Outcasts Taken In : Two Disabled Romanian Orphans Find New Home With San Diego Family


As if assembling a small boy's survival kit, Izidor Ruckel hoards things in the bottom drawer of his clothes chest. They're not the comics or baseball cards prized by most 11-year-olds--but bottles of soft drinks, bananas and an occasional orange.

His mother isn't worried. She knows of Izidor's fear that there might not be enough food. She realizes that just a few weeks ago, her newly adopted son lived the precarious life of a homeless orphan under conditions that were particularly harsh.

Dragging about his misshapen body--with an underdeveloped pelvis and one leg that is shorter than the other--Izidor had survived most of his young life among the neglected numbers in a Romanian home for disabled children--The Institute for the Unsalvageables.

But all that has changed.

Each day, Marlys Ruckel and her husband, Dan, reassure both Izidor and Izabela--their disabled 18-year-old daughter adopted this summer from the same faceless institution--that their lives have truly begun anew in the United States.

Along with the Ruckel's three natural-born children, these two former outcasts have become integral parts of a strange new breed of American family--one with a decidedly multicultural and multinational twist.

At the Ruckels' Poway home, conversations take place in an oddball combination of Romanian and English. Izidor answers the telephone jabbering in his native tongue, with a "hallo" thrown in for good measure.

And when his nervous little-boy antics try her patience, Izabela--who had spent her entire life confined to bed and cannot walk--will often scold him in a quick-tongued burst of Romanian as she sits in her wheelchair.

"Sometimes, our whole family, we feel as though we're the ones who were adopted by these two children," Dan Ruckel said. "In the past few weeks, we've learned a lot more Romanian than they have English."

For the Ruckels, Izidor and Izabela are the fruits of an international gamble that has paid off with sweet dividends.

With three daughters of their own (ages 13, 10 and 8), the couple had decided to adopt a boy. Last year, their search led them to John Upton, an Encinitas filmmaker who had just returned from a child-searching venture to eastern Europe after seeing a network television show about the lives of disabled Romanian orphans.

After seeing pictures of Izidor and Izabela taken at the institute, where half-naked children often languished on urine-covered floors in unheated rooms, they had an immediate desire to adopt--to rescue--them.

The Ruckels said that although thousands of Romanian infants have been adopted in recent years by American families, they found a different standard imposed by the cautious government for older children--especially those with disabilities.

This summer, Marlys Ruckel spent two months in Romania--away from her husband and daughters--in an attempt to persuade a slow-moving Romanian legal system that such physically troubled children were indeed desired in America.

"The judge asked why I wanted to adopt handicapped children," Ruckel said. "I told him that in America, children like this could be helped. In Romania, they were seen solely as unsolved problems. I remember the words of one official who said: 'These are nobody's children. For them, there is no hope.' "

With the help of several intermediaries, five children were eventually adopted from the orphanage--children who came willingly despite being told by the institution staff that they would be used for body parts and other experiments.

One of the first to leave was Izabela, who would otherwise have been sent to a retirement home on her 18th birthday--too old to remain at the institution.

In August, Izabela arrived at San Diego's Lindbergh Field and couldn't understand why her new mother was crying.

Her first words, Ruckel said, were spoken in Romanian and loosely translated as "What's with you?" For Izabela, crying had always been associated with the grayish life at the institution, where her head was always kept shaved and where nurses used duct tape to quiet the mouths of inconsolable children who cried too much.

Within days, offers from local doctors came pouring in to help the crippled teen-ager--who is less than 5 feet tall and weighs about 85 pounds. Recently, Izabela had oral surgery to repair her deformed teeth and has been diagnosed in an effort to help her walk someday.

Three weeks ago, the Ruckels got their boy.

After six court hearings on his behalf, Izidor landed in San Diego to the cheers of more than two dozen of the Ruckels' relatives and friends, who were on hand for his long-awaited arrival.

Perched in her wheelchair, Izabela was also there--despite the memories that had almost kept her from coming. She remembered the stifling orphanage days when Izidor--less disabled than many of the others--became a tough-guy ringleader whose directives were expected to be followed.

"He'll spit on me if he sees me," Izabela told her new parents.

But Izidor didn't spit. Instead, he walked up the runway, past the applauding crowd, and poked his face inches from Izabela's mouth to inspect her new teeth. Within minutes, he was already amazed at life in America.

The styles of the two Romanian children are a study in contrasts, the Ruckels said. Izidor is nonstop action while the gentle Izabela sits quietly on the couch, staring at her mother in wonderment and telling her constantly in English and Romanian how much she loves her.

The doorbell never stops ringing. That's because Izidor has developed a habit of parking himself outside with an itchy finger and a wickedly endearing smile.

Shuffling up and down the stairs, dragging along his shorter leg, he takes charge of things. He insists on answering the telephone, often confounding callers with his mix of languages. And if he jealously doesn't want his mother to come to the phone, he's been known to tell callers--"She's dead."

The other day, Izidor began scratching his itch for organization. He straightened his mother's desk and silverware drawer and keeps his own clothes arranged in neatly compartmentalized shoe boxes.

"I always thought it would be so much fun to have a boy--and I thought I was prepared," his mother said. "I just didn't know."

Marlys Ruckel, 36, spends the day playing international traffic cop in a household where sibling gridlock is an everyday event, with her three natural-born daughters vying for Izabela's attention--often playing house, with her cast in the role of a doll.

The parents say that there has been little jealousy shown by their three daughters. "I am so proud of my kids that my heart is just too big for my chest to hold," said Dan Ruckel, a computer operator for a local golf equipment manufacturer.

"They know that the two new arrivals have been getting a lot of our attention and they've made some sacrifices."

Just when she feels that her young family is finally complete, however, Marlys Ruckel must deal with an uncomfortable reality.

While they have legally adopted Izidor, there is a chance that Izabela might be forced to return to Romania after her special two-year medical visa expires.

Marlys Ruckel has discounted diagnoses by Romanian doctors that her daughter has cerebral palsy and several emotional disorders, saying that she has merely been mentally neglected.

She says that if Izabela is going to remain housebound the rest of her life, it's going to be in her house.

"Initially, I thought I could help her for six months or so and then send her back," she said. "But I didn't consider a lot of things--like the fact that I was going to fall in love with her."

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