Meet nurse Mária Sándor, civil activist

May 15, 2015

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Translation of the article “Nurse Mária” (“Mária nővér”) by András Pungor, appearing in weekly print 168 Óra on 30. April 2015. pp. 20-22.

She initiated a black-dress movement to protest the desperate situation of Hungarian healthcare. Hundreds of nurses, and hospital workers dressed in black t-shirts joined her by posting their all-black photos on Facebook, thus showing their solidarity with her. Not long ago, they were protesting at Normafa hill, to be followed by a second demonstration in front of the parliament in May. But who is the person triggering the protests? Who is Mária Sándor?

Grandpa was always taking the main seat at the table.

Nobody was touching food before he took some out. To his right, his elder daughter took seat, while to his left was his wife. The grandmother, who has rosy cheeks and a fragile body, was holding her carefully combed grey hair together with a net. She was in charge of preparing lunch, and holding the family together. For a long time, eleven people were present at lunchtime. Among them, Mária, her sister, her parents, the two siblings of her mother, and their cousins.

The house on the Buda side serving as a home for three generations was designed by Mária’s parents, as they were architects, and were working all the time. Mária therefore was practically raised by her grandmother, who was often playing with her. Mária recalls the big house at the time as paradise itself. The garden was enormous, fit for hide-and-seek games as well as for daydreaming.

She was attending piano and dance lessons, as well as Sunday school. She however did not like to play the piano, so she only lasted in the course for two years. At the first time, she was trying to quit, her mother waved her down: “If you start something you are supposed to go all the way.” She was true to her mother’s guidance: even today, if she starts something, it will always be finished.

After her evening bath, she never went to sleep until she had not heard the noise made by her parents arriving home late, until the bathroom door cracked open, upon their entrance to wash their hands.

She was about 13 when her grandmother fell ill. She was not disturbed by the typical odors of a hospital, the combined scent of chlorine  and urine, she was only interested in being besides her. She always ended up by her bedside after she finished school classes.

Grandma has finally been taken home – Mária’s voice goes faint to this day telling about this – and she was taken care of there. One day, while Mária was holding her hand, she passed away. With her death the family slowly fell to pieces.

Not long afterwards, she also lost her father. Two of her cousins ended up working in Germany after finishing the Franciscan Gymnasium in Szentendre, where they settled down and had families. Her sister moved to Israel to study at the Catholic University founded there by John Paul II., and later took up a job as a researcher at Yad Vashem Institute. She met an Iraqi guy there, and they soon got married.

Little Mária became his grandfather’s only support. The girl was befriending boys from a state orphanage at school, climbing into garbage cans if she felt like it, or throwing her classmates’ backpacks out through the window.

She continued her studies in a healthcare vocational school. Her mother wanted her to become a doctor, but she was not preforming quite well in Chemistry and Physics. She was however excellent in the practical subjects, winning competitions in them. At classes, the teacher often called her to the table to demonstrate the proper use of ECG to the class. At professional practices Mária irreversibly fell in love with hospital work.

At sixteen she was already working at the endocrinological department of incurable patients at the now defunct Szabolcs street hospital in Budapest. She remembers a patient, uncle Nanninger to this day. He was trying to take advantage of the nurse being young an inexperienced. He tried to act as if he cant really move, but every time Mária seemingly did not pay attention, he was swift as an arrow.

The girl was often sleeping in the hospital. Her mother refused to wash her work clothes out of defiance over her daughter’s career choice. She often said, that she never wanted her daughter to “end up as a nurse.” Having no washing machine, she was cleaning her clothes with her hands. Her teacher kept saying that she has the cleanest robe, cap, and working shoes. At the time, this was the compulsory outfit for nurses.

According to Mária, her class was probably the last where students were taught to love their profession. By today, the only place still trainng nurses is the Raoul Wallenberg High School, recently threatened with displacement. Mária’s mother was still confident that her daughter will apply to University and become a doctor upon finishing high school. But she was adamant. Eventually, after the maturity exams, they made an agreement: Mária will get an extra year to decide what does she want. In the “borrowed time” Mária took up a job as a private preceptor at a house. But fate soon nullified her agreement with her mother.

One day, Mária’s sister was going to school, when her mother yelled at her from the door calling her to “Take the hat and shawl!” This was the last sentence they ever heard of her: she fell down on the kitchen floor while cooking dinner, and this is where Mária found her.

Her mother was still alive when she was being transported to hospital, but she had a severe stroke.She was put on a breathing machine drain on that day, only to be disconnected in the following day. Mária believed that everything was in order, and her mother was getting better, so she went home. When she got back, she only found her empty bed

– Where is my mother?

