Nobody's Angels

excerpts  PROMISES  Those of us who looked after the severely ill, close to their end in hospitals or foster homes made a lot of promises to them. Some asked for the impossible, namely to save them from death, but most of them only wished not to die alone and, above all, for someone to hold them in their arms. I saw the foreign volunteers holding them in their arms for hours and singing a song to them until they passed away. If only we had some psychologists, how much they would have helped the little ones, their parents, and even the medical personnel! We all lived those moments so intensely that at the end of the day or night we were completely exhausted, drained, not only because of the huge amount of work, but especially because of the continuous emotions and stress. Anyway, they regarded me as someone who could solve everything: I could ease their pain, find their mother, and take them I-don't-know-where. Silviu knew he was approaching his end. He was in a big intensive care ward. Strangely enough, Silviu didn't wish for his own mother to be next to him; she was living in the same town, but she had abandoned him when she found out he was sick. He wished for the other children to be next to him before he died, those with whom he had shared the hospital for about three years. The image I can still see before my eyes now is heart-breaking: seven or eight children standing around the bed, holding hands in a circle, singing and praying. No one had taught them how to pray, but they did and talked about the heavens. I don't know who they were praying to, I didn't hear them mention the word "God." And for the last half an hour of Silviu's life they knelt down around the bed, and held candles in their hands, as the lights in the ward were out. Silviu was surrounded by that kind of light you only see in the presence of God as represented in the great paintings. The emotional charge was so big that the rest of us remained in the ward's doorway, not having the courage to move. Silviu went to heaven, just like the other children who had been next to him. After a year or two, all those children died. We are the only ones left, those who watched everything from the doorway, without intervening in any way. Cătălin asked me to help him fly. I made his wish come true by using a helicopter from the airport, and with the help of a foreign reporter. I don't know how it happened, but for a few months a black American pilot went on leisure flights over the city and the surrounding area. On that journey, Cătălin was accompanied by Ionuţ, one of his friends, and me. We took a lot of pictures in the helicopter, during the flight. Cătălin was so happy! He kept smiling and talking all the time, although we couldn't actually hear what he was saying because of all the noise. Ionuţ told me later what Cătălin said at the time: he said he was ready to die. But this didn't happen until after a few months; immediately after the flight, Cătălin's condition improved spectacularly, although he refused any treatment. A lot of children made me promise a number of things to them as their last wish. The curious thing is, the majority of these children are still alive today, although they were closer to death than to life then, when there was no anti-viral treatment. I advised them all not to pay attention to what was written in the newspapers, but to listen to what the specialists had to say. It so happened that more than once things went differently from what we had foreseen. I took a lot of pictures of the children I took care of, and not only medical pictures. I photographed them everywhere, wherever they went with me. When I look at the pictures now, I remember immediately who the one in the picture is and where the photo was taken. I regret not having captured on film many other special moments and situations which will remain only in my memory.   TRIFLES AND TRIVIA Everything related to the AIDS problem functioned in a somewhat closed circuit. We all knew each other, we tried to maintain the privacy of the infected persons, their children and families trusted us to do so. We knew each other so well that we, the nurses, the assistants and doctors even began to guess what the little ones, who weren't able to speak yet tried to communicate to us, were saying; we learned the meaning of some gestures, but above all we came to interpret the little trifles and trivia done by those who were approaching their end. These were often much more relevant than medical observations regarding the evolution of the disease. Sometimes, the child gave the impression that he didn't even care whether he was sick or not, and even if his condition was not good at all, he would eventually get over the critical period. Yet when you noticed those little signs, he almost certainly sensed his end. Ionuţ was so sick that he spent all his time lying in bed with his eyes facing the window. He made me a sign to come near him and said: "Look at those clouds in the sky. They will never have the shape you and I can see today. Can you see it? It's the shape of a mother holding her child by the hand!" Indeed, the clouds looked like a person holding a little one by the hand. For Ionuţ, that was his mother holding his hand… he died the same day. Laurenţiu asked for some cheese pie from an assistant who always used to bring them something made by her at home. Geta, the assistant, told me right away that Laurenţiu had a feeling that he was going to die. And that's exactly how it was. A group of children went on a mountain trip, quite far away from Constantza. They all drank water from a certain spring. When Costel asked me to bring him some water from that spring, I knew what was going to happen! Someone drove there and brought back in a thermos some of the cold water wished for, which Costel drank right away, telling us that he recognized the taste. I was always ready to search for the cure or therapeutic solution for a child's treatment. Yet I stopped doing so if the child asked me to, as I learned that he certainly knows what is going to happen. I wonder what the mother sitting next to a teenager's bed felt when he said to her "Let me go in peace…" I always found the methods to convince a child to take the daily handful of pills regularly. But when a child tells me "Take out the IV!" or "Don't fret about finding that treatment for me!," I most certainly respect his wish. Strangely, none of them uses the word "fret" to refer to themselves, but only to refer to you, the one who wants to help them. Mariana, a teenager who learned to cope with this disease, lives her life telling everyone that "Time is the fabric of which life is made." How can you buy more fabric?A family from England, David and Valerie, a retired couple, came to work as volunteers with us. They lived in Constantza for a few years and met all the infected children who were brought to the hospital. It was they who started many of the useful things we then carried on: the game therapy, for example.But they also did something very special: a collage, on a big panel, made up of the faces of hundreds of children they had met. Most of them were children who had died – I think they had thousands of pictures of them. But in this collage there were also pictures of children who were alive and well. They almost added Ştefan to the panel, when he jumped up as if something had bitten him, telling us that he will let us know when we could put his picture there. At one time, although he was looking good and had a positive evolution, he called me to say that it was time for us to put him "there." In a few days, following repeated convulsions, he died. To this day I keep that poster-panel with the last face, Ştefan's, added to it before David and Valerie left Romania. Fortunately, not too many faces have been added to that panel since then. It's as if David and Valerie had a feeling it was time for them to leave Romania… from Nobody's Angels. My Life with AIDS-infected Children, Compania, 2007  Rodica MĂTUŞA (b. 1943) graduated from the Faculty of Medicine in Cluj-Napoca and earned a doctor's degree in AIDS. She worked as a specialist doctor at the ClinicHospital for Infectious Diseases in Constantza and published many research papers. Since 1991 she has headed the Speranta (Hope) Association in Constantza, dedicated to the prevention of HIV/AIDS and assistance to infected persons.

by Rodica Mătuşa