Local family’s ‘nightmare’ trip has more happy ending

Scott Swanson


Alan Blake sits in a comfortable armchair in his living room,

listening intently as family members chat with a visitor.


might be a little thinner than patients who’ve seen him at his

office at Sweet Home Family Medicine might remember.


left hand clutches his right arm. A cane lies on the floor by his

feet. Though he’s clearly following the conversation, he doesn’t

say much.


because he can’t – yet.


58, has spent the last seven months recovering from a massive stroke

he suffered during a missions trip to Ukraine last June that left him

close to death and, more recently, paralyzed to various extents on

his right side.


really a miracle that he’s seated in his living room, family

members say.


a nightmare story,” his wife Zsuzsa (pronounced “Zoo-sha”)

said, recalling the 15-day ordeal in which she navigated strange,

shockingly under-equipped Eastern European medical facilities with

largely uncooperative staffs in an attempt to get treatment for her



tale began June 5, 2015 when Alan, Zsuzsa and their youngest son

Zach, then 20, who has Down syndrome, flew to Hungary to embark on a

four-week medical mission at a girls orphanage in western Ukraine,

just across the Hungarian border.


is Hungarian by birth and grew up speaking the language at home. The

Blakes lived in Budapest, Hungary’s capital, in 2007-08, so they

chose a destination where they could serve, Zsuzsa said.


extremely poor and in need and speaks the language that we speak,”

she said of the area in which the orphanage is located.


visiting friends in Budapest, they crossed into a rural area of the

Ukraine – far, she noted, from the fighting with Russia in the

eastern portion of the country.


plan was that Alan, Sweet Home’s longest-practicing medical doctor

in recent years, would do medical care at the orphanage, located in

an area where “there’s not much else there,” she said.


depth of local need for quality medical care became apparent almost

immediately – on a very personal level.


arrival at the orphanage on June 10, they and some other visitors

from the Netherlands were welcomed with a “wonderful reception,”

a dinner prepared by the girls in the orphanage and a trip around the

compound to see the livestock – “it’s a self-sustaining, for

the most part, orphanage,” operated by the Hungarian Reformed

Church, she said.


were just enjoying the evening.”




and Zach retired to their room to unpack while Alan went to the

common area of the compound to try to send some e-mails.


didn’t return.


were upstairs wondering why it was taking Alan so long,” Zsuzsa

said. “Finally, someone just came banging at our door and said Alan

had fallen.”


raced downstairs to find Alan sitting in a chair. A member of the

Dutch missions team was a nurse.


and I just kind of looked at each other and it was pretty apparent

that it was a stroke. (Alan) was looking at us, he was awake, but he

couldn’t respond.”


though the orphanage was well-organized, “everything happens very

slowly,” she said. They located the orphanage director, who got

hold of a physician in the region who spoke Hungarian and who came to

the site.


doctor “was a very kind man,” Zsuzsa said. “He did all he

could, which wasn’t much. They don’t have any kind of system at

all like we would recognize.”


ambulance was called.


just kept waiting, and looking at each other, and waiting some more

and knowing that this is a stroke – time is of the essence. There

was nothing we could do but pray. Fortunately, we were in the right

place for that.”


the wait, they debated whether they should even go to the Ukrainian

hospital, which was about an hour away by ambulance over roads laden

with potholes, or risk a border crossing to get Alan back into

Hungary where there would likely be better medical care – and



trying to make this decision with basically zero information,”

Zsuzsa said. “Where do we even go if we try to cross the border?”


was the nearest city in Hungary, but the quality of medicine would

likely be “well below” any American standard, though “way ahead

of Ukraine,” she said.


decided not to attempt a border crossing because of the risk of



pretty strict. They don’t take into consideration that this is a

medical emergency or that we have American passports. None of that

would necessarily make any difference.”


she said, an ambulance showed up “after I don’t know how many

hours.” It was a van with a table screwed to the floor and a light

on top. There was no lift apparatus, so “everybody had to help get

Alan onto a stretcher and lift him in. He’s not a small man.”


said that “should have been” a tip-off of what was to come.


Wild Ride


can’t even believe they have tires on their vehicles, the potholes

were so unbelievable,” she said.


an attempt to cheer her up, the ambulance crew observed that “in

the U.S. you know somebody’s drunk when they’re swerving down the

road, but in Ukraine you know they’re drunk if they drive in a

straight line, because they hit all the potholes.