– She died – somebody replied.

– Are you sure?

– Well, she could have been transported to another room. – another answer.

– But she’s not there.

– Well, then, he died.

The grandfather soon followed his daughter to death. The granddaughter consequently left to her own, losing the big house to the many debts.

Mária was only able to process all these losses with faith, so he enrolled in the Catholic Theological College of Győr, and eventually entered the Order of St. Ursula as a nun.

She liked living in the nunnery.

Even though there, she remained stubborn and rebellious, sometimes even short-tempered. One day she has been offended by one of the fellow nuns, and decided to trick her. She took a bottle of salt and dripped it on the omelettes prepared for breakfast. She told the 83-year-old provincial who happened to be her best friend what she did. The old lady had a healthy laugh on the jape, especially because the rest of the nuns needed to eat their over-salted meal with a poker face, as the general rule was to eat every meal you get, you cannot refuse anything.

But the prank did not pass without a punishment. The righteous provincial ordered her rebellious girlfriend to sweep all the corridors the next day. Mária loved to clean so this was not a real punishment for her. But after a while she became annoyed about only meeting old people in the nunnery. She quit the order and took up a job as a nurse.

She knew that if she sees an adult suffering, there is nothing she can do other that crying with him. If however a child is being tortured by pain, she can pick him up and console him in her arms. Consequently her first way was not to an adult hospital department but to the Infant Clinic no. II. in Budapest’s Tűzoltó street. Later, she worked on Amerikai way, at the infant cardiology, and at the unified St. Stephen and St. Ladislaus Hospital, and now at Péterfy street. She often stayed over in her workplace after her shift and if she saw that the rules have not been observed she did not afraid to voice her concerns. Everywhere she went she experienced the lack of nurses, and the few that are there are working with their best and last effort to heal patients.

Mária is 6 feet tall, she regularly has to bow to work, and has trouble to stand up again at the end of her workday. If she has a spare two minutes to eat, then she is holding a sandwich with one hand, and a fresh portion of blood in the other. Often during her lunchtime, a mother arrives handing breastmilk over to her, or somebody appears with a urine sample.

She makes a net worth of HUF 147,000 per month (USD 544) there are many who would prefer to work at a solarium for that much.

Mária is never looking forward to Christmas. They usually have their family Christmas in the morning, when they close the shutters to make a dark atmosphere and hand their presents over to each other. Afterwards, Mária is rushing to work. There was a Christmas Eve, when her husband took her daughter to the hospital with car. If Mária had a little bit of spare time, they celebrated, if not, they were just sitting on the hospital bench.

She also works a second job for a monthly HUF 60,000 (USD 222). She is caretaker at a friend’s house who is living abroad: she does the cleaning up, her husband – being a telecommunications expert and a sound technician – does the electric repairs if needed.

Her daughter, Ilona plays the flute and she also loves to play the piano, also winning contests. She is a little worried about her mum’s quick fame, as there is a lot of turmoil around her. At her school everyone heard about the “nurse in black” and the children are especially interested in this topic.

Nobody calls Mária Marcsi. It was her mother’s privilege to call her that, and since her death, she does not allow anybody to use the nickname. Nurse Maria is stone-hard and ready to fight. Once she was struggling for two years with her neighborhood Csepel council to fit soccer goals with nets, or for the overtime payment her colleagues did not get in the hospital. Even though she was always successful in her efforts, she never stops.

Lately, she initiated a wear black! – movement because of the bad condition of domestic state healthcare, and the lack of nurses and funding. She protests, prepares badges, and as she told us, she cannot even attend to her own family matters in the meantime. One time, her daughter toppled on a physical education class, hitting her spine, and she could not even grease the machine so that she could be examined by a doctor earlier than the average.

Years ago, she wrote letters to then prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, and now to president János Áder, Viktor Orbán, and human resources minister Zoltán Balog asking them to help Hungarian healthcare. She always brought the letter to them personally. One time, she even visited Viktor Orbán’s home, pressing the bell as long as she could. She however did not get to speak with him, only his wife. She is driven by something.

Meanwhile she is frequently bursting into tears. She is surprised that we want to write about her, but she told us that she is honored by the attention and said thanks. She also thinks she has nothing to lose: some of her colleagues are supportive while naturally others oppose her efforts.

Besides pictures of her coworkers, her flat wall features two New York City street scenes. She said one day, she wants to visit the city. She hanged all these pictures over her daughter’s piano and school timetable to remind her to never give up any dreams.