Volume 19 Number 6
To Romania With Determination
01 December 2006

His dream was to go to Antarctica. Instead he has spent his life challenging totalitarianism, and its aftermath. Patrick Colquhoun talks to Mary Lean.

YEARS AGO, when he was living in Oxford, Patrick Colquhoun rode his bike at full speed into the back of a truck. He went on down to the river to ride along the bank directing a boat in a sculling race. Two hours later he had an x-ray, and discovered he had broken his neck.

Call him bloody-minded or heroic, Patrick Colquhoun is not easily deterred. He takes his motto—’persevere unto the end’—from his great-grandfather, who spent nine years in the Arctic looking for John Franklin’s lost expedition of 1848. Whether in love or in fighting corruption in Romania’s hospitals, he doesn’t believe in giving up.

Colquhoun is Director of Medical Support in Romania (MSR) a British charity which works with one hospital in Romania to promote high standards of healthcare throughout the country and region. He first got involved in 1990 after watching a TV programme about Romanian orphanages. ‘Dad, what are you going to do about it?’ asked his 12-year-old daughter. Within weeks he was on his first trip to Romania.

The trip, which took supplies to a children’s hospital in Oradea on the Romanian border, was also a recce. On his return medical friends advised Colquhoun and his colleagues to focus on one institution and to take medical professionals on every visit. They settled on Salaj District Hospital in Zalau, some 80 miles from Oradea.

Sixteen years on, the charity has organised 320 visits to Zalau by 200 hospital and medical staff, who pay their own fares. They have delivered £3.2 million worth of equipment, trained local staff to use it, and provided the consumables to keep it in operation. ‘We’re not there as Lady Bountiful,’ says Colquhoun. ‘We see it as working together with the people at Salaj to reform healthcare in Romania, by piloting changes at the hospital.’ He looks forward to the time when Romanian hospitals will set up local NGOs to fundraise, just as Leagues of Friends support National Health Service hospitals in the UK.

He stresses that the British visitors gain as much as they give, and quotes two Cambridge medical students who wrote on their return, ‘Our experiences confirmed and strengthened our desire to be the best doctors we can possibly be.’ The British health workers tend to return again and again: something appreciated by their Romanian hosts who, Colquhoun says, are fed up with ‘medical tourism’. Since 1994 the hospital has been twinned with Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire.

Hammer blow
Colquhoun was made an honorary citizen of Zalau in 1998. His proactive stance on corruption has earned him enemies. He went public on the endemic bribery in Romanian healthcare at a civic celebration in Zalau in 2003 and gave a paper on the subject at a conference on healthcare reform in Bucharest in 2005.

‘Reforming Romania’s healthcare is not just a theoretical thing,’ he says. ‘It’s about individual people who don’t deserve what they’ve been landed with.’ He cites a patient whose anaesthetist said that he might not bring her round if she did not give him enough money. ‘Such euphemisms as “presents” or “brown envelopes” do not describe the reality. Bribes are what doctors receive. Terror is what the population experiences.’ Sums can range from £1.50 per day to persuade the orderly to remake your bed to much larger sums for an operation. For the elderly, struggling on a minimum pension of about £17 a month, the costs can be prohibitive—and deadly.

The problem is widespread in virtually all post-Soviet countries, Colquhoun maintains. Just as he sees Salaj Hospital as a lever for reforming Romania’s professional standards in healthcare, so he believes Romania could show the way in the fight against what he calls ‘medical terrorism’. ‘At the moment if you mention Romania, the first word which springs to mind is “orphanages”,’ he says. ‘What if Romania became known for being the first of these countries to stop bribes to doctors?’

Colquhoun (67) grew up in Eton, England, and went to its famous school, where his father taught classics. At Oxford he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics and came to see human choices as the key to all three disciplines. He became fascinated, and concerned, about the ‘monstrous evil’ of Soviet-style totalitarianism. Between school and university he had gone to work in the wilds of Canada and ended up in hospital after putting an axe into his shin: ‘I had to be got out on a makeshift stretcher and then by canoe.’ In hospital, he read Human Destiny by Pierre Lecomte de Nouy. It made a big impression: ‘He said the next great step in the evolution of man was in the moral and spiritual sphere’.

