Journey of hope lands in St. Louis

Monday, February 15, 2010 | 5:23 p.m. CST

CHESTERFIELD — Dr. Edward Fink was among the first wave of volunteers to arrive in Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake. At Hopital Sacre Coeur, about 75 miles north of Port-au-Prince, most of the injured limbs he and the other surgeons came across were too diseased or mangled to be saved.

In the midst of despair, Fink came across 11-year-old Jean Patrickson. A bone was poking through the boy's lower leg. Infection had set in. But Fink was convinced the boy didn't need to lose his leg. He just needed to get Jean to a U.S. hospital.

The other surgeons disagreed, but Fink, 46, was passionately adamant. "I knew there was another answer," he said. The others relented.

After returning to his home in Washington a few days later, Fink began the monumental logistical effort to bring Jean to the United States. He found a partner in Kathy Corbett, the director of the Missouri chapter of Healing with Children, an organization which works to secure donated medical care.

Together, they spent four hours a day making calls and sending e-mails to politicians and bureaucrats. With every e-mail, they attached Jean's picture, taken while he was awaiting the doctors' decision.

His diagnosis was taped to his forehead because doctors had no charts. Open fracture, it read. "Danger." But his face told another story. He looked determined and proud.

"It's important to associate a face and a personality with what you are trying to do," Fink said.

On Sunday, their effort finally came to fruition. Jean and his cousin arrived in a small airplane donated by the humanitarian organization Wings of Hope at Spirit of St. Louis Airport. The boy was heading to Shriners Hospital for Children. For the first time, he was going to see snow.

Corbett, 45, his chauffeur to the hospital, anxiously peered out of the hangar. "I feel like I know him because I stare at his picture everyday," she said. "I look forward to finally seeing his face on U.S. soil."

Jean lives in Port-au-Prince with his aunt and uncle. When the quake hit, the roof of his house collapsed on his leg.

He went to a hospital in Port-au-Prince and was flown to Hopital Sacre Coeur in Milot, which can take eight hours to travel by car. The 73-bed hospital — funded by a foundation created by two St. Louisans over 20 years ago — is using tents and nearby schools to handle over 400 patients. Jean arrived seven days after the quake, Fink said.

Jean chatted with everyone and gave high-fives to volunteers, Fink said. "He just had a personality that exuded promise and comfort."

Despite Jean's fracture and infection, he could still feel sensations with his right foot and move it well, Fink said. But a previous infection that had left the bone diseased complicated his case. Still, Fink thought he could remove the bone and get him to the U.S. for a surgery that can help regrow it.

Fink, however, was in the minority. Doctors were going to do an above-knee amputation. Jean broke down at the news, crying for the first time. It would be nearly impossible to support himself in an impoverished nation like Haiti. Fink continued arguing and eventually persuaded the others to let him take over Jean's care.

He went to Jean's side and — not having a clue how he would get him to the U.S. — promised to try to save his leg. They shook hands, Fink said. "I made sure he understood and believed and trusted us."

On Jan. 21, the doctor removed seven inches of Jean's tibia. On. Jan. 24, Fink headed home. "Trust me like you did before," he told Jean, "and we will see each other again."

After dead-end phone calls to immigration agencies, Fink decided to attend an expert discussion in Washington on disaster relief in Haiti sponsored by the Brookings Institution. When the time ran out for questions from the audience, Fink stood up and begged for a few minutes. The shocked moderator agreed.

Fink described the widespread amputations. "We're all sick of cutting people's limbs off," he told them. "We have the opportunity to save the kids, and I need help from you on the panel, and you in the audience."

People swarmed him afterward with thoughts and business cards. It led to valuable government contacts and to Corbett. Together, they navigated the red tape. The Center for the Rural Development of Milot, or CRUDEM, the St. Louis foundation that runs the hospital, helped with documentation in Haiti and getting Jean and his cousin, Romel Dufrene, 21, on a flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Wings of Hope brought them the rest of the way.

The journey was arduous and made more difficult when kidnapping charges were filed against missionaries from Idaho trying to take Haitian children to the Dominican Republic, Corbett said. "Hopefully, figuring out this process will lead to many other children getting care," she said.

Slowly, patients are coming to the U.S. Nine children, including Jean, flew from Hopital Sacre Coeur this week to various U.S. hospitals, Stephen Reese with CRUDEM said. Last week, eight children arrived in Boston.

When Jean's plane pulled into the hangar, Corbett gave a thumbs up. Dufrene climbed out and cradled Jean in his arms. A blanket covered Jean's bandaged leg. Corbett pulled a Cardinals knit cap over Jean's head. "Welcome to a cool St. Louis. You made it," she said. "Yay!"

Dufrene carried Jean to the lobby, translating to Jean how everyone was so happy to see them. Someone handed Jean a snowball, which burst in his grip. They laughed as they flung snow at each other.

"Now, we know we are safe," Dufrene said.

They piled in Corbett's car and headed to Shriners Hospital, where the plan is to evaluate Jean and set a date for a surgery that — barring complications — will cause the tibia to regrow over the next four to six months.

On the way, Corbett called Fink. She handed her phone to Dufrene. His words brought Fink to tears: "I'm looking out the window at the snow."

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