My wife Amy and I have visited medical facilities and research laboratories in more than 32 countries, six of them before the Berlin Wall was demolished. This was in cooperation with an exchange program financed by the State Department with the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia and East Germany.
Several years before, I had met Dr. Jiri Valeck in an international meeting in Prague, and I wrote to him of my plans to visit Romania. As the Orient Express ran through Prague, Dr. Valeck wrote us to stop in Prague. After we arrived in Prague he told me that he would like us to stay at his apartment, but if we did he would have to pay a $10,000 penalty to the government because the government wanted tourists to spend their money in the hotels. Even though he had all of the government officials as his patients, he still was not able to keep us in his home.
To keep him out of trouble, we decided to stay at a nearby hotel. The next morning, we had breakfast at the hotel and he took us on a tour of Prague in his car. On the way to the train station he pointed out the secret police in black hats and black raincoats standing on the street corners. When we arrived in Bucharest, a member of the Romanian Academy was at the platform and took us in his car to the Debaranti Hotel. He gave us money for our 30-day stay in Romania and said he would see us on Monday. However, a 7.3 earthquake began, which Amy described in The News-Gazette when we returned to Urbana. Monday morning, the Romanian Academy flew us to Cluj-Napoca, 300 miles from Bucharest. Dr. Popasko met us at the airport and took us to the hotel and then to the Botanical Garden, where he told us not to talk in our hotel room.
At the hospital, Dr. Cucuinu told me that neither contraceptives nor abortions were allowed in Romania. When farm women, some with five or more children and no food for them, got pregnant, they would go into a wheat field, pick a fungus from a stalk of wheat, make tea out of it, and drink it to stimulate an abortion. Sometimes they drank too much of it and paralyzed their chest muscles so they could not breathe. Dr. Cucuinu said, "Sometimes we saved them, but most of the time they die a horrible death."
When we visited the Soviet Union, a member of the Soviet Academy took us to the Academy Hotel to check us in. The next morning we asked for directions to the American embassy, which was a short walk from the academy. At the American embassy we asked a Marine guard for a good place to eat lunch. He told us that there was a good restaurant in the fourth floor at a hotel next to the Kremlin. He said he seldom left the embassy, because everybody who left the American embassy was followed. When he did go out, it was in his civilian clothes. He said that the restaurant was three stops away taking the subway, but he never used the subway because he said that "anybody can disappear in the subway."
We took the subway to the hotel, and as we walked through the door a woman came in after us. She introduced herself to us as the English teacher for the Soviet medical students. She knew of the restaurant on the fourth floor and we invited her to have lunch with us. We sat down and she ordered lunch for us in Russian. That teacher was Amy's constant guide for the next two weeks. She would get us tickets to the Russian circus, opera or anything else that Amy wanted to see. I gave lectures and that was the way I spent my days for the next two weeks in Moscow.
We had similar experiences in the rest of the Iron Curtain countries that we visited. An outstanding memory was my visit to the von Humboldt University in East Berlin, where a small sign read that the basic process for making an atomic bomb was discovered here in 1938.
After my visits in those six countries behind the Iron Curtain, I would think to myself that I wish every American had my experience so they would understand why they should vote. People should question why hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent by super PACS wanting to influence their vote.
Fred Kummerow is adjunct professor of bioscience in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois.