounding the struggling mother and child. Hot water bottles would keep the preemie warm for the duration of the trip. Florica would be affixed to a ladder. Horse and carriage would be needed, requiring a small detour to Bălcescu. Then, if there were no mishaps, it would still take sheer determination and a bucket of good fortune to get them to the waiting ambulance before he lost his first patient.

Now that there was a real (albeit slim) chance of saving mother and child, precious time passed all too quickly. The blizzard had let up by the time travel preparations were complete, which was seen as a fortuitous event by the group and buoyed moral. Carrying the makeshift stretcher, the party trudged slowly over level ground, making the journey in two hours of huffing and puffing. As slow-going as getting to Bălcescu was, the real challenge would be getting villagers, who possessed the deep-seated mistrust of Roma inherent to most Romanians, to loan their horses for Eddy’s cause.

The animals belonged to the village as communal property, giving everyone a say. Nicolai took the easy and cowardly position of letting the people decide, abdicating any ability to actually help. The villagers, not known for their high-minded ideals, balked at the idea that the Roma would be in charge of their precious few horses, horses that on a good day these same Roma might try to permanently borrow.

“Enough! You know me, I am your doctor. If the horses don’t come back, I will be responsible,” Eddy shouted, stunning both the villagers and the Roma with the exasperated altruism of his statement.

Those assembled looked at one another. He was their only doctor and now he was pleading for their horses on behalf of Roma. He must care. He must have heart. The gears of opportunism begin to turn in their heads. Perhaps they could benefit from his softness. Maybe they could demand his well-connected family back in Bucharest compensate them if the horses went missing. They nodded their consent.

Hours after the scene in Bălcescu, Eddy arrived at the main road, the last carriage buried beneath the rising snow. The pain medicine was used up. The hot water bottles were finally cooling. The wind carried the sound of soft whimpering across the white abyss. The only sound was that of snowfall. A look passed between the Roma that confirmed the unthinkable: they’d capitulated. They finally were ready to give up on the ambulance and on Florica.

Then, the snow around them began to glow. Headlights. A car.

* * *

Tired, cold, hungry, and feverish, Eddy slumped in the corner of a hospital waiting room in Bacău. The storm precluded travel back to Bălcescu and as soon as he was no longer of use, he became a shadow to the Roma. He was forced to linger with no money and no way home, as rootless as the Roma he had saved. Finally, a doctor who lived close to Bălcescu offered to bring him part way, if he maybe had a carton of cigarettes or some foreign currency? Nothing in Romania was free.

Eddy returned to Bălcescu with no horses or carriages (they would be retrieved after the storm) but with a story that made him a local celebrity and landed him in the local paper, painted by the press as an example of the typical selfless Communist hero. This was to his benefit, as he would be stuck in Bălcescu for ten more months until the Communist party capriciously assigned him to his next post.

Before his departure, the villagers gathered around and bid him farewell, thanking him for doling out aid and never expecting a bribe in return — something uncommon among doctors they had been sent before. It was unlikely Eddy’s replacement would share the same altruism.

Before leaving, Eddy spent his last day in Bălcescu returning to the Roma settlement for his first routine check-up of the boy he’d saved. Eddy found the Roma’s traditional mistrust of outsiders on blunt display. To this day his doesn’t know why they shunned him, unless they assumed the only possible reason for his return was the expectation of compensation. He was forbidden to approach Florica’s home and was told neither of his former patients needed his help. He never saw them again.

It was only through an agent of the Roma — who traveled between communities to trade for supplies — that Eddy heard the baby boy had made it through the first month of life and been granted a paper trail in Romania (the infant mortality rate was so high, birth certificates usually weren’t issued immediately) Even more surprising: Florica had named her child Eddy.

The elation wore off when the middleman, cognizant of Roma superstitions, divulged that the child was likely christened Eddy less out of gratitude for his efforts than in the hope that the name might bring good luck, as it had brought to its original bearer.

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