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From orphan to advocate

Izidor Ruckel (Photo by Sarah Padbury)

Photo by Tom Szalay

The orphanage in Sighetu Marmatiei in 1992.

Photo by Tom Szalay

TRANSITIONING TO FAMILY: Izidor Ruckel at age 11 with his adoptive father Danny Ruckel.


From orphan to advocate

Adopted from Romania, Izidor Ruckel was an angry teen until he felt God's call

Izidor Ruckel works the night shift at a Denver Walmart. Adopted from Romania in 1991 at age 11, he also speaks around the United States about the plight of Romanian orphans, especially those with special needs. It’s an exhausting schedule, particularly because Ruckel wears a brace on his right leg and has constant back pain. He recently spoke in Wisconsin and worked all night upon his return.

For the third time since his adoption, Ruckel’s story is making national news. The first time was in 1990 when ABC’s 20/20 ran a “Shame of the Nation” report that revealed the appalling warehousing of Romania’s special needs orphans. Thousands of Americans flocked to Romania to adopt until Romanian officials put a moratorium on international adoption in 2001, and closed the doors altogether in 2004.

Ruckel lived in one of those dismal places, the Home Hospital for Irrecoverable Children, located in the northern town of Sighetu Marmatiei on the Romanian-Ukrainian border, for the first 11 years of his life. The unheated, concrete structure housed 400-500 special needs children with problems ranging from physical conditions like AIDS, tuberculosis, or epilepsy, to all levels of intellectual disabilities, to mental and emotional health issues, to blindness. Ruckel had wasted lower limbs, a result of untreated polio contracted as an infant.

In his autobiography Abandoned for Life, Ruckel recounts the never-changing horrors behind the barred windows: Sleeping several to a bed, the children woke at 5 a.m., stripped so the nannies could clean the soiled clothes, beds, and floors (no diapers or potty training provided), and ate while naked. Breakfast never varied: stale bread soaked in spoiling milk. Nannies rinsed the dishes in the bathroom sink, bathed and dressed the kids, and then sent them to wait for lunch in another room with no games, no toys, and no music. 

Because Ruckel was a smart child and could move around better than most, nannies frequently put him in charge of 50-100 youngsters. He controlled the group by mimicking the nannies’ cruelty. Often for the least infraction, a nanny beat Ruckel with a broomstick, put him in a straitjacket, or forced him to kneel on the concrete floor and hold his arms in the air for hours. Sometimes nannies drugged the disobedient, noisy, or crying children with “medicine” given via reused syringes, which made them sleep for hours, or punished them with pills that made them vomit.

Meanwhile, a world away, Danny and Marlys Ruckel, a San Diego couple with three daughters, believed God wanted them to adopt a child as a way of living out their faith. After hearing about the Romanian orphans, Marlys called John Upton, a filmmaker whose goal was to rescue as many Romanian special needs orphans as possible. Upton told Marlys about Izidor, and by the time they hung up, she wanted him. After praying about it, Danny agreed.

In October 1991, Izidor left Romania with a chaperone and met his new family at the San Diego Airport, which he mistook as his new house. Reporters and dozens of well-wishers from the Ruckels’ church came to welcome him. Izidor revealed his stubborn streak on the way home when he refused to wear his seat belt, believing it was some kind of straitjacket.

Short temper aside, Izidor at first seemed to adjust well to life in America. His adoptive family taught him about God, unlike in the Romanian hospital home, where he had never heard anyone talk about God. He memorized the Westminster Shorter Catechism and attended a Romanian church with his parents so he could keep in touch with his roots. Over the years Los Angeles’ Shriners Hospital performed six surgeries on Izidor’s legs, but problems remained. One Sunday, when a Romanian couple talked with Izidor about heaven, he was ecstatic to learn that he could some day live with perfect legs and without tears or pain.

But at about age 14, Ruckel became angry and took it out on his family: “You get so angry your heart is like heated and pumping.” He had flashbacks of his life in Romania. When he was 17 the Ruckels kicked him out, and for several years he rarely saw them. At 20 Ruckel decided to return to Romania—permanently. ABC’s 20/20 paid for the 2001 trip in exchange for filming him meeting his biological family. 

Ruckel’s return didn’t go as he planned. At first eager to meet his birth family, he felt unexpected hurt and rage when they met. He found the hospital still reeking, the food still rancid, and the nannies still abusive. Some of his friends had “aged out” of the hospital, released to beg in the streets or transferred to an old folks’ home. A familiar panic set in: fear he would be stuck in Romania once again. He couldn’t wait to get back to California. 

A now-humbled Ruckel reconciled with his adoptive family. He felt God calling him to remind the world of the Romanian orphans’ plight. He describes in Abandoned for Life his realization that “God had loved me while I was in the hospital and had helped me come to America without me even knowing it.” 

Now 33, Ruckel believes the best answer for Romania’s orphans is to reopen the doors to international adoption. To promote that objective, he and a fellow adoptee, filmmaker Alex King, plan to travel to Romania later this year to film a documentary on the children left behind. After all, using video footage to rescue hurting children is something he knows works.

Because of the upcoming documentary, reporters from NPR, The Washington Post, and other newspapers have again descended upon Ruckel. Reporters ask him why he is successful, leading an independent and productive life, while other Romanian adoptees are still struggling. His answer doesn’t usually make it to print: “No human beings can understand what kids go through when traumatized. The reason I live is because God chose me to live for His purpose. It’s the power of Christ.”


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  • Russell
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:29 pm

    Thank you for adopting Katie. I do like to read these types of stories, knowing God is still in control and there is still good left in the world. I pray that more people step up to help these children.

  • Katie
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:29 pm

    This is an awesome story! As adoptive parents ourselves, we love reading about these amazing adopted children who are being used by God to make a difference!