So he was already searching for some way of making a difference to the world when, in his last term at Oxford, he went to see a film produced by Moral Re-Armament (now Initiatives of Change). Afterwards he got talking with one of the organisers of the film show, who asked him if he believed God could speak to him as well as hearing his prayers. ‘I said “yes” and hoped that would be the end of the matter, but he suggested we try listening to God there and then.’ The thought which struck him ‘like a hammer blow’ was to give up his plans, inspired by his explorer ancestor, to go to Antarctica.

Although he ignored the thought—and later failed his interview for Antarctica—the moment was a turning point. Intrigued by the experience, he went to the MRA centre at Caux, and decided to throw in his lot with the bid to bring change in the world which he encountered there. He took a look at his life from the viewpoint of absolute standards and found the courage to tell his parents things he had been hiding from them. ‘It confirmed some of their fears and relieved others. So, although they were alarmed at the direction my life was taking, they knew they could trust me.’

The practice of searching for God’s guidance in silence, and of following flashes of intuition, has been the key to what Colquhoun describes as ‘finding a calling’. This, he points out, is a ‘step by step’ process—’a light to your feet rather than a searchlight ahead’. He loves to tell a story, and those which are not about hair-raising exploits are about the coincidences which pepper his path. ‘I tend to think everyone I meet has something to contribute.’

He can name the day and hour (7.10am on 8 January 1964) that he fell in love with Frances Cameron and knew that he would marry her. He was undeterred when she turned down his first proposal. He tried again in 1970, by post, as she was in Australia. ‘I had an absolutely clear thought when to write,’ he says. ‘The next day I learnt that my father had cancer. Frances took a couple of months to say yes, and during that time I was at home with my father and mother. I got her answer not long after he died.’ They married in 1971, and in 1973 went to live in Cambridge, where their two daughters were born.

At about that time, they read the lecture written by the Russian dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in acceptance of the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature, but never delivered. Its theme was integrity and the moral and spiritual values essential to freedom; they felt it might lend itself to visual interpretation. A friend, Ailsa Hamilton, made an experimental slide-tape presentation, and in 1980 they set up a charity, Anglo-Nordic Productions Trust (, to make it into a film, One Word of Truth. The experience was to lead to friendships with several former Soviet dissidents, including Solzhenitsyn himself, Irina Ratushinskaya and Vladimir Bukovsky.

Sowing seeds
After raising the funding for the film, Colquhoun spent much of the Eighties developing its use in education, visiting many countries, including the US and South Africa, where he showed the film 72 times in 28 days. It was translated into 17 languages, shown on TV in 10 countries and became a resource in the Civic Education curriculum of the Czech Republic. On his visits there he got to know doctor, playwright and stateswoman Jaroslava Moserova whose play, A Letter to Wollongong, became the Trust’s second film.

‘Showing a film is like sowing seeds,’ he says. ‘You never hear 90 per cent of the outcome.’ So he cherishes the memory of a young woman in Toronto, Canada, who spent two years trying to get hold of the video after seeing it on TV. ‘She was a nurse and single mother, working nights and living in awful conditions. She said, “Seeing that film has been the one thing that’s kept me going these last years.” I’d do the whole thing again just for that.’

Just as he would do the whole Romanian venture again for Eva Szabo, a young Romanian who lost her leg to bone cancer at 19 and who MSR was able to help (see FAC June/July 2003). After a long battle she now attends university in Budapest. MSR is currently raising money to buy her a new artificial leg.

And has he ever felt like not persevering to the end? ‘Not really, no. There are some things I haven’t started yet. I haven’t been to Russia. And I’m still looking for someone to sell a million copies of One Word of Truth in Mandarin!’