By Kanupriya Tewari & Chris Madson
Twelve-year-old Gedlinne and her mom, Ginette, recently moved into an apartment in Dorchester, a predominantly working-class neighborhood in south Boston. Gedlinne—along with Dave (8), Macklyne (10), and Sanley (20)—are all Right to Health Care (RTHC) patients who came to the Boston area after the January 12 earthquake to receive medical treatment not available in their native Haiti. Each of these patients arrived accompanied by one of their parents. Though these families did not know each other before coming to the US, they have come together to form a close-knit group—supporting each other through an incredibly stressful, and at times frightening, experience.
For more than 20 years, the Partners In Health RTHC program has served patients with complex medical needs who are not able to be treated in the countries in which we work. The program typically prioritizes children with illnesses or injuries whose lives can be saved with a simple intervention unavailable in resource-poor countries, such as Haiti. Partners In Health (PIH) collaborates with US-based hospitals, clinicians, and families to provide each patient the specialized care needed for a successful recovery. After the January 12 earthquake, with much of the Haitian medical system destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people injured, more patients than ever before needed help.
Gedlinne is a vocal and outgoing member of the RTHC family. On a recent visit to her apartment, she immediately kisses us on the cheek, welcoming us into her new home. Though we had not met before, she very naturally puts everyone in the room at ease—pulling chairs from various rooms into the apartment’s living room, translating for her mother, Ginette, and engaging in conversation as though we had known each other for years. Once we are all settled, she almost immediately begins asking about musicians: “What music do you like? Could we all go shopping for CDs sometime soon?”
It is difficult to imagine that this is the same young girl that authorities—upon finding her limp body underneath a pile of concrete—had assumed dead six months earlier.
Gedlinne was walking on the sidewalk, alongside her elementary school in Port-au-Prince, when the earthquake hit. As the walls around her collapsed, Gedlinne and her best friend were suddenly trapped under mounds of concrete.
She remembers hearing her friend screaming for help; she remembers watching her blue uniform slowly turn red as it absorbed the blood rushing from her body; she remembers feeling her clothes tighten as her body swelled. At some point, she lost consciousness. The most horrifying part of her ordeal was still to come. Gedlinne and her schoolmates were taken to a morgue, assumed dead.
It was there that her family found her. Her uncle realized that Gedlinne was still alive and in need of medical attention. She had a large cut across her head, a broken spine, and two broken legs.
Gedlinne’s injuries left her body incapacitated, and she developed infections that rapidly became resistant to antibiotics. Unable to move her legs, she lost 20 percent of her body weight. Because of the pain and the fevers from the infection, she wasn’t eating. Without further care, the combination of infection and weight loss would have killed her within weeks. She arrived at Massachusetts General Hospital in April and was able to receive world-class, life-saving care for her injuries. After a few months, she began working with physical therapists and nutritionists as she focused on regaining weight and muscle function.
Fortunately, after several weeks of regular physical therapy and rehabilitation sessions at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Gedlinne is now able to stand and walk on her own for extended periods of time.
Though she remembers the pain of the past six months, Gedlinne is excited for the future. “I can’t wait to start school again,” Gedlinne says. “Whenever I see girls with ribbons in their hair walking on the street, it reminds me of school.” She looks forward to getting back to her studies, to making new friends her own age, and to getting out of the apartment more often. More than anything, you get the sense that she is finding ways of recreating her life. In many ways she has already started doing this. Not unlike many teenagers her age, she is an avid fan of Lady Gaga, ice cream, and shopping. She likes to joke about things she has seen on television and is eager to talk about her condition, her mom, and what she imagines her life might be like once she can move around without her walker someday.
When she has to pause to think of an English word—something that does not happen often, at least considering the amount of talking happening—she follows up by playfully reprimanding us for not knowing French. In short, Gedlinne’s glee and enthusiasm fills whatever room of her apartment she happens to be in. Not only is she funny, the young Port-au-Prince native is also quite opinionated. We cannot help but laugh as she somberly lectures us—who came bearing pizza—about the detestable qualities of cheese. The texture of which she claims is unbearable. Yet, her aversion to this American staple will likely pass with time—she is nothing if not capable of adapting to new situations. This is reflected by her quick grasp of English, which is partially due to her love of pop music.
These lighter moments stand are certainly mixed with heavier and frequent periods of worry. Gedlinne’s recovery is one that will be measured in years, not months or weeks. Ginette also worries about her five other children, all currently living with extended family members in Haiti. Having worked as a beauty product vendor before the earthquake, she is also nervous about how she will support the family once she and Gedlinne return to Port-au-Prince in the coming year. Tragically, Gedlinne’s father died as he searched for her in the area around her elementary school.
Sitting amongst their new friends on the porch, these problems seem both incredibly present and very distant. Ginette defers her worries for now to focus on helping Gedlinne recover. Since moving into this apartment in early July, she and Annette—Sanley’s mom—have been taking turns traveling to each other’s homes, making meals together, and taking time to eat and visit. Ginette explained that most of the meals incorporate rice and black beans (dire ak pwa, in Haitian Creole); she also likes to make a dish where vegetables—mostly root vegetables—are boiled, then mashed, and finally cooked in the oven under and around pieces of fish. By visiting each other like this, the group maintains a sense of Haitian culture by eating traditional foods and talking freely in Haitian Creole.
Though the patients’ movements are somewhat limited due to their injuries, all of the displaced families are keeping busy. In early August Gedlinne and her mother decided to focus on furnishing the bedroom that they share. Working together, they selected furniture from the Salvation Army, which generously provided them with a $500 gift certificate. When we visited, members of the RTHC staff were trying to figure out how to arrange the new bed frames in the small room. Ginette’s large, Victorian-era bed frame—reminiscent, in her mind, of Haiti—now sits just a few feet from Gedlinne’s growing collection of Disney movies and stickers. Separating the two beds are the various pieces of medical equipment necessary to Gedlinne’s recovery.
Observing Gedlinne, Ginette, and the other RTHC patients, as they learn to live with their altered bodies in a foreign place, it is clear that they are all moving forward with life, one day at a time.