Maryland physicians help to heal Romania's children and health care system


WASHINGTON -- When the husband-and-wife team of Dr. James F. Bascom and Dr. Barbara Bascom arrived in Romania in the spring of last year, they found beautiful countryside and "a man-made disaster."

The two Montgomery County physicians saw one of the more tragic effects of Nicolae Ceausescu's former regime in the filthy and neglected orphanages that peppered the picturesque landscape.

Dr. James Bascom recalled seeing the tiny human forms -- deemed "unsalvageable" by the government -- left virtually unattended. "Kids rocking," he remembered.

"Wall-to-wall cribs," added his wife Barbara, a pediatrician. Although some of the children were as old as 4, "they were given everything in a bottle," she said. "When they didn't have milk, they gave them tea, usually sweetened."

During the mid-1970s, President Ceausescu inexplicably stopped funding the medical establishment, said Dr. James Bascom, a 56-year-old surgeon who learned of the problem through an Austrian physician who worked on relief efforts with his brother in Africa.

Hospitals and other facilities in Romania were left with few personnel and little equipment. "It was a man-made disaster," said Dr. Barbara Bascom, "and it took 20 years to create."

Since leaving their Maryland home in Brookeville, the Bascoms have overseen relief efforts in the former communist dictatorship for World Vision Inc., a non-profit Christian relief organization based in California.

Last week, the Bascoms told a news conference here that their efforts -- and those of other organizations, ranging from the Peace Corps to UNICEF -- are helping to care for the estimated 140,000 orphans in Romania and to rebuild the country's fractured medical system.

Dr. Barbara Bascom, 55, who heads a five-year project to provide social and educational services for the orphans, said the situation is slowly improving. Her project, which is reaching 3,000 children, has set up facilities in six locations in Romania. Two others locations should be opened by September. The project has created teams of Romanian and foreign professionals to provide clinical services and training. Although adoption is one answer, she said, Romania still has no social services agencies that can oversee the process.

Few of the handicapped children are being adopted in Western countries. "These children need to be rehabilitated," Dr. Barbara Bascom said. "These children need treatment. The goal of this project is to have a suitable program for children that will persist."

There are other problems for Romania's children. Growing numbers of "street children" are being seen throughout the country, with some 800 in Bucharest and untold numbers elsewhere, said Dr. Barbara Bascom. Others languish in hospitals. "There are children living in hospitals who have never been picked up," she said. "These children have less than children in the orphanages."

Meanwhile, Dr. James Bascom spearheads a project to rebuild the Romanian health-care system. That effort already has beefed up course work in medical education, nursing and social work and installed computer systems in medical libraries. Exchanges with American medical schools are under way.

Still, there are problems with the current Romanian government, he said, which places "a low priority for human services."

There is an urgent need for health-care workers and other professionals as well as financial help, said the Bascoms, who plan to visit a number of American medical schools -- including the Johns Hopkins medical school -- before returning to Romania in mid-August.

"This is an ongoing crisis," said Dr. Barbara Bascom. "We've opened the door and walked through. We've got to continue our effort until they can fly on their own."

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