Saturday, February 6, 2010

Bill's story

Bill Nathan was orphaned as a little boy and was badly mistreated by the family who took him in. He was a "restavek", a child slave, not allowed to go to school, forced to do much of the household work, and beat viciously for any mistake or misbehavior. After a few years, a nun rescued him and sent him to St. Joseph's Home for Boys in Port-au-Prince. He was given an education, a family environment, and the encouragement and love that a child needs. When he graduated from the program, he was offered a leadership role at St Joseph's, and today, he is acting director. He also travels the world speaking against modern day slavery and performing the drums with St Joseph's world-renowned dance company, Resurrection Dance Theatre of Haiti.

Bill happens to be my next door neighbor and a member of the board of Angel Missions. When I am out of the country, he takes care of the Shoebox for me; he also manages my rent, my electric bills, and pretty much anything else that I don't know how to do Haiti-style. By January, we had become good friends.

On January 12th, the day that changed our lives forever, Bill and I had walked part of the way up the hill together before going our separate ways to run errands. Three hours later, the quake hit and I immediately tried to call Bill because I knew that with its height, St Joseph's would have been particularly vulnerable. He didn't answer. I hurried home and when I got to my street, sure enough, the top 3 floors of St Joe's had completely collapsed. Michael, the executive director was in the street, looking quite calm, but when I asked him if everyone had gotten out OK, he turned to me with a look of death and said, "Bill...we lost Bill somewhere on the roof."

Something inside me died.

I'm not sure what happened during the next hour. We couldn't look for Bill or Ben, the other victim that was buried somewhere on the roof. Ben's wife, Renee, and his cousin, Jon, along with 2 other Americans, had survived on the dance floor, and we brought them down with a ladder onto my roof and then onto the ground. A little while later, we succeeded in pulling Aliston, a 13 year old St Joe's boy, out of a pocket on the 6th floor. I was in my Shoebox, just finishing his bandages when I heard Michael screaming.

"Get Kez! Get Kez! We found Bill!"

I think that might have been the happiest moment of my life, but also the scariest. I grabbed my emergency kit and ran up to the field where they had carried his body. I was terrified of what horrible injuries I would find, but he had virtually no external wounds and all his vital functions seemed reasonably OK. He was moving his extremities and had good reflexes. His vital signs were stable. He was only semi-conscious, but his pupillary reflexes were OK and he was responding to me in English, a very good sign.

All night, as I cared for scores of victims, I checked on Bill regularly, waiting for some serious change in consciousness or sign that he was bleeding internally. Nothing. He was in agonizing pain all night, but he was stable. I finally found a bottle of vicodin at 4am and gave him enough to put him to sleep.

In the morning, Walnes and some of the men took Bill to the hospital. I wanted to go along to make sure he got proper care, but I just couldn't justify taking care of one patient when there were so many in desperate need. G and I did rounds all over Delmas that day until the late afternoon when I went to join Bill and TiPatrick at the hospital. The hospital, of course, was overflowing. Bill was lying in a corridor with a dozen other patients. They had given him some kind of shot but nothing else in the 8 hours that he had been there. So I spent the night catching a few hours sleep on the floor in between caring for Bill and the other patients near us, and trying to shut out the crying and the moaning and the wailing all around us.

In the morning, we finally got an x-ray of Bill's back, but the Haitian doctor looked at it and essentially told us, "There's nothing I can do. Go home and maybe you'll be able to find a white doctor who can give you advice." Bill had regained enough strength by then (36 hours post-quake) to walk a block to Wings of Hope, St Joe's sister home for handicapped children. From there, we went home to the Shoebox.

The next few days followed the same pattern. There was really nothing I could do for Bill except keep his pain under control with ibuprofen and vicodin, and try to keep him lying down all the time. I was frustrated, not knowing exactly what his injuries were because we didn't have hospital diagnostic equipment, and frightened, not sure if I was going to let him get worse by missing some serious symptom. At the same time, with all of my friends evacuated or dead, it was nice to have someone to talk to and someone to make me smile. Tremors were particularly terrifying because I knew that if my house started to come down, I would never be able to carry him to safety by myself, but when they hit, I tried to reassure him and act unconcerned. I did not get much sleep those days.

Relief finally came in the form of Miles Wright, a long term supporter of St Joe's, and Ben Skinner, a Times writer who had used Bill's story in his book about slavery. They managed to charter a private jet to take Bill to the US for medical care. On Saturday morning, we packed up and went to the airport, prepared for a battle. At that time, only American citizens were being permitted to leave. Even though Bill has a multi-pass visa to the US, they were not going to let him out.

As we waited in the blisteringly hot noon day sun, Ben argued with the military and worked on connections he had on the inside. I supported Bill, who was getting weaker and weaker from the long wait on his feet. Eventually, Ben found some sympathetic officers who brought us inside. But right then, Bill collapsed. Ben and I carried him into the airport and medics rushed over to get an IV into him and, at my request, a large dose of morphine. It's all a blur until someone was yelling at me, "The plane is here and we're cleared to go. Get him up!"

We got Bill into the tiny plane. He and I had a moment for a tearful good-bye and then they were gone.

Why was Bill on the roof that afternoon? He told me that he felt like someone was telling him that there were kids up there and he needed to go check on them. So up he went and sure enough, 5 boys were playing there. It was their chore time, so Bill sent them downstairs and paused for a little peace and quiet in his favorite place, the garden rooftop. The quake hit seconds later. All 5 boys survived; the two who dawdled in obeying Bill are the only two St Joe's boys who were injured.

The 7 story building started to sway and fall, hurling Bill towards the neighbor's roof, 2 stories lower. He hit that lower roof, bounced off and fell 4 stories to the roof of a shed. Again, he bounced off and landed on the ground. Lying there, unable to move his legs, he looked up and saw the rubble of St Joseph's roof falling on top of him. Something gave him the strength to get up and run. Again, he collapsed, and again saw rubble falling towards him. This time, he grabbed a clothesline and pulled himself to safety. He lay in that yard and somehow, amazingly, had the presence of mind to answer his phone when his friend Jefthe called. He told Jefthe where he was and a group of men found him and carried him to the field.

Bill should not be alive. But he is. And that is a miracle.

I had the opportunity to see Bill on my way to Boston. He is resting and recuperating at a friend's house and hopefully will be ready to return to Haiti sometime this spring. The doctor's report shows that he had multiple contusions, 2 broken ribs, broken transverses processes on 5 left lumbar vertebrae. Remarkably, they do not think he will need surgery. Physical therapy and a lot of rest is the prescription right now.

It kills him to not be in Haiti, helping with reconstruction and taking care of the St Joe's boys. But he understands that he needs to heal fully before he can be useful down there. We are both still processing so much and it was good for us to see each other again, to be able to talk about everything that we lived through in those horrible 4 days, and to start to look at Haiti's future with some hope.


Hannah said...

I have chills. That story is incredible.

Oh, and P.S. You look beautiful in that picture. Love you Keziah. Praying for you as always.

Nicole said...

I read a lot of Bill's backstory online, as he was featured in several news articles, partly due to the herculean efforts of Ben Skinner and Miles Wright.... but I did not realize that he was on the board of Angel Missions and had been keeping watch over your little shoebox while you were gone. Isnt it amazing, the way that God brought you two together when you most needed each other?

Im so glad that you were able to visit him in the US, and that Bill will not need surgery. I hope that he can fully recover so that he can return to Haiti and help more boys back at St Joe's.

Are you in culture shock, being home in Mass again? Have you had any time to process what you've been through?

I am still praying for you, Kez :)

rob patterson said...

I want to thank you for taking care of Bill. He is a close friend and he has been at my house for the past several days. I am coming to St. Joseph's Saturday and I would love to meet you...

rob patterson