From Bucharest, with Love

updated 09/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

More than anything else, Laura and Mike Harder wanted children. So when they learned in 1983 that they were unlikely to conceive, the Harders—she, now 30, a bookkeeper, and he, 31, a manager in General Electric's government defense division in Syracuse, N.Y.—turned to adoption. They registered their names with national and international agencies—and they waited. But for six years, each time a child seemed just a signature away, something went wrong. By last spring the two were at wits'—and wallets'—end as hope for a family dwindled, along with nearly 10years' savings. Then a friend called. "You've got to watch 20/20, about the orphans in Romania," she said. "This may be your chance." Laura switched on the television set, and the next day was on the phone to the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest. Two weeks later she and Mike left their home in Fayetteville, N.Y., and boarded a plane to Eastern Europe. "We thought we were going off on a seven-day adventure," says Laura. Instead, they were beginning a frustrating odyssey during which they would encounter fear, squalor and maddening bureaucratic inertia. Worse, they would be forced to make life-and-death decisions for two tiny children. Here is their story.

When we got off the plane in Bucharest we saw a man, half asleep, leaning against the wall holding a sign, HARDERS, U.S.A., USA, it said. It was Daniel, the man we had hired over the phone to handle our adoptions. You don't have to have an attorney to adopt in Romania—Daniel was a taxi driver. We got his name from a briefing paper the U.S. Embassy in Romania sent us. Daniel knew people in the government, he said, and could get us through all the paperwork. We made a deal, but I didn't trust him. Partly, it just seemed too good to be true. "Do you want a boy or a girl," he asked me the first time we talked over the phone, "and what age?"

"You mean I can pick what age?" I said.

"There are so many babies here you can have whatever you want," he said. The government of Nicolae Ceausescu, who had been deposed and executed a few months before, had encouraged high birth rates. But Romania is desperately poor, and many of the kids ended up in institutions. Daniel told me that for $1,000 each, to cover his fee and paperwork, I could have a boy and a girl. "But you must bring cash. You can't use traveler's checks. It must be American dollars."

We were frightened, but we had no choice. So, planning to adopt a boy and a girl, we went with our entire savings—$5,000 in cash. Mike kept warning me, "You know, Laura, even if this guy is legitimate, this is it. Hue go there, all our money will be gone. If we don't find a baby this time, we can't ever adopt. I mean, that's the end."

Daniel took our bags, one with our clothing, one with baby stuff—mostly clothes and two cases of diapers. We asked Daniel about the kids. "Tomorrow I'll show you your boy," he said.

The next afternoon we went to the orphanage. Walking down the driveway we could smell the urine, and inside the stench was unbearable. It was like a kennel. These children weren't wearing diapers, just rags wrapped around their bodies. Children stood in cribs shaking the bars and rocking.

Inside we met Nicolai—our little boy. He looked despondent. Not crying, just doing nothing. He was 14 months old but couldn't sit up, roll over, stand up. He couldn't hold a toy. We were shocked. He was soaked in urine, his hair was sticky, and he stank. He just lay there and stared into space. I thought, "My God, can we help this child? What's wrong with him?"

We didn't know whether to take Nicolai or not, and for four days while we agonized, we kept asking about a little girl. Daniel put us off. It went like that for days. Finally, after we'd gone to look for a girl on our own, he got nervous and said we could see one the next morning. At the orphanage, the nurse walked in, not with a baby girl but with Nicolai, and put him in my arms. I started to cry, just like Mike and I had done every night over this little boy. I couldn't sleep, thinking, "If we leave him, he'll die, and if we bring him home, maybe he'll be fine." How could we know? I looked at Mike and I said, "Mike, we gotta take him."

When Daniel repeated to the nurses in Romanian what I'd said, they jumped for joy. Then the doctor left, and five minutes later came back with this tiny 6½-lb. girl and put her in my arms. They said her name was Iulia (pronounced Yulia).

The minute we saw her we both knew she was our little girl. She never smiled. But she looked at us with these wide, curious eyes, and I started crying again, saying. "Oh, she's beautiful. She's so beautiful!" Then they took her away from me and left us with Nicolai. And it hit me: This was a game. Take Nicolai, get Iulia.

