Last year, some 2,800 Romanian doctors — discouraged by the antiquated and corrupt health system and low wages — left to work in western Europe, according to the Romanian College of Doctors.
"Ideally, we would have decent salaries and nobody would be tempted to accept informal payments," said the Ritli, the health minister. "And the population would be educated so people would believe that this is not the only way to get proper health care."
Bribes across Romania accounted for some $1 million a day in 2005, according to a World Bank report; more recent estimates are not available. The culture of bribes — or "informal payments" as they're commonly known — is tacitly accepted.
But anger is rising. One of Marie Curie's donors, Procter & Gamble, has several times gone back to the hospital and the Health Ministry to ask questions about when the unit will start functioning.
The tragic plight of Romanian children is nothing new.
In a misguided effort to boost Romania's then-population of 23 million, Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu banned birth control and abortion, which led to thousands of infants being left in orphanages in harrowing conditions broadcast around the world after his execution in 1989.
Nearly a quarter-century later, the country's shortcomings are again being seen through the gaze of children and powerless parents trapped in a web of corruption.
For those whose children die shortly after birth, grief is magnified when they do not receive a birth certificate or even see their babies alive. Angela Vasile, whose baby daughter, Cristina, only lived one day, saw her infant just once after she'd died, lying on a metal table.
She was then put in a ward of nursing mothers, adding to her anguish.
Bianca Brad, a Romanian celebrity, spoke out publicly about the pain of losing her baby at birth — calling the situation "criminal." She founded the "EMMA Association" to help grieving parents, offering support for those who do not receive psychological counseling and remain locked in years of grief.
Yet remarkable things are happening at the Marie Curie Hospital. Cirstoveanu is personally overseeing the survival of Baby Andrei, an 8-month-old Roma baby born to underage parents. His intestines are almost nonexistent.
The tiny infant who weighs about 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) with limbs that look like gnarled twigs was given only days to live. His bright eyes, alert gaze and lively personality have endeared him to all staff who comfort him in their arms as much as they can outside of his incubator.
Andrei can only have lifesaving surgery in the United States — and a fee of hundreds of thousands of dollars is proving prohibitive. Nurses are so fond of the bright boy that they are playing the state lottery in an attempt to raise funds for his surgery.
Even in this grim setting, there are signs that doctors are mobilizing in a bid to make things better.
Anca Mandache, a child heart surgeon, left her career in France to offer her services to the Marie Curie hospital, taking a salary one tenth of what she would have earned there. Others also are expressing an interest in working at the clinic
Cirstoveanu, who also flies sick babies to Germany and Austria, says he feels "ashamed" that he has to go to the lengths he does to save children, but talks with pride of the moment he sees the joy of relieved parents whose babies survive.
They are in awe of his dedication.
"Cirstoveanu is more than a hero — he is a god for us and the children," said Gheorghe Meliusoiu, Catalin's 28-year-old woodcutter father. "If there were more like him, many lives would be saved."
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