FERNDALE, Wash. — Little Berlange doesn’t know that his country has crumbled into dust and despair.
Snug in his high chair Friday morning having a breakfast of peanut butter on toast, he has no idea that the fate of his parents and younger brother, who live in the hills outside of Port-au-Prince, is in question.
He has no comprehension that the land he left a year ago when he came to the United States on a medical visa is no more.
The 14-month-old, who is being treated in Seattle for spina bifida and club feet, has been living for the past year with Sarah and Robert Gammons-Reese in the northern corner of Washington state — a world away from his home in Haiti, and the thousands of abandoned bodies and a million homeless.
Sarah Gammons-Reese is the co-director of The Medical Advocacy Team, a non-profit organization that help arrange care for medically fragile children from Haiti. The group that she formed in 2007 with Salem Richards of Athens, Ohio, has so far brought to the U.S. about 20 sick children who otherwise would likely have little chance of surviving in that poorest of poor countries.
While in the U.S., the children stay with foster families while they undergo surgery and receive medical care donated by doctors and hospitals. The Gammons-Reeses have fostered four children from Haiti so far, including the now chubby baby with enormous brown eyes they call “Baby Bear.”
Loving — and letting go
Sarah Gammons-Reese, 36, knows the kids who come are only hers for a little while — children on loan. Loving and letting go, even if it breaks your heart, comes with the mission of The Medical Advocacy Team. She understands that for these kids, recovery means they’ll be leaving her and returning to their families, healthy at last — some for the first time — to go on to what she always dreamed would be long, full lives.
Until Tuesday, when the magnitude-7 earthquake decimated Haiti, it never occurred to her that now she’d be wondering if those children she loved and mothered still walked the face of the earth.
She’s especially desperate for one particular child, 4-year-old Isaac who the couple has adopted from a Haitian orphanage but hasn’t been able to bring home yet due to paperwork delays in getting the visa and passport. She has learned he survived the quake without injury but worries if he’ll have enough food and water in the coming days.
As for the three children she's helped to mend and send back home, she’s only heard so far that one is safe.
“It all feels so in vain,” she said, standing in her kitchen while readying her children for school Friday morning. “You take a child away from their mom for a year and send them back — and then they’re in an earthquake. It’s like ‘Why?’”
Immediately after the earthquake, she spent her days scrutinizing the pictures she saw on TV and online, yearning to see the little faces she once washed and kissed. Now she tries to keep the TV off, in part to spare her children from seeing the stacks of bodies.
“Somehow whatever channel it’s on, it always ends up back on a news station,” she says.
The Gammons-Reeses have a blended family that includes five biological children and nine adopted, including Isaac — ranging in age from 3 to 24.
Three years ago, they adopted Angeline, who will turn 4 on Feb. 1, from Haiti. Like Baby Bear, Angeline has spina bifida, and when she first arrived in the U.S., she was also gravely ill with bacterial meningitis and given a less than 5 percent chance to live.
Today, she’s a vibrant little girl who loves the color pink and Goldfish crackers, just learned in preschool that her name starts with the letter “A,” and, with the aid of her walker, recently went ice skating for the first time and loved it.
“I didn’t want to leave,” she says. “I cried.”
Robert Gammons-Reese, 47, who supports the family by working in construction, says Angeline inspired the family to found The Medical Advocacy Team.
“If you take this little girl, who had virtually no chance of survival and look at her now and she’s OK, that makes you think about the other kids and maybe they have hope too,” he says.
Health care ‘desperate’ even before quake hit
In the best of times, medical care in Haiti is almost non-existent, says Dr. John Lawrence, a pediatric surgeon at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. Lawrence has traveled to Haiti several times to volunteer at clinics there and donated his time last year perform surgery on a little girl named Saintana who the Medical Advocacy Team brought to Seattle for surgery.
Lawrence says he doesn’t know Saintana’s fate since the quake.
“It was terribly desperate [in Haiti] before the earthquake,” he said. “You can hardly imagine how resource-poor it was.”
Kimberly Smith, a 33-year-old mom in nearby Bellingham, Wash., helps coordinate foster care for the Medical Advocacy Team, and stayed in the hospital to care for a little girl named Christella who came to the U.S. to be treated for spina bifida when she was less than a year old.
But after Christella recovered and was reunited with her family in Haiti, she died 56 days later of a bowel obstruction.
She became ill on a weekend, Smith says, and her parents desperately tried to find an open clinic to care for her. When they finally did, they had to leave her to go buy blood for a transplant. “They came back and she had passed,” Smith says.
Smith, who is in touch with aid workers in Haiti, says one scene she heard about keeps replaying in her head: Workers were trying to help a man, totally buried in the rubble, alive, but unreachable and trapped next to the bodies of his family. “They asked him what he needed,” she said. “He told them ‘A gun.’”
Across the country, Tanya Borlase of Mooresville, N.C., fears for the two little girls she cared for in 2008 when they came to the United States for urinary surgeries. “They were such brave little girls,” she remembers. She has not heard if they survived the earthquake.
Borlase, who is so worried that an entire day sometimes goes by before she remembers to eat, says she remembers vividly the day the girls, then 3 and 4, left to return home.
“It was heartbreaking,” she says. “They called me Momma Tonya.”
But she knew that was part of the deal. Her yearning heart meant two other mothers were about to get their daughters back.
For now, Sarah Gammons-Reese desperately hopes that a half a world away her son and the many other children she has loved and cared for are safe, with someone to watch over them and a place to rest at night. At the same time, she cares for the child born of another woman who may or may not be alive.
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