“If It Isn’t Fun.” – New Year’s Eve Melodrama, December 31, 1951
The Displaced Persons Act of the U.S. Congress expired at the close of business on December 31, 1951. Like most long-anticipated deadlines, when it came, it came suddenly and almost unexpectedly. Despite careful planning and scheduling and maintaining a back-breaking schedule for months beforehand, we arrived at the final day of the act with several hundreds more visa candidates to examine and visas to issue under this one-time opportunity for immigration to the United States.
New Year’s Eve Day dawned cold and gray. Our ancient barracks, Lehener Kaserne, never looked more dismal. Hundreds of somber DPs and their families and friends mulled about the corridors and out into the street along the darkly flowing Salzach. By early afternoon we began to hear rumors that some were threatening to jump off the bridge into the river if they didn’t get visas, such was their desperation after years of survival in camps throughout Austria and Bavaria. We heard that a few even had guns. The danger was that they would turn them on themselves, not on us furiously working functionaries.
Things were moving expeditiously, but there was no way we were going to complete our task by normal closing time. I called Paris headquarters to notify them that we would continue working along with the other consular personnel throughout the night of the new year, still dating visas as December 31. We got their tacit agreement to the plan.
We had another hurdle that day. Nelly, expecting our first child, had wakened in a pool of liquid that morning and we both had assumed it was from pressure of the head, now well engaged, on her bladder. Since I had taken the car and she had a few final fixin’s to get for the baby’s room, she hitch-hiked from our rural Niederalm chalet to the Army base commissary.
“Frau Doktor,” who spoke fluent German, was widely known in the region, and the locals seemed honored to do her a favor. By chance, she had also encountered the mother of my PHS colleague, Farrier, at the Army PX, and this experienced lady, on hearing of the morning moisture, made the accurate diagnosis of ruptured membranes and whisked Nelly off to the base hospital. From there, she notified me that Nelly was in early labor and that she would stand by and report progress to me at intervals. I had a brief exchange with Nelly on the phone, in which we wished each other well in our mutual demanding deadlines, and “a toute a’ l’heure!”
On top of these hurdles, I had a riesige respiratory infection, which, with medication and the riesige task at hand, put me in a state of suspended animation. I worked like a Trojan, bent to the task, until the call came about 9 p.m. that Nelly was in good labor, when I left the visa crew, carrying their good wishes, and rushed to the hospital. I arrived in time to give Nelly a buss before she was wheeled into the delivery room.
Nelly and I liked our young Army obstetrician, Captain Ness, fresh out of the residency program at Rochester, New York. He was kind and confident and low-key in a manner that we much appreciated. Little did any of us know what would be demanded of him this night. We shared a couple of jokes about what we would rather be doing for New Year’s Eve, and he and his staff then bent to its task. I was restricted to a waiting room down the hall, as was the custom of those days. But I was close enough to suffer the major contractions along with Nelly, to hear her cry at the last big one, to be somewhat alarmed at what seemed a long interval between the last one and the baby’s cry, but then to breathe relief when that cry finally came and the birth was completed, or so I thought. The news was passed to me, “It’s a boy. He’s fine.”
A short time later, I was surprised by a commotion in the hallway as nurses and attendants seemed to be running this way and that at some urgent task or other. No one counseled with me. After quite some time I saw rush by a young Army officer I felt that I knew slightly, dressed in his New Year’s Eve finery, but headed toward the delivery room with nurses and trays and I.V.s in tow. Catching a glimpse of me standing at the doorway, he sent one of the nurses back with the news. Nelly was hemorrhaging. They were entertaining several emergency surgical measures.
It then dawned on me who the officer was, an Army anesthesiologist who had come to me some weeks before with his Austrian fiancée and a special plea. They were desperate for her to come to the States for medical care for her active tuberculosis. I had to read the book to them. At the time, he had seemed angry and bitter at his government, and at me. Now Nelly’s life was in his hands.
Only those in the delivery room that night really know how close it came with Nelly. The blood bank facility at the tiny base hospital was wholly inadequate; no blood was, in fact, available. Of the two indicated emergency procedures, profound anesthesia with manual extraction of retained placenta versus a hysterectomy without a blood bank, the young surgeon chose the first. Nelly was put down deep by my anesthesiologist acquaintance, to relax the uterus, and the several islands of retained, bleeding placenta were removed by the surgeon’s gloved hand reaching far into the womb. I.V. plasma and fluids and antibiotics were given, then pitocin to contract the uterus again, and Nelly was put to bed, head down, legs up, with orders for vital signs to be measured every 15 minutes. She looked so awfully wan — decidedly not the radiant young woman I knew.
When, around midnight, I was assured that she was out of immediate danger and that our boy was fine, I left to try to complete our visa task. I was wretched, congested, and exhausted, After an hour or so more at work, I signed a bunch of blank forms, let my staff take over, and retired in Salzburg’s best nearby hotel so that I might be reached easily in further emergency. There I collapsed for a few hours of restless sleep, interrupted by startlements when I would waken in terror and then be relieved by good reports from the hospital nursing station.
The next morning I learned that Nelly’s hemoglobin was down to 7 grams, meaning that she may have lost as much as half of her blood volume. Though profoundly weak and anemic, she was out of shock and apparently out of danger.
New Year’s Day,1952, in Salzburg, dawned brilliantly sunny and cold, more promising for all.