IV pole was a little Ukrainian girl, who did not speak Hungarian,

holding up the IV that the local doctor had started. “She sat there

the whole time, holding up the IV.”


trip to the hospital took close to an hour. They pulled in to the

emergency room, which was about the size of a typical American living



attendants sat on benches along the walls, watching the ambulance

crew wheel Alan in.


just watched, doing nothing. Literally, they sat and stared at us. At

that point I knew we were in trouble.


was very dirty. Very, very dirty.”


a Ukrainian Hospital


Alan lay on a gurney in the middle of the ER, the orphanage director

arrived with the doctor who had seen Alan earlier.


were such a blessing because they just took over. The people in the

hospital largely only spoke Ukrainian. I couldn’t communicate with

most of them.”


neurosurgeon arrived about 5 a.m., eight hours after the stroke



had been told the surgeon was the best brain doctor in that part of

the country and, possibly, the whole of Ukraine, Zsusza said. He

confirmed, as best he could, the earlier diagnosis.


visitors weren’t allowed into the ICU, the director took Zsusza and

Zach, whom she had brought along, back to the orphanage until

visiting hours later in the day.


handled himself like a trooper from the beginning to the end,” she

said, adding that she wasn’t sure how much he really comprehended

about the situation. “He was amazing.”


returned to the hospital later in the morning, accompanied by

orphanage staffers who spoke Hungarian and Ukrainian “so we would

have all our bases covered.”


sent them, because they were advocates – they knew the system. They

pushed where we needed pushing and backed off where they knew it

wouldn’t help.”


were better in the ICU – barely.


looked clean, but it looked like 1940,” Zsusza said. “Like

something you’d see in the movies, packed with people – probably

20 or 30 beds in a very small space. It was a scary sight from an

American’s eyes.”


neurosurgeon was “a very, very helpful, kind man” who spoke

broken English.


Alan’s cellphone, which had an international connection, Zsusza

called her son Nicholas, a medical school graduate who is a resident

in family practice in Missoula, Mont. He talked directly with the

Ukrainian neurosurgeon, who said Alan needed immediate surgery or the

swelling in his brain would kill him.


had a little window of time,” Zsusza said. A primitive CT scan had

been done on Alan’s arrival and it had confirmed that he had

suffered “a massive stroke.”


decided, because of the risk of infection at that hospital, which the

neurosurgeon had told them was his biggest concern, they decided to

transport him to Hungary.


felt for that man,” she said. “I think he was really a good

surgeon. He was, at least, honest about everything. I told him that.

Through American eyes, the risk of infection was just too much. He

understood that.”


for Life


another wait for an ambulance, during which the orphanage staff “made

a multitude of phone calls” to try to work out the details of

crossing the border, they made it to Hungary at 8 p.m., nearly 24

hours after the stroke occurred.


over the border was simplified by one of their party, who had a

diplomatic passport, though they had to switch ambulances when

crossing into Hungary. They even had their luggage along in the

ambulance, which the Dutch team had packed for them.


was really working because it could have been a nightmare just to get

over the border,” she said.


decided that their best option was to go all the way to Budapest,

where the best medical care available would be, so she spent most of

the “long” ambulance trip “praying a lot” and updating

family, friends and Samaritan Health staff, who had been alerted to

the situation.


would wake up and look at us, but it didn’t look good,” she said.

“We knew we had a window that was closing, with the brain swelling.

So there was a lot of anxiety involved.”


they finally pulled into the hospital, they were turned away.


never been so crushed in my life,” Zsusza said. “This one doctor

came out and chewed me out: ‘What do you think you’re doing? Why

do you just think you can come here?’ It was unbelievable.”


of her Hungarian friends, a pharmacist, met them there. She was

appalled and took the hospital staff to task over his treatment of

“a colleague,” but to no avail.


never let us in,” Zsusza said. They located another hospital a

couple of hours later, now nearing midnight.


ambulance drivers were very kind men,” who advocated for them, she



hospital “very grudgingly took us.”


doctor asked, “Why did you come here?” and requested Alan’s

medical records from Ukraine, but when Zsusza produced them no one

could read them.


looked at it and I said, ‘This is why we’re here. I can’t

understand anything of what’s going on.’


just had this face, like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t make heads or

tails out of this other language.’”


doctor softened at that point, and started going to bat a bit for

Alan, Zsusza said.


doctors will not talk to patients’ families,” she said. “They

are arrogant and very rude and give no information whatsoever. As an

American, we expect full disclosure as a spouse. They weren’t very

happy with me for wanting information, which I pursued anyway. ‘OK,

be mad at me, but just tell me what’s going on.’”


wheeled Alan away and told Zsusza to come back the next morning at

11, during visiting hours.


and Zach slept on the floor of her friend’s apartment.


next day, they affirmed what the Ukrainian doctor had told her: They

had to do surgery.


would have been it for communication, had Zsusza not gotten



the operation, “I literally had to pursue the doctors through the

hospital because unless you are standing there waiting at the door,

they will tell you nothing about how the surgery went,” she said.

“Because I could speak Hungarian, I could find out at least some

information. I happened to catch one of the doctors who had done the

surgery and she said he was ‘fine.’ That was essentially it.”


stayed in Budapest for about a week, during which Alan’s sister

Susan from Kentucky arrived to retrieve Zach, “who was getting

pretty weary of hospitals,” though “he’d been a trooper,”

Zsuzsa said.




Hungarian hospital, though cleaner than the one in Ukraine, was

lacking in patient care, she said.


was nothing. The IV wasn’t running. They weren’t feeding him.