That night I couldn't sleep. We didn't go to Romania to adopt a retarded child. We could've done that seven years before in the States. The next morning I said, "Mike, we can't take that baby boy." He agreed. We told Daniel. "We can't afford to take him," we said. "We don't have socialized medicine like you have here."

Still, they told us Iulia was ours. I cried, but it wasn't a happy feeling. The baby wasn't ours until she was in our arms and in our home. Anything could happen. You put up a guard, you put up a wall, because you don't know if she has hepatitis, or AIDS, or if the mother had AIDS. At that point, my heart was in my throat.

Friday came. We were scheduled to leave the next day, but Iulia's papers weren't signed. If we left, it would be without her, in the hope that we could return for her after the papers were processed. That day we went to the orphanage to see Iulia. By now we had decided to name her Brittany. We found her drenched in urine up to her neck. On Daniel's advice we had been paying each nurse who looked after her a dollar and a pack of cigarettes a day to take good care of her. We'd explain to them when to change her by drawing a diaper and a clock. But they just didn't care. This day she felt very hot to us too, like she had a fever. The nurses kept saying in broken English, "No, she's fine, she's fine." She wasn't fine. She was burning up.

When we got back to the hotel, I said to Mike, "You have to go home alone. They're not taking care of Brittany. If I leave, she'll die." Mike left Saturday morning without me. He says it's the hardest thing he ever had to do. But he had no choice. He'd taken two weeks off work. We couldn't afford for him to take more.

After he left I went to the orphanage. Brittany still had a fever, and her eyes were glassy. I cleaned her up and went back a couple of times that day. When I went back on Monday, her temperature was still 102°F. I kept asking the nurses if they were giving Brittany her penicillin. They just said, "No, no, no, we gave her her medication already." They didn't understand you have to take penicillin for at least 10 days in a row. They thought once was enough.

During all this I'm playing charades with the nurses, trying to understand why they weren't using the disposable diapers I left. One nurse finally took me into the bathroom and showed me 20, 30 disposable diapers that they'd washed and hung up to dry. That was the straw that broke my back. I whipped all the diapers down and crumpled them up and threw them away. The nurses are trying to pull them out of the trash, and I'm shouting "No, no, no" and throwing them back in. Then I drew a clock and a trash can. And I showed the lady—every two hours, put the disposable diaper on, throw the old one in the trash. I was like a raging maniac. Brittany had open wounds—bleeding sores on her butt. And they were sticking on a wet, soggy, disposable diaper that they had tried to wash and dry. I lost it. I was screaming at them. They walked out and slammed the door.

That afternoon I went back to the orphanage—but I couldn't get in. The door was locked. I was pounding on it. Finally the director of the orphanage, Liliana, came to the door and said " more." She had never spoken in English before. I ran and got my new taxi driver, Julian, who took me around whenever Daniel was too busy. Liliana started waiting in Romanian.

I was frantic. I thought we had lost our little girl. That's what Mike and I had feared. That's why I didn't go home, so they wouldn't give the baby to someone else. And now I was sure they'd do just that—because they didn't like me. I asked Julian, "Is she mad at me for throwing a temper tantrum?" And he said, "Yes. She doesn't want you in there anymore." I made him take me back. I pounded at the door, but they still wouldn't let me in. Three times I went back. They'd open the door and push me away.

The next morning Julian and I went to the orphanage, thinking the director wouldn't be there on a Saturday. This time, when we drove past the window where Brittany's crib was, all the shades were drawn. Right then I knew something was wrong. We went to the door, and it was locked. I told Julian, "Break it down."

He crashed through and we went running in, and all these nurses came screaming at us. I pushed them aside and ran to Brittany's crib. It was empty. The nurses were yelling at Julian and pointing upstairs. So Julian grabbed me, and we went running up three flights to the doctor's office. Her mouth fell open. They started speaking Romanian, and all I understood was "hospital." I didn't want to hear what had happened. I knew enough.

When we got to the hospital, I couldn't believe my eyes. It was disgusting. There were dogs walking up and down the hallways, crap and dried blood on the floors, and people smoking everywhere. Brittany was in intensive care. But the nurse wouldn't let us in. Julian explained who I was. Suddenly two doctors and three nurses came out and started whispering to him, and somehow I understood. "Did they say my baby has died?" I screamed. Julian nodded his head and started crying, and I collapsed.

