Illness leads to unexpected friendship for office engineer in Romania

Published Aug. 11, 2015
Sandy Higgins hadn’t slept for three nights. Unable to breathe normally and fighting a 103-degree fever and other worsening symptoms, she grew more panicked by the minute.

After repeated visits to the base physician at Naval Support Facility Deveselu, followed by a trip to the local emergency room in nearby Caracal, the 55-year-old office engineer with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District’s Romania Missile Defense Agency Resident Office felt she was running low on options – and started thinking the worst. Eventually, Higgins wound up in the home of two complete strangers.

She had no idea that one of the most traumatic events in her life would lead to a deep personal bond with the Romanian doctor couple who saved her.

“My first emotions were fear of dying, so everything else didn’t matter,” Higgins recalled. “When you are experiencing that type of fear, which I have never felt in my life, I was willing to do anything and everything to survive. I didn’t have time to think about the best course of action. If someone was willing to care for me, I was going to accept.

“It’s still very emotional, but the relationship I have with my Romanian doctors has helped me to heal both physically and emotionally. I truly believe there are miracles, especially now. … I could have very easily been placed in the wrong hands or could have waited another day or so and potentially not been able to recover.”

Higgins started feeling ill March 18 at Deveselu, about two weeks before she was slated to fly home and get married in Dunedin, Florida. Prescribed antibiotics at the base clinic for what was initially treated as an upper-respiratory infection, she was told she’d improve within a few days.

By the next week – and after a second visit to the clinic – her condition deteriorated to the point she couldn’t even leave her containerized housing unit, or CHU. Higgins asked a USACE co-worker to get the doctor, but the physician was unavailable two straight days.

“I was not getting better, running a fever and having difficulty breathing while lying down,” she said. “I started getting really scared I had something other than an upper-respiratory infection.”


On March 26, Higgins decided to shower, get dressed and find her supervisor, Shaun Frost, the Romania MDA Resident Office engineer. At about 6:30 p.m., he located a translator who worked for the Navy and they left for the Caracal emergency room.

“When Sandy knew she was going in the hospital … she tried to call but then sent me a text message about the situation, which I read and immediately left my office building to try and call her, but got no answer,” said Ed Bologna, her fiancé. “The next few hours I was very, very on edge. I knew our [April 4] wedding would be delayed, but that was the least of my worries.”

A chest X-ray at the Caracal hospital revealed pneumonia in Higgins’ right lung. But no single rooms were available. She was told she could be admitted but would have to share a bed with another female patient that night.

“I became quite frantic and pleaded with Shaun to take me to another hospital,” she said.

So they left the Caracal facility, went back to base camp for a change of clothes and drove to Craiova, the largest city in southwestern Romania, nearly 40 miles away.

Again, however, Higgins was turned away at the main hospital there due to lack of space. The group was directed to the Hospital of Infectious Disease and Pulmonary Care on the other side of town. At about 1 a.m., they found a back entrance.

“We were very concerned with Sandy’s condition,” Frost recalled. “She had been sick for several days before she requested she be taken to the hospital. Luckily, the installation provided a translator for us. She did a wonderful job working with hospital personnel in Caracal and Craiova.

“We found out later that Sandy’s condition was very serious and could have turned out very badly if she had not come into the hospital when she did.”

Dr. Diana Medregoniu, a pulmonary specialist, made the diagnosis: Higgins had a severe case of pneumonia and respiratory failure. She’d soon go above and beyond her medical oath.


After Medregoniu looked over the X-ray, Higgins said she was alarmed by the look in her eyes. The doctor wondered why she waited so long to seek treatment, but quickly put everyone at ease.

The two women connected almost instantaneously.

“She sat beside me [and] placed her hand at the back of my neck,” Higgins said. “I looked up at her and whispered to her to please save me and that I had a family at home. She assured me that she would do everything in her power to help me.”

Frost said he, another colleague and the Romanian translator could “physically see the relief” Higgins felt after talking to the physician, who spoke fluent English.

Her situation was severe, the doctor said. It required immediate hospitalization to offset the advanced degree of respiratory failure. Blood tests also indicated a liver dysfunction.

With no available rooms in the hospital, Medregoniu took the American patient into her own personal quarters at the facility when she’s on duty. She told the Deveselu party Higgins was in good hands and they could return to base.

“I managed to clinically stabilize her overnight,” she said. “The fact that I could speak to her in English made her calm.”

Higgins remained at the pulmonary care facility most of the next day. Antibiotics and medication were administered, along with more tests.

