A Castoff Finds Salvation in Poway


Marlys Ruckel cried the moment she spied the little girl in a wheelchair being whisked from a Lindbergh Field jetliner. She knew it was the end of an arduous journey for the girl, from an orphanage in Eastern Europe to the waiting arms of an American family.

Isabella Martocean’s eyes glistened with excitement Sunday night as she was wheeled toward her new mother and father. She could speak only Romanian, so the greetings were awkward. But, as the 17-year-old finally reached her giddy welcoming party in the airport passageway, all words became unnecessary.

For Marlys Ruckel, a Poway woman with three children of her own, seeing the frail girl with the close-cropped hair signaled one victory in an often frustrating quest--a quest that recently took Ruckel to Romania in an attempt to adopt both Isabella and another disabled boy.

The two youngsters were among the many castoffs--children with often harsh disfigurements--who live a grim existence in the Romanian orphanage known as the Institute for the Unsalvageables.

On Sunday night, however, the images of half-naked children, lying on urine-covered floors in rooms without heat, were finally a thing of the ugly past for one girl. Isabella Martocean had been salvaged.


“I’m kind of a wimp, so I started crying right when I saw her in the tunnel,” said Ruckel, who, with husband, Dan, arrived at the airport with 20 people in tow, including her own family, her friends and their children.

“You could just see by her eyes that she was so excited to finally be here,” Ruckel said. “When she reached us, she asked the interpreter why everyone was crying. We told her it was because we were happy.”

The airport meeting gave Ruckel her first face-to-face look at Isabella, after seven weeks of tension during which Romanian officials refused to let her see the girl.

On Monday, the Ruckels’ three pre-teen-age daughters wheeled Isabella around their Poway home.

“She’s just in heaven,” the mother said of her newest daughter, whose disability--the result of a bout with encephalitis--and diet have shaped her into a child roughly the size of a 12-year-old: less than 5 feet tall and weighing about 85 pounds.

“My girls are just all over her. They’re treating her like a big doll. They’re into 1950s music, and they taught her the words to the song ‘Lollipop, Lollipop.’ I don’t think she knows what she’s saying. But she’s having fun.”

Thanks to her trip to Eastern Europe, Ruckel knows a few phrases in Romanian. “I can ask her if she needs to go to the bathroom, if she’s needs some water or if she’s hungry,” Ruckel said.

“More importantly, I can also tell her that I love her. She says a lot of things to me, but I can’t figure out the half of it. Gosh, I wish that interpreter was around today.”

For both Ruckel and her husband, however, the frustration of sorting through Romanian government red tape is not over yet. On Wednesday, a judge in Romania will decide the fate of the second child they have sought to adopt: Isidor, a bright 11-year-old boy with grotesquely deformed legs.

“We’re still waiting for our family to be whole,” Ruckel said. A Romanian lawyer will be on hand to try and win the judge’s approval. “If all goes well, we could be seeing Isidor in as little as three weeks.”

That second homecoming would be equally sweet for a couple who not long ago decided they wanted to adopt a homeless child.

The Ruckels had never considered looking outside their own community until someone told them about John Upton, an Encinitas filmmaker who has helped secure the release of more than 2 dozen Romanian children from the Institute for the Unsalvageables.

Last year, within days of seeing TV footage of the Romanian orphanage--including shots of Isidor--Upton was on a plane to the Eastern Bloc country that only months before had liberated itself from dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

On his first visit to the Institute for the Unsalvageables, Upton met several children, including Isabella.

“I fell in love with her,” said Upton, who, with the help of Chalcedon, a Northern California think tank committed to improving society, has been instrumental in gaining the release of many Romanian children.

But first, Romanian officials said, he had to find the children’s natural parents.

In an interview, Upton recounted how he tracked down Isabella’s father in the small Romanian town of Stina, only to be told by the middle-aged musician that he would allow the girl to go to the United States only if Upton could get him a gig in Hollywood.

“I told him I wasn’t in the music businesses,” he said. “But I made the mistake of showing him my American passport, which had Los Angeles written in it. He saw that and was sure I had some sort of connections.”

After weeks of frustrated efforts, Upton returned home last fall with permission to bring back only one child: 12-year-old Anna Ostos, an autistic blind girl who is now living with a family in Detroit.

Upton was unable to locate Isidor’s parents and had gotten nowhere with the musician.

By then, however, Upton was being contacted by numerous families who had heard of his trip and wanted to adopt a Romanian child. The Ruckels were among them.

Upton showed them the videos of his orphanage visit. The couple immediately fell in love with Isidor, whom his caretakers call the smartest child in the orphanage. After a few days of thinking it over, the Ruckels decided they also wanted to adopt Isabella.

The couple then staged several fund-raisers for their cause. In late May, Marlys Ruckel and a friend, who was also interested in adopting a child, left for Romania.

It wasn’t long before they were lost in a sea of bureaucracy and anxiety. Officials would not let Ruckel visit Isabella, because she lacked the proper paperwork. And she could visit Isidor only once a week.

As a result, most of her Romanian adventure was spent waiting in Bucharest, a nine-hour drive from the Institute for the Unsalvageables.

Ruckel arrived back in San Diego in mid-July. In the meantime, activists working with Upton had been successful in finding Isabella’s natural mother and gaining her permission to obtain a two-year visa for her.

Last week, the girl with the brilliant smile boarded a plane from Eastern Europe to Detroit in the care of the man who had recently adopted 12-year-old Anna. From there, Isabella flew to San Diego under the watchful eye of an airline attendant.

“At the orphanage, they kept her drugged up and in bed all the time,” Upton recalled. They also shaved her head to avoid having to groom her.

“She’d never had a real wheelchair before. So one of the first things she said was, ‘Now I can go to school. I have a wheelchair.’ ”

Meanwhile, the Ruckels are readying themselves not only for Isidor’s possible arrival but for the challenge of raising two disabled children who also have linguistic and cultural barriers to hurdle.

Upton and the couple are looking for a doctor in the Poway area who might offer free consultations on the chances of the girl ever being able to walk.

In the meantime, Marlys Ruckel can only stare in wonderment at her newest child--the one she perhaps worked the hardest to deliver.

“I’m just so excited,” she said. “I was worried before about whether it was going to go OK bringing a child into our home who had never met me. But I worried for nothing.”

In time, she knows, Isabella will start speaking English. And her hair will grow. Isabella has already indicated that.

“One of our girls has long hair, and Isabella started to stroke her hair,” Ruckel recalled. “And she said, ‘I never want to get another haircut again.’ And I could tell by her eyes that she meant it.”