County woman brings basics of life to Romanian youth Nutritionist aids orphanages

December 22, 1992|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff Writer

The pictures in Laurel Zaks' scrapbook will turn your stomach.

A 6-year-old who looks like a frail 16-month-old baby crouches by several small boys whose bodies are twisted in fantastic positions, the result of severe malnutrition and rickets.

Ms. Zaks, 23, of Severna Park, returned recently from Romania, where she worked as a dietitian and nutritionist with a six-member volunteer medical team.

She spent several months visiting orphanages and hospitals, working with young people ages 4 to 21 who have suffered horribly from near-starvation and neglect.

"The people were hospitable and the countryside is gorgeous, but this is a country where for decades the system told the people they were perfect," Ms. Zaks said. "They didn't need doctors. So if someone had a child born with any kind of 'imperfection,' the parents just abandoned it. These children were not considered human beings."

Dumped in dilapidated buildings, the children receive little food and less companionship. No one holds them or talks to them. Ms. Zaks pointed out another photo of three boys bound in one bed. The caretaker didn't want to bother changing three soiled sheets, she explained.

Into this sordid atmosphere, Ms. Zaks and a team of two child psychiatrists and a psychiatric nurse brought hope.

"The conditions were deplorable, but you separate yourself from that so you can help. The kids demand so much love your heart goes out to them. We definitely made some changes," she said.

Ms. Zaks, who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in June, determined what foods the children most needed and distributed concentrated vitamins. She checked out local eating habits and food supplies.

"It's important to respect a culture," she said. "If a culture is not used to a food, their systems may not tolerate it, no matter how healthy you know it is for them."

For example, someone donated a case of yams, but the Romanians "didn't know what they were," she said. So Ms. Zaks showed them how to prepare yams in a manner they could digest.

She bought buckets and attached cups to them so the bed-bound children could drink when they got thirsty. But the children were not used to water, she recalled.

"Some screwed their faces up as if you were giving them battery acid," she said. "Others just loved playing with the water."

Ms. Zaks and other team members raised money to go with the Free Romania Foundation's TOUCH program. About 17 volunteers ac

companied her medical team, which left in July. The team traveled from Bucharest to rural villages where roads were gravel and the only means of transportation was horse and cart.

At the orphanages, called "spitals," water was drawn from a well of often limited supply. Because of the water shortage, sanitation was minimal and the children suffered from dehydration, malnutrition and disease.

Cooks prepared food on the floor. Mentally handicapped children were tied to their cribs and left.

Of 219 children on which she was able to collect data, only one was a normal height and weight. Many had neurological problems that apparently stemmed from poor prenatal care, Ms. Zaks said. Stunted growth was common.

"If they'd been in a decent hospital, many of the problems could have been prevented or significantly alleviated," Ms. Zaks said. "So much needs to be done. It's a huge challenge."

Her favorite picture isn't much to look at, initially. It shows one physically distorted child feeding another. It is unusual, she explained, because "they haven't been taught sharing and have no sense of self."

The photo represents a triumph of spirit, she said.

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