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Father’s Day and Men of Steel

Romania on June 16 2013

It is 9:23 am in Kansas City (Medical Missions Foundation home base) and 5:23 PM here in Botoşani (Bow-tow-shawn).  Back home, Father’s Day is likely starting for most dads with church or breakfast in bed or maybe, if dad is really lucky, just sleeping in.


The story is a little different here. First of all Father’s Day is not celebrated in Romania – although my translator tells me there is a similar holiday called “National Beer Day”. Oh how I love the Romanian dry wit! So looks like the father’s on our team will be hard at work all day.


A total of 95 children were prescreened by local medics so it was no surprise that by the time our team arrived at 7:30 am (after an over-night train ride from Bucharest) showered, grabbed a quick breakfast and set up shop at the Children’s Hospital at 9:30 am, there was already a large crowd assembled. So much for anyone taking it easy on Father’s Day. But that is okay, because today a little boy named Gabriel, not only needed a doctor, he needed a dad. This is his Father’s Day story.


Eleven-year-old, Gabriel, his mother Gabriela and six-year-old sister, Maria was the very first in line to see the “American doctors”. On a cold Romanian winter day in 2007, while his mother, with baby sister in tow, was out in the field milking their cow, Gabriel’s father faced the task of building a fire in their stove to keep their small home warm. Firewood suitable for burning can be scarce and costly during the winter, so gasoline is frequently used to start and maintain fires in rural homes without heat.


On this particular day, according to the information his mother gave Vince Hayes, MD in the clinic, Gabriel was inside playing when his father brought a container of gasoline” into the home and sat it next to the stove. Within minutes fumes accumulated and ignited a fire that killed his father, destroyed their home, and devastated Gabriel’s body with burns over 70% of his body. His mother rushed him the 40 km to the Botoşani Children’s Hospital where he was quickly deemed too critical and was transported to a hospital 120 km away in town of Iaşi (Pronounced Yash).  During his eight-month stay there he underwent several operations and skin grafts yet was left with extreme scarring, only a small patch of hair on the back of his head, the disfigured remnants of his ears, nose and mouth and the loss of both his hands with the exception of a partially usable thumb on his right hand. One look at Gabriel literally stole the air from your lungs and crushed your heart. But after a few minutes in the exam room, it became apparent that he was the personification of his name, which means, “strong man of God.” It was amazing the things he could accomplish with relative ease, with that one finger and two stubs of hands. He was indeed very strong.


And despite his appearance, Gabriel was a healthy, active, smart, third-grader. His mother’s desire in having him seen was to see if something could be done to improve the appearance of his nose. After being examined by Dr. Mark Hechler, it was determined that was not an option. He was however very optimistic he could release the scarring around Gabriel’s mouth, allowing it to open more fully as he grows as well as inject steroids his leg to help reduce some of the “itching sensation” caused by the buildup of scar tissue. They both seemed agreeable until Dr. Hechler offered another suggestion. He could cut back some tissue around his one remaining finger to allow more movement – that sent Gabriel into a panic. His mother tried gently to persuade him that this would be better for him, but he Gabriel started weeping and repeating, “I don’t want to get better…I don’t want to get better.”


It was apparent that this little man had already lost so much – his father, his appearance, his hands and really, his youth, that he didn’t want to roll the dice, even with the American doctors, and take the chance of losing the little bit he had left and his ability to milk his goat. Working through the interpreter, Alex, Mark Heckler, MD did his best to convince Gabriel that he would be successful and his life would be, just a little bit better. But in the end, Gabriel was just a scared 11 year-old boy, so his mother did what any mother would do, what I would do to change his mind – she bribed him. “Do we have time to go buy a mobile phone, he has been wanting one and I think it will get him to calm down,” Gabriella said. It was now 11:30 am and Gabriel had the coveted first surgical spot at 12:30 pm – just enough time. Concerned that he might change his mind or not make it back in time, I, along with my translator, also coincidentally named Gabriel, followed mom who quickly purchased a $20 cell phone from a nearby pawnshop. On the way back I bought treats to be shared after surgery with his little sister Maria who had remained extremely patient and calm during the entire ordeal.


We were set, or so we thought. The 30 minute wait for pre-op reawakened his fears and soon mom was one flight down from the now crowded waiting room trying to convince him and partially herself, that this was the right decision. As his crying echoed up the stairwell, it quickly became apparent to me what this boy needed was a father. I ran down the hall found two – Ken Conde, CRNA and Doug Hagen, MD. Ken’s immediate reaction was, “We’ll get the anesthesia ready, just get him in here now.” Doug, quickly darted into post-op and emerged in his white lab coat – it really reminded me of Clark Kent stepping into a phone booth and emerging as Superman. “Okay, let’s go.” As hustled down the stairs I stood at the top and crossed my fingers and said a little prayer. In less than five minutes Doug was walking Gabriela, Maria and Gabriel, still a little teary but more calm, up the stairs and down the hall to pre-op. When I asked Doug how he did it, he replied, “I just let him know what was going to happen, we’d take good care of him and then I was just a little firm with him about it.” Then I realized Doug really wasn’t “Superman”, or even “Super Doctor”, he was just “Dad” and that is just exactly what Gabriel needed.


By 4:30 pm, thanks to the skilled hands of another dad, Dr. Hechler, Gabriel emerged from post op with a new and improved thumb and a wider smile  – one he even showed off in a few pictures. Then he, his mother, sister and his new phone walked out the door headed for home.


Nice work dads!


Nancy Besa, Team Romania 2013