With the weekend approaching, the doctor believed she would be more comfortable and receive better care at her home in Craiova. Higgins also wouldn’t have to navigate the language barrier at the hospital, she added.

That Friday evening, Medregoniu and her husband, Robert, also a doctor specializing in anesthesiology and intensive care, came to pick her up.

“Sandy was scared, worried about the situation she was in,” Medregoniu recalls. “My husband and I decided together that the best thing for her at that moment would be to assure medical care and psychological support in our family. I’m the kind of doctor who considers that the emotional support and psychological counseling of patients is the first way we can help them fighting some organic disease.

“At that time there, Sandy was a person in a foreign country whose language she did not know, away from her family, with a serious impairment of health.”

Higgins says she was apprehensive about going into the home of people she didn’t even know, but Diana and Robert were more than accommodating, even giving up their bedroom for her convalescence.

“At that point and time, I put my life in their hands,” she said.

Back in Florida, Bologna faced his own anxiety awaiting an update.

“I finally heard from her, and she told me all the details about the ordeal,” he said. “She also told me about Diana and how she thought she was an angel sent to her. She told me coming home would be delayed for two weeks, but I just wanted her to get better. Those weeks were difficult because I only cared about her health and recovery.”


The pneumonia required aggressive treatment, including a combination of three different IV and oral antibiotics, inhalers and vitamin therapy, according to Diana Medregoniu. Higgins would spend five days in their home, showing steady improvement along the way. Robert Medregoniu taught her how to self-administer the IV.

“In order for me to go home, I had to learn, she said. “I needed to return in order to work from my CHU.”

At NSF Deveselu, she and other members of the Romania MDA Resident Office are wrapping up construction on the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense complex. Europe District is managing the $134 million project, which includes numerous Navy support facilities. The base is set for full operating capacity by the end of this year.

Higgins joined the team last September on a temporary-duty assignment out of USACE Jacksonville District’s Tampa Resident Office. It became a temporary-change-of-station move in January.

“It’s very important to take care of yourself when you’re in an environment such as this,” she said of Romania. “Working long hours, change in diet, lack of exercise and excessive stress are things that will weaken your immune system.”

After returning to Deveselu, Higgins remained under the care of the Romanian doctor couple. Pneumonia patients are more susceptible to relapse and other bronchial conditions. Full recovery from severe cases can take up to a year, she was told.

In early April, she went back to the Craiova hospital for another chest X-ray. But Diana Medregoniu was able to clear her for travel to Florida.

The engineering technician rescheduled her flight for April 9. The wedding took place four days later.

“Happiest day of my life,” said her new husband. “I can only wish to be half the person my wife is. She is still not fully recovered, but every day gets a little better.”


Higgins says she’s grown very close with her Romanian caretakers in the months since her illness.

“I’ve always read or heard about situations like mine, and people claim there are miracles, but I’ve never experienced anything like this firsthand,” she said. “My relationship with Diana and Robert has become far more than medical, but also spiritual. We’ve had long discussions of how we came to be, that we were supposed to find one another.

“Diana has told me she knew from the minute she saw me that God brought me to her. She knew that I was sent to her so she could save me.”

The strong friendship that ensued in the aftermath of her illness extended to others on the Corps of Engineers team, Frost said.

“Diana and her husband have opened their home and coordinated several cultural activities for the staff to include festivals, social events in their house and information on local events, customs and activities,” he added.

At an outing in early June, a plaque with two military coins was presented to Diana Medregoniu as a token of appreciation for what she and her husband did in nursing Higgins back to health.

Medregoniu’s father was a Soldier in the Romanian army and her brother is serving now in Sibou. She had dreams of becoming a doctor in the Romanian military, too, but her father didn’t approve. The U.S. Army award has special meaning.

“It was a great surprise for me and an honor,” she said. “I realized that this was a way for [them to show] me at the same time their joy and their confidence that somewhere, here in Romania, a physician did her duty not only as a doctor, but as a human being also – and I thank them for that.”

Higgins said the entire experience has changed her outlook on life. She’s more compassionate toward everyone and no longer takes things – particularly her health – for granted.

“Robert and Diana are the most caring and loving people that I ever met,” she said. “I am forever grateful to them, and they will always be a part of my life.”

What began as a life-or-death matter and doctor-patient relationship has turned into much more today, Diana Medregoniu added.

“We are two women, from two different continents, and certain circumstances of life made us to meet and become friends,” she said. “She understands me and I understand her perfectly, and fate did that. I’m happy that at some point in life, in an unfortunate situation, I could offer my help to her.”