Survivor of Haiti earthquake returns home after 6-month medical odyssey, vows to help rebuild

By Lindsey Tanner, AP
Monday, September 6, 2010

Haiti quake survivor returns home after 6 months

Half-buried in rubble, Bazelais Suy struggled to breathe — a dead woman lay on his chest. He knew he had to get her off, fast. Because he could still move his arms, he somehow managed to remove his belt, loop it around the woman’s own belt and drag her off. But his legs were still pinned.

In the ruins of a flattened, five-story university building, he was surrounded by survivors and corpses — students crushed in Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake.

Suy, leader of an activist group working to help Haiti’s youth lift their homeland out of poverty, was climbing the stairs to a fifth-floor classroom when the building at the University of Port-Au-Prince began to shake. In seconds, the structure collapsed, and the 28-year-old Suy tumbled four floors below.

EDITOR’S NOTE — With the aid of American supporters, a young man rescued from the rubble of Haiti’s earthquake struggled to walk again — and to help his nation rebuild. An Associated Press reporter witnessed his long recovery and accompanied him on his return home.

He landed flat on his back on the ground, half-buried in broken concrete. The impact crushed his spine.

Suy lay dazed on his back in a small, dark hole. For hours, he heard the cries of people who had been buried alive, and he feared an aftershock would silence them all.

“I thought, ‘I don’t want to die,’” he said. “I told them not to be scared.”

Suy did not die. Instead, he embarked on a nearly 2,000-mile journey that would restore his health and allow him to return, a half-year later, to the ground that almost killed him.

Suy’s odyssey reads like a cliched Hollywood movie, but it’s a real-life drama, starring a serious and charismatic young Haitian who owes his life to strangers from Chicago, now friends. They transported him to another world for six months of intense treatment, free of charge, while his country, too, tried to heal.

Suy was given little chance of ever walking again, but Haiti without legs is unimaginable — the able-bodied have a hard enough time getting by. Disability there is a stigma, a source of shame.

Stubborn and determined, Suy set his mind to beating the odds.

In the dark, Suy (Soo-’EE) drifted in and out of consciousness. He does not remember being pulled out and placed among bodies on the sidewalk.

Friends arrived and lifted Suy into a car, heading down bumpy streets, first to a public plaza several miles away where victims were being taken. His family found him there on the ground and took him to a hospital where conditions were filthy and the only treatment consisted of occasional painkillers. Eventually he was moved to a tent clinic outside Sacre Coeur Hospital in Port-au-Prince.

A doctor from an aid group asked Dr. Dan Ivankovich, a spinal specialist from Chicago, to check on Suy.

Ivankovich was incredulous. Under normal circumstances, patients with spinal-cord injuries would be immediately strapped to a backboard to immobilize the spine and avoid additional nerve damage. Most would then go straight to surgery.

Suy’s rescuers had no choice but to move him, probably making the injury worse, Ivankovich said.

And 10 days had passed since the quake.

“I said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’” Ivankovich recalled.

Ivankovich, an irreverent, 7-foot-tall surgeon used to treating poor patients from the inner city, had just arrived in Haiti with a medical team. Like his idol, Johnny Cash, the doctor wears black — from his leather cowboy hat and boots to gaudy onyx rings and black diamond ear studs.

It’s an honor, he says, to help the downtrodden. And he shares that passion with his young patient.

Suy was born poor in southern Haiti and sent as a boy to live with an aunt in Port-au-Prince and attend school. He was one of the lucky ones. More than half the population lived in poverty even before the quake left more than 1 million homeless. About 40 percent of Haitian adults are illiterate, and almost half of Haitian children don’t attend school.

Deeply religious, Suy loves his country but hates its poverty. A few years ago, he formed an advocacy group named GRRANOH, a French acronym meaning roughly “group for ideas, research and action for redirecting Haiti.” Its volunteers have tutored orphans, fed the homeless, visited hospital patients and raised awareness about Haiti’s needs.

“He doesn’t have much but with the little he has, he wants to help people,” said his girlfriend, Jeanna Volcy.

In the chaos of post-quake Haiti, Ivankovich was equipped to handle amputations and fractures, not spinal cord injuries. Nor was the damaged hospital in any position to host spinal surgery. Suy, meanwhile, had pressure sores on his back from lying prone for more than a week, and the risk of infection was grave.

