When the Romanian Medical Society sent Radu Mercea to the International Congress on Cardiology in Athens, Greece, he went to the U.S. embassy to apply for a tourist visa, hoping to visit some American friends.
But he was offered something else: a stamp on his visa that would grant him status as a political refugee. If he accepted, he would never be able to return to Romania. If he changed his mind later and did go back, Dr. Mercea, then 28, would be jailed for life.
Until then, he had not considered defecting and had every intention of returning home. Dr. Mercea, who had been born in Transylvania, had lived most of his life in Bucharest. He had parents and a sister living there.
"It was a very tough decision," Dr. Mercea recalled. "I feared my family would get hurt."
He had no money, no friends in Greece, didn't speak the language and he had nowhere to go. But he welcomed the opportunity to live and practice medicine in freedom. So he defected and went underground, moving 31 times in 20 months to avoid being captured and returned to Romania to face criminal charges. He finally secured safe passage to the United States in March 1990.
Dr. Mercea, who lives in White Oak, recently joined Excela Health North Huntingdon Family Medicine Practice, which has its office in the same building as his private practice.
"It's funny how God turns things around," he said about relocating to another floor of the professional building.
That observation can also apply to what he called a long story and a difficult journey to get to the United States.
Dr. Mercea, 50, met his American friends, Russell and Mary Kramer of Sykesville, Jefferson County, and their son Paul, when they came to Romania as tourists. At that time, he was a medical student at the University of Bucharest earning money as a guide for foreign visitors. They kept in touch, and Dr. Mercea contacted them when he was in Greece.
"My intentions were only to visit them for a week," he said.
When he became a political refugee, he was told that it would take "several days" for him to leave, but that turned into nearly two years.
"It was a struggle to get people here," he said. "They never knew who you really were, if the people were spies or terrorists. They had to really make sure."
Meanwhile, his friends in Pennsylvania sought support from Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Erie. They also worked with the late Sen. John Heinz, who was influential in finalizing the process.
While he waited, Dr. Mercea was on the run from Romanian security. Because he could not legally work as a medical doctor, he survived on odd jobs, one of them in a nursing home that had several Romanian residents. He was able to contact his parents using a false name and address, and as he feared, they were demoted in their jobs as punishment for his defection.
When he arrived in Pennsylvania, he took jobs just to survive while he studied for medical exams. By day, he worked as a nursing assistant at several clinics, and in the evenings, he unloaded furniture for a department store. He passed the exams in 1994 and applied for a residency in family practice at McKeesport Hospital, where he was named chief resident. He had a private practice in White Oak for two years, then moved his office to North Huntingdon. He is now part of Excela Health's medical staff.
"When I came here, I thought that medicine was like 100 years ahead," he said. "It was totally different from what I left. The living conditions there were terrible and the hospitals were very dirty, and there was no way you ever wanted to be in a hospital. Nothing was sterile. Everything was infected. They used the same syringe to draw blood from everybody in one day. There were so many things you could not even imagine.
"The patients were in the hospital for months because they were getting complications and infections. It was unthinkable," he said. "There is no comparison to coming here with the technology, the equipment, everything. What we had in Romania were doctors who had the compassion and pretty much the heart for the patients, and maybe a stethoscope to share. And sometimes we didn't even have a stethoscope and we listened to the heart and lungs with our ears. That made me a very good clinician with diagnoses."
Dr. Mercea became an American citizen in 1993, and in gratitude for his freedom and opportunities, he volunteered to serve without pay in the U. S. Air Force Reserve, attaining the rank of major. He served from 1994 to 2000.
He was able to visit his family after communism fell in Romania and brought his father to the United States in 1997, after his mother died. His father is remarried and lives in Mc-Keesport.
"This is my country now and I am honored to be here and do what I do best -- practice medicine," he said. "I am extremely grateful to God and to the people who made this a reality."
Maryann G. Eidemiller, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org .