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"It wasn't the skills we had to learn. We had to learn English to communicate with patients and coworkers."
Only in America!
A couple from Romania sold everything and came to Baltimore to pursue a better life. Hopkins was lucky enough to find them.

The sunny Corina Voicu does not want to linger on the particulars of her life in Romania. She will always love her native country, she declares, and her situation there was nice. She and her husband held jobs as nurses, they had two handsome sons, and their parents' farms supplied all the free vegetables and poultry they needed.

But her husband, Mihai, whose soberness is the perfect counterpoint to his wife's effervescence, gently interrupts. "I was working for 18 years and I couldn't buy a car," he says in accented English. They lived in a small, two-room apartment where each night the living room had to be converted into their bedroom.

Romania began its transition from Communism in 1989, but it is still one of the poorest countries in Eastern Europe. It has been working toward a market economy for the past decade, but still lags behind most other countries in the region.

"When you are dreaming for more," Corina admits, "it doesn't matter how hard you work, you can't accomplish."

Dick Gelfond had logged 15 years at Hopkins when he retired as director of materials management at Bayview Medical Center in 1990. He is a man of varied interests-an avid sailor and a geologist by training who "grew into" his career in health care administration. He had no intention of living an idle retirement.

Gelfond signed on as a volunteer with the Citizens Democracy Corps where the mission was to help former Soviet bloc countries transition from a demand to a market economy. He was sent twice to Bulgaria, then was assigned to Sibiu, Romania, where he met Corina Voicu, head nurse at the Clinica Paltinul.

When he returned to Romania the next year, the Voicus picked him up at the airport and told him their latest news. They had been among 7 million people to enter the U.S. Immigration Service's green card lottery, a program meant to increase diversity here by issuing visas to people who come from countries with low immigration rates. And they'd had the good fortune to be among the 50,000 winners.

But they needed a favor. They didn't require a sponsor, having qualified for the program by owning property in their mother country, but would Gelfond consider being their "contact" in the States? He need only let the Voicus use his address as the place the government could mail their green cards.

But when the Gelfonds realized they were the family's sole U.S. contact, preparing for their arrival in March 1999 became a major project, especially for Gelfond's wife, Trina. She rented the Voicus an apartment near them in Towson, taking care to select a good school district. She called on friends for donations to help completely furnish and outfit the apartment because the Voicus had had to sell everything they had in Romania to make the voyage.

"They treated us like their kids," says Corina. "The refrigerator was full with food, the cabinets were full with food, there were new towels, new linens. We left with four luggage and two teenagers. Only in America you find that here."

Reality was lurking just outside their apartment door, however. An overwhelming number of new experiences awaited the Voicus, made even more difficult by their minimal English.

"We had to learn to write a check, because we never write a check," says Corina, "learn to use an ATM, learn how to get on the bus, learn to drive because we didn't drive in Romania, even learn to flush the toilet because that was different. It was not that dream I was dreaming about. It was like-I don't want to use that word, but it was like hell."

And while simultaneously adjusting to so much change, they had to find work. Dick Gelfond helped them compose resumes and send them to a half-dozen hospitals. Corina was dispirited when nobody responded, not even with a rejection letter.

Then on a rainy Sunday morning that spring, Trina spotted an ad for an open house at Hopkins to recruit nurses. The Voicus couldn't work as nurses in their new country without passing boards, but the Gelfonds thought it would be good for them to attend, if only to practice their English.

The Gelfonds dropped off Corina and Mihai in front of the Phipps Building and wished them luck.

Corina was instantly struck by the plush surroundings. "It was so luxurious, so beautiful! The marble, the old paintings, all the food so nicely arranged."

Even more astonishing to her was the reception she and Mihai received.

"Once we got in that room, people were so nice. They said, Here's what we can do for you. Take my business card. We thought it was too good to be true! We even met some nurses from Eastern Europe and they told us, If you can get hired, this hospital will help you grow.

"Well the next day, I was calling people," continues Corina, "and, li´ke that, I got an interview."

When Robbie Heath, then director of pati´ent care services for Hopkins' Outpatient Center, met with Corina and Mihai, she remembers that Corina did most of the talking and that she was so anxious about making a good impression she was shaking. Heath, herself a Canadian who has worked in Afghanistan, Tanzania and Indonesia, got her to relax with small talk. "She was very organized and all her papers were notarized. I just remember her persistence and that she was an absolute go-getter. You don't think about these things at the time, but I guess there's a sixth sense. Here's somebody who just needs to have a door opened and she'll use this as a stepping stone to something better."

The Voicus couldn't believe their luck when they both got jobs as lab technologists in Express Testing working the same schedule.

"Express Testing is busy, busy, busy and that was good for us," says Corina. "It wasn't the skills we had to learn; we had to learn English to communicate with patients and with co-workers. Always, the first question from patients was, Where are you from? And we learned like that-good words and bad words. Everyone adopted us like family."

The Voicus also attended English classes for six months, and got a TV with closed-captioning, which helped with their ability to read.

Corina and Mihai's American dream was coming true. Mihai bought his first car-a new Toyota. Two years ago, they bought a house in Loch Raven Village. Their sons, now 18 and 16, took jobs for the extras the family couldn't afford. And they developed a circle of friends, mostly fellow Romanians who worked at Hopkins.

As lab technologists in the Outpatient Center, the Voicus were responsible for teaching phlebotomy to students in the hospital's nuclear medicine technology program. Once her English had gotten good enough, Corina started asking them questions. "It sounded so interesting, even though I didn't have a clue."

She decided to apply for the 14-month program, and again steeled herself for a nerve-wracking interview. She was put at ease by the program's medical director, Cahid Civelek, who hails from Turkey. By the end of their meeting, she was accepted.

In the best of circumstances, the load that Corina had taken on would have been difficult. Her classes ran all day Monday through Friday. She was studying subjects like nuclear physics and radiopharmacology not in her native language. And saddled with a mortgage and car payments, she still had to work. To make it, the Voicus moved over to jobs in Hopkins' Core Lab, Mihai working overtime, Corina working weekends. Mihai took over the household while Corina studied.

"I was like a robot," she says. "It was so intense. I was determined not to disappoint the people that they helped me. They trusted me. And they were so proud of us."

On Aug. 28, Corina Voicu, whose life had begun again just three and a half years ago, graduated valedictorian of her class. She is still a bit bewildered by the transition. "I don't know from where I got that courage."

After graduation, Corina got the thing she'd been praying for-a position as a nuclear medicine technologist at Hopkins. "I would not leave Hopkins for anything," she says. "I'm just so grateful to this hospital I have to stay here."

Meanwhile, Mihai, who also plans to apply for the program, has found a job in the same department as an EKG technician.

"Now I'm thinking differently," says Mihai. "We have time. In Romania, people would say, How old are you to go back to school? But here, hey, anything is possible."

-Mary Ellen Miller



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