Then a doctor who spoke English came and bent over me and said, "It's okay, it's okay." I'm screaming and crying, "What do you mean it's okay? You just told me my baby died." Technically, the doctor told me, she had. Her fever had gone up to 105.2°F. She had a three-minute seizure that led to a 14-minute respiratory failure. The doctors tried to revive her, but gave up. Then two mothers who were in the room with their babies saw Brittany gasp for air. They screamed for the doctors, who ran in and performed artificial respiration again. Brittany started to breathe on her own. "She is our miracle child," they told me.

Then they gave me the bad news. They said she could be brain-damaged and suggested I look for another baby. I said no. She wasn't just a baby anymore, she was my child, and I couldn't turn my back on her. I knew she was going to make it.

But on the third day, I arrived and the doctors told me Brittany had fallen into a coma. I started crying hysterically and said, "Now? Today? That's impossible." They took me to her room and I saw her eyes rolled toward the back of her head. And she was limp, just lying there.

Then I touched her, and she wasn't cold. I put my finger in her fist. And I started talking to her. I kept saying, "Brittany, Brittany, it's Mommy. I'm here. Come on, you have to pull through this. Daddy and I have waited for you for so long." And then she started to squeeze my finger. I looked up at the doctors, and the doctors looked back, shocked. "Keep talking to her," they said. "This is what she needs, a familiar voice." So I kept talking to her, and she kept squeezing my finger. Brittany pulled out of the coma the next night. I walked into her room, leaned over the bed, and her eyes opened—and for the first time ever, she smiled.

A couple of days later, the doctors from Medicins du Monde, a traveling team of French doctors, told me they had run tests on Brittany. She wasn't brain-damaged. They checked for AIDS, everything. She was fine. They told me to take her back to the hotel and care for her there. But I still didn't have a passport for her. and without it she'd go back to the orphanage. That would have been a death sentence.

And then something happened to me. I became tougher—no more crying, no more being scared. I thought, "This is my child. She has fought to be alive. Now it's my turn to fight for her." Whatever I did, though, it had to be done immediately. If Brittany's papers weren't signed within a week, the hospital would have to send her back to the orphanage. The problem was that President Ion Iliescu had stopped processing adoption papers several days earlier, and when he'd get back to dealing with adoptions nobody knew. My hope was that the U.S. Embassy would intervene on humanitarian grounds—since Brittany would die if she didn't get proper medical care right away. So I got a letter from the doctors, both French and Romanian, asking our embassy to intercede.

On my fourth Friday in Romania, I went to meet with our embassy's consul general to give her the doctors' letter. For the past week her office had been giving me the runaround. So this time I brought with me Mario, an official of the Romanian Ministry of Health who had become an invaluable friend. We showed the consul the letter from the doctors pleading to get Brittany out of Romania, and Mario asked if she could just sign the paper, just endorse the letter. She said maybe. Four times he asked, but she kept stalling. It was 4:20 P.M. Iliescu's office closed at 5:00 P.M. If we didn't get his signature, Monday morning Brittany would go back to the orphanage. When I heard that last maybe, I jumped out of my chair and started shouting. "I can't believe that you're going to let an innocent child die because you people are on bad terms with Iliescu's government. We have 40 minutes for you to get off your damn ass and write a letter or to sign this one. You keep saying you'll do it. Well do it now, dammit."

She stood up, and her face and neck were completely red. She stormed out of the room. I really had a feeling she wasn't going to come back. But 10 minutes later her secretary came in with a letter. Mario rushed it over to President Iliescu's office. On Monday, July 2, at 6 P.M., I got a phone call in my room. It was Mario saying that my papers had been signed.

By Saturday I had Brittany's passport and her visa and was sitting in the airport with her waiting to go home. Still, I kept expecting some big hand to come down and swoop Brittany away. And then there was the memory of Nicolai. Even today I wake up in the middle of the night crying in my sleep. When we described his symptoms to doctors here at home, they said he probably has cerebral palsy. But we'll never know if we could have saved him. And part of me will never forgive myself.

As Brittany cuddled against my chest in the airport, my whole heart just ached—with relief, and with regret, too, for what we had to leave behind. But mostly it ached with joy to be holding my daughter, and joy to be taking her home.

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