When Ivankovich mentioned he would be going back to Chicago, the frightened young man pleaded with him.

“Take me with you,” he cried, in halting English.

The doctor in black could not turn away. Ivankovich worked with U.S. authorities to help secure a humanitarian visa. Sixteen days after the quake, he flew to Chicago in an air ambulance. It was Suy’s first trip out of Haiti.

In a three-hour operation, surgeons at Northwestern Memorial Hospital stabilized Suy’s broken bones with titanium rods and screws. Their aim was to remove pressure on the spinal cord and prevent additional nerve damage, while allowing the surrounding bones to heal.

Afterward, Suy was still unable to move his legs. He had little sensation below his waist, except for patchy feeling in his thighs.

Ivankovich told him: “My friend, you’re paralyzed. You’re going to be in a wheelchair and this is just what you need to accept.”

Suy had other ideas.

He was moved to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, one of the nation’s best-known hospitals for brain and spinal cord injuries. Humanitarian funds at Northwestern and the hospital paid for the treatment, which would normally have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The 18-story center stands in Chicago’s glittery Gold Coast neighborhood, lined with swank shops, posh hotels and gleaming skyscrapers. Suy, who was used to tropical heat, arrived in the dead of Chicago’s bitter-cold winter. The buildings were gigantic, the language strange, his broken body seemed foreign — it all felt like another universe.

“He looked like he had seen a ghost. He seemed pretty shell-shocked,” recalls Kate Silverman, a French-speaking rehab therapist who worked with him.

Suy was haunted by terrifying flashbacks from the earthquake. He wouldn’t eat strange-tasting American food, and couldn’t sleep because the U.S-sized hospital room seemed huge. A room that big in Haiti would house at least five people.

But Suy listened when Silverman said he needed to eat to get strong. And gradually, he did.

Rehab therapists doted on the handsome foreign student and put him through months of rigorous, painful workouts to rebuild his body. His daily routine became several hours of physical therapy — leg lifts from his wheelchair, tossing a big rubber ball, scooting down parallel bars on his arms. The hope was that some neurological function would return.

“It’s OK if it’s hard,” a therapist told him.

“It’s not hard,” Suy insisted.

One day in March during a visit from Ivankovich, Suy lifted a leg up off his bed. The doctor was stunned.

“It was miraculous. It was the kind of recovery that we couldn’t even have fantasized about,” Ivankovich said.

Suy was soon ready to try using a walker. His thighs had regained more feeling and become strong enough to help support his weight. But lifting his feet to step forward required concentration. Even moving awkwardly down the 100-foot hospital corridor was a struggle. The plastic braces on his ankles hurt.

“When I see myself right now, and I think about how I used to be, I cry sometimes,” he confessed.

Even when his therapy sessions ended, Suy worked out alone in his room, doing leg lifts to speed the healing. “You should never be discouraged in life,” he said. “I know the day will come when I can do what I want.”

As spring arrived, Suy went outside in a wheelchair.

Port-au-Prince’s narrow sidewalks are covered with merchants’ wares — piles of T-shirts, shoes, pots and pans, and blue jeans — and now, rubble. It’s an impossible obstacle course for someone in a wheelchair. Suy’s dark eyes shone as he talked about the broad American sidewalks, imagining building them in Haiti someday.

He lit up, too, whenever Ivankovich visited. “My angel,” Suy called him.

“Angels don’t come this big and don’t wear black,” Ivankovich joked.

Knowing the street conditions in Haiti, Suy’s therapists created an obstacle course in the corridor, with rubber bumpers on the floor to simulate earthquake rubble. Suy struggled to lift the walker and his wobbly legs over the humps. But he wanted to try, again and again.

By April, he circled the entire seventh floor, even though his steps were unsteady and sweat dripped down his nose.

All the while, Suy spoke by phone or a donated computer with family and friends, but he did not always ask about Haiti. He feared the answers.

By May, Suy was ready for another test. He used to cook for his family, so he asked to make Haitian rice in the hospital kitchen, which is set up to help disabled patients relearn usual skills.

A walk to a grocery store less than two blocks away took almost half an hour, as Suy slowly maneuvered his walker over sidewalks and curbs. But he seemed happy to be out in the fresh air. Lake Michigan glistened in the distance, and a construction worker yelled, “Good work. Keep it up!”