They just let him lie there. They did nothing. I thought he was going

to die.”


tried to “make as much fuss as possible” about the quality of

care Alan was getting: “Why does he not have an IV?”


son Nicholas told her that they needed to feed Alan because he needed

strength and stimulate him so he could regain his movement.


in there exercising him and Zach is in there, lifting his arm

passively. ‘OK, squeeze our hand, squeeze our hand.’


he would squeeze Zach’s hand, Zach would give him a big thumbs-up.

Everybody around there thought we were nuts. When I would go in there

he’d be basically almost non-responsive. By the time we left, he’d

be saying ‘Yeah.’ It was so obvious that all we needed to do was

not neglect him.


don’t know if it was because they didn’t care, which is what I

think it was, or because they thought we wouldn’t pay – I

have no idea. I kept trying to talk to them and they kept saying,

‘It’s fine, it’s fine.’”


particularly a Hungarian pastor they knew, were praying about the



Samaritan staffers, led by Becky Pape, then-CEO of Samaritan Lebanon

Community Hospital, and Sweet Home Family Medicine medical assistant

Kristi Walker and manager Kristin Ashcraft, had launched efforts to

get their colleague to better medical care.


in particular, was a “bulldog” in getting things done, she said.


people at the office, all of them, they were ready to do anything

they needed to to get Alan back. And they did.”


said the idea of airlifting Alan out of Hungary, suggested by

Samaritan, had not even occurred to her. The Samaritan staff “got

right on it” and worked through the complications and insurance



it was a brain surgery, they needed to know his condition was stable

to airlift, which, of course, makes sense. But then they wanted a

western doctor’s opinion. So then it became complex.”


waited nearly a week in Hungary as they tried to find a hospital that

would take Alan.


wanted him. They didn’t want the liability in western hospitals.”




“a whole lot of drama,” an airborne medical team from Germany



was like something out of a movie,” Zsusza said.


they waited in the waiting area – a few chairs in a hallway

outside the ICU, wondering what was next, “the door bursts open and

these three big dudes come walking in. This one guy was literally

6-6. He was the ICU nurse. The doctor was like 6-2 and the ambulance

driver also.”


three were decked out in full flight gear and western equipment. The

Hungarians sitting in the hall were speechless, she said.


was hilarious.”


got out the next day. They flew to Ingolstadt, in southern Germany.


Samaritan staff got Zsusza a hotel to stay in.


were just thankful that he would get real care, with a real IV.”


trained professionals,” her son Isaiah chimed in.


Hungarian surgeons had removed a section of Alan’s skull, which in

Western medical practice should have come with him. It didn’t, so

that caused “more adventures” with the insurance company, Zsusza



Alan was “getting the care he needed and I could stay all day. I

could go back to the hotel and sleep and make my phone calls and

e-mails and texts and try to get through to the insurance company so

we could get home.


were there a week.


cannot say enough good things about what Samaritan did to get Alan

home. They bent over backwards to do that. They did wonderful.”


puddle-jumped across the Atlantic and North America in a Cessna,

making stops in Iceland and Greenland, getting clearance at each

stop, “showing our passports,” she said.


was a 19-hour trip from Frankfurt to Eugene, where Isaiah met them

and Alan was transported to Samaritan Regional Medical Center in

Corvallis, arriving June 25.


knew we were OK then,” she said.




if he had had more surgeries, Alan responded with a wry, drawn-out



doctors put a fabricated patch in Alan’s skull in September “after

all kinds of adventures,” Zsusza said.


prognosis now is much better than when he arrived in the U.S., she



at where he was when we landed in Corvallis – he couldn’t

speak, he could hardly move, he couldn’t eat, he’s doing

amazingly well. He’s walking, standing up on his own, he is now

starting to speak in full sentences.”


latter didn’t happen when a reporter was present, though Alan

frequently assented to things his wife said with “yeah,” or “oh

yeah” – familiar responses to those who knew him before the



he suddenly said to a visitor: “I want to go on record to say that

I want to come through the test with flying colors.”


someone who was in that state to be where he is now is an answer to

prayer and a lot of fortitude on his part,” Zsusza said.


right arm is not working, but occupational therapists say it’s

responding to stimulation – which is what happened with his

right leg.


he can lift it. He can do resistance. He can go up and down stairs,”

said Isaiah, who graduated in December from Northwest Christian

College, and has moved home, assisting “in every way possible,”

according to his mother.


from the Community


has functioned in their area of gifting,” she said. “It’s been

incredible to see that: All four sons and their two wives, my

brother, other family members. The community has stepped up.”


and people the Blakes didn’t even know showed up to work on trees

in their yard, fix their well water system, and put carpet on a ramp

built by local contractor Jeff Parker, who also enlarged the interior

doorways to accommodate a wheelchair and installed grab bars for



leaving out half the stuff,” Szusza said, her voice quivering a

bit. “I just want to make sure to say thank you to the community.

We couldn’t have done it without all that help.”