Dr Catalin Cirstoveanu checks a newborn baby before moving her to Italy for heart surgery from the Marie Curie Children’s Hospital in Bucharest last month. Image Credit: AP

Bucharest : Dr Catalin Cirstoveanu runs a cardio unit with state-of-the-art equipment at a Bucharest children's hospital. But not a single child has been treated in the year-and-a-half since it opened.

The reason?

Medical staff he needs to bring in to run the machinery would have expected bribes.

So Cirstoveanu has launched a lonely crusade to save babies who come to him for care: He flies them to western Europe on budget flights so they can be treated by doctors who don't demand kickbacks.

That's what Cirstoveanu did last week for 13-day-old Catalin, who needed heart surgery. Cirstoveanu packed a small bag, slipped emergency breathing equipment into the baby carrier and caught a cheap flight to Italy, where doctors were waiting to perform the surgery.

The operation was successful. Two days later, though, a three-week-old baby that Cirstoveanu whisked away to the same clinic in northwestern Italy — with tubes piercing her tiny frame — died before she was able to have lymph gland surgery.

"I was very worried it wouldn't work," said Cirstoveanu. "But in Romania, she would have died anyway."

The soft-spoken Cirstoveanu is fighting an exhausting and largely solitary battle against a culture of corruption that's so embedded in Romania that surgeons demand bribes to save infants' lives and it's even necessary to slip cash to a nurse to get your sheets changed.

It's one of the reasons why the country's infant mortality rate is more than double the European Union average, with one in 100 children not reaching their first birthday.