Prior to family-travel writing, I was a neuroscientist. You know, like Amy Farrah Fowler on the “Big Bang Theory.” They never take your PhD away, so I guess I’m still a neuroscientist, albeit nonpracticing at the moment. Recently, I was reminded of my neuroscience past by a story on NPR’s Morning Edition on the effect of parenting on children’s brain development – specifically, a poignant example of how extreme neglect affected children abandoned in a Romania hospital. My neuroscience teaching and research took me to those hospitals in Romania, where the experience continues to haunt me.
Let me start by saying this article is in no way a condemnation of public policy in Romania. The country has struggled with its child abandonment problem since the overthrow of their Communist Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu on Christmas Eve 1989, and the world discovered 100s of thousands of children living in institutions. In the NPR story, Harvard Professor Charles Nelson discussed his research on children raised in these Romanian institutions and noted “neglect is awful for the brain; the wiring goes awry.” I was a part of the Early Experience and Brain Development Research Network, along with Dr. Nelson, and asked to develop a mouse model of maternal separation; as a college professor, I also created a course to teach students about how the brain develops and the role of early experience on sculpting that neural circuitry. The course culminated with a service-learning trip to Romania, where 13 college students and myself worked with institutionalized children in a rural Romania hospital.
Entering the “failure to thrive” wing of the Dr. Nicolaescu Hospital in Tutova, Romania was jarring. Nearly 30 children, all under the age of 5, were permanent residents of this hospital – some since as young as 2 weeks old. However, this children’s ward was near silent – no music, no laughter, and no crying. There was no point to crying as there was not enough staff to attend to these children. The kids were isolated in their cribs, many rocking back and forth, or banging their heads on the metal bars or walls for stimulation.
The NPR piece described a child, Izidor Ruckel, diagnosed with polio at 6 months old, taken to a hospital by his parents who never returned. I saw many similar cases in the “failure-to-thrive” ward of Dr. Nicolaescu Hospital in Tutova, Romania – these children were failure to thrive because they were economic orphans. Their parents and families did not have the resources to raise them, and assumed the hospital would be better able to care for their children. While in Tutova, Romania, each of the 13 college students and myself were assigned to work with 1-3 of the children over the two weeks.
I was paired with a boy named Gabi. He was nearly 5 years old, and a resident of the hospital almost his entire life. Gabi did not speak, did not eat solid food, and had developed many autistic-like behaviors. He would rock back and forth, stare at a detail in the wall or on the back of his hand for hours, and would not interact with any of the children. During the two weeks we were in Romania, Gabi took his first bite of solid food, a small chunk of banana hidden in yogurt, and I was nearly brought to tears.
I returned home from that trip on the day of my daughter’s second birthday. After being away for two weeks, it was striking to see how my young daughter had grown – she was taller, steadier on her feet, and started stringing words together into sentences. Gabi remained in Romania. How could I leave him, or any of the children, knowing the hospital did not have the resources to properly care for them? During the trip, I mentioned to my students and our guide that I, myself, was an adopted child. Our Romanian trip leader commented it was considered taboo to share if you were adopted, but might offer an explanation for why I came. Perhaps… it doesn’t change the fact that the children in the hospital would be abandoned yet again by my group, and by every other group of voluntourists who streamed through the hospital at semi-regular 2-3 week intervals.
What does this have to do with family travel? Everything. It cuts at the heart of what makes a family, and the power of travel. My daughter is now 13 – after 11 years these memories are still seared into my brain. Gabi would be 16 assuming he’s still alive. Maybe he was adopted similar to Izidor Ruckel in the NPR story, but even if Gabi was adopted, research (and stories like Izidor’s) suggests there are many long-term developmental effects due to institutionalization. I know even the short-term exposure to institutionalization had a profound effect on me.