Reaching Out: How a local woman helped ease the suffering of children in Romania

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MTT News Desk's picture
Matt Geiger
Nicole Mueller holds the hand of Andrei, a five-month-old child at St. Nicholas Children’s Hospital.

In a bed at St. Nicholas Children’s Hospital in Barlad, Romania, a baby named Andrei was wailing. Suffering from Hydrocephalus, the abandoned child’s head was slowly filling with fluid, swelling to twice its normal size.

He was in a facility that houses sick or deformed children cast aside by parents who see them as God’s punishment, or by caretakers on whom the shackles of alcoholism weigh too heavily to care for another human life.

Even in a place where suffering is commonplace, many were overwhelmed by his condition.

“I think everyone was intimidated,” recalled Nicole Mueller. “I was too. He cried 24/7 and he had sores all over.”

Mueller, at the age of 23, is a picture of health - Andrei’s opposite in nearly every way. Athletic and copper-skinned, she flashes white teeth in a frequent smile and speaks with unflinching Midwestern amiability. She was in Romania with the Global Volunteers program.

On her first day at the hospital, she, like all her peers, stayed away, unsure how to help. On the second day, Andrei’s crying continued.

“I made up my mind to connect with him,” Mueller said. “He was a baby. He wanted to be held.”

So she reached out, taking his hand in hers. It was the same type of resolve that brought Mueller, a former cross-country star at Middleton High School, to Europe in the first place.

“My parents are both special e[ducation] teachers,” she explained. “They always made a point of telling me I was blessed to have this life in Middleton, Wisconsin, and they encouraged me to go out and help people.”

Currently a student at Edgewood College, Mueller is eying a career in healthcare. When she discovered the Global Volunteers program, she mustered her considerable resolve.

“I just did it,” she said. “It was by far the best decision I’ve made in my life.”

Mueller set out for Romania on her own, bringing $2,000 with her. The lion’s share went directly to children in the underfunded hospital.

She arrived in a country on the Black Sea, home to Vlad the Impaler (Bram Stoker’s model for Dracula),  Carpathian mountains, painted monasteries, a vibrant culture and extreme poverty.

“It’s actually a really beautiful country,” she said. “There are mountains, big European cities, everyone is out on the streets trying to sell stuff – it’s so alive and so different from here, and there’s also just enormous poverty; gypsies everywhere, I think about a million abandoned dogs.”

Mueller joined up with a group of college students who also hailed from the American Midwest. They spoke with locals and learned about a country with a corrupt government, a dwindling number of hospitals, and pervasive superstition that caused some Romanians to view the disabled as anathema.

Jobs were scarce. Romanian parents would travel all the way to Italy or Spain in search of work. Citizens were supposed to have universal healthcare, but most payments disappeared into a nebulous government. The poor and the sick were asked for cash before receiving care.

“A lot of kids probably pass away,” she explained. “The ones who make it for a while end up in what are essentially orphanages.”

Mueller stayed May 24 through June 10, sleeping at a nearby hotel. She spent her days at St. Nicholas  - one of the hospitals that hadn’t recently been shut down by the government.

“Basically they just wanted us to show them love and care,” she said. “We fed them, cleaned their diapers and washed them. We tried to play games with some, but most just needed a human touch.”

One patient, inflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome, was whisked away by his mother every couple weeks. She would then pick up a government subsidy for her child. A few days later, the baby would re-appear at St. Nicholas Children’s Hospital, abandoned on the front stoop.

Mueller didn’t look like most Romanians. “My blond hair made me stand out like no other, and everyone kept asking about my white teeth,” she said.

She hopes more Americans will opt to volunteer and the sight of Americans in places like Romania will become less rare. 

“The number of people volunteering is just going down and down and down,” she said.

She still receives updates from those with whom she worked.

“Someday I’ll go back to Romania,” Mueller continued. “Right now I hope to go to India, to Mother Teresa’s orphanage.”

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