Silverman fretted about the ethics of returning disabled patients to an ailing country. It was a topic of debate among the doctors and therapists.

“We wouldn’t send somebody home to live in the street” if they couldn’t live independently, Silverman said.

By June, Suy could walk with crutches or two canes — haltingly, and not very far, but he had surpassed anyone’s expectations.

“It would not have surprised me if he did not walk at all,” said Dr. John Liu, the Chicago surgeon who operated on Suy. “The fact that he’s actually doing this well … is fantastic.”

After a month at a transitional Chicago rehab center, Suy was ready to return home.

Rosite Merentie, a Haitian-born hospice nurse in Chicago who flew with Ivankovich to Haiti after the quake, was moved to tears by Suy’s progress. “This one patient I know I helped,” she said.

“I saw so many in Haiti who were injured — head trauma, leg and spine injuries, burns, infections, wounds, dead bodies, pieces of bodies,” she said. Seeing Suy “for me is just a joy, I cannot even explain.”

She found Suy an apartment in Port-au-Prince, while Ivankovich looked into online college programs Suy could pursue back home. The doctor made plans for Suy to continue rehab at a newly built rehab clinic, one of the few signs of progress in Port-au-Prince.

Suy wanted to volunteer there, to give hope and encouragement to other disabled patients.

“He’s not grandiose. He knows he’s not going to save the country. But to hear him say, ‘If I can maybe help one or two people,’ it’s just very refreshing to hear,” said Dr. David Chen, who oversaw Suy’s treatment at the rehab hospital.

Suy looked forward to going home. But he worried too — about finding a job, paying for his apartment, and the challenges of being a disabled young man in an even more disabled country.

Suy can expect additional improvement in his mobility for up to a year, Ivankovich said. Whether he’ll ever walk unassisted is uncertain.

Merentie and Ivankovich joined Suy on his journey, bringing along eight suitcases brimming with donated clothes, medical supplies and laptop computers.

With a small American flag propped in the pocket of his sport shirt, and a red-and-blue Haitian flag design on his T-shirt underneath, Suy somberly peered out the window as the plane descended into Port-au-Prince. Crumbling houses and tent cities extended for miles below.

“It looks terrible. It’s worse than I thought,” he said.

At the airport, Suy was greeted by his brother and a cousin. He lived with them before the quake, but now their apartment is demolished. Now they live in tents, with no school and no jobs.

At Suy’s request, the first stop after leaving the airport was his old university. The trip was a harrowing ride through streets lined with tent homes, broken buildings and pin-thin little boys begging for money.

At the site of the computer science building that could have been his tomb, much of the debris had been cleared away, but piles of rubble remained that kept Suy, with his walker, from strolling the grounds. He stopped near the gate and stared, memories of that awful day flooding back.

Surveying the ruins, he spotted a grim piece of debris: A human jawbone with several teeth missing.

A visit to his new apartment was a chance to think about the future. It’s in a building owned by one of Merentie’s relatives. Suy pronounced the spacious apartment perfect and thought living on the ground floor would be safe. But he also felt vulnerable, knowing he can’t make a quick escape if another quake hits, or a fire, or some other disaster.

Children in school uniforms wandered into the building’s courtyard, curious perhaps about the young man and the giant doctor in black. Suy quizzed them about their studies.

The youngsters were drawn to this kind stranger, listening intently as he told about being trapped in the quake. Suy told the children they have a duty: “Since you were saved, you have to save other kids.”

The next day was Suy’s 29th birthday, and Merentie organized a party at a hotel in the hills above Port-au-Prince. Suy’s mother and siblings came, along with more than a dozen friends.

A young woman from Suy’s advocacy group sang a hymn of praise, and Suy clasped his hands in prayer at the verse, “Say hallelujah.”

Tears rolled down his cheeks as he looked around at his supporters.

“Suy has gone to hell and back, after being left for dead. This is my brother, but he’s also my hero,” Ivankovich said in a brief tribute. “I couldn’t think of anywhere else that I would rather be tonight.”

Suy took a swig of beer. “Thank you all very much,” he said. And then he told of his hopes for his country’s future, where shoeless children won’t have to roam streets washing car windows to survive, and homes will replace tent cities.

“Youth is the hope of my country, is the hope of the world,” he said.


Ivankovich’s Website:

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