AP NEWS

Haitian seeks freedom — with help from community, doctors

March 3, 2019

Norwich — Joselaine Jean Pierre’s only view of the outside world for nearly two years has been the buildings, parking lots and sidewalks seen through windows at the William W. Backus Hospital, or maybe a glimpse of the sun as she was loaded into an ambulance to be rushed to Hartford Hospital.

“I haven’t seen the streets,” Jean Pierre, 49, said recently while sitting on her bed in her second-floor hospital room. “I feel like I’ve been in prison.”

Yet she remained cheerful, joking and exchanging greetings with her Backus Hospital caregivers, her two prosthetic lower legs placed at her bedside like slippers, her walker standing inches away. Her 5-year-old son, Kensley, laughed at times and played video games on a smartphone during a visit with his mom.

Her husband, Dieufoit Jean Pierre, helped Joselaine eat lunch, as she is still learning to grasp things using just her palms and thumbs. Her eight fingers, like her lower legs, have been amputated.

Dieufoit, 49, couldn’t help smiling, his eyes showing the pride he has for both his wife and son for how both have remained positive through the ordeal the family has experienced over the past three years.

“It’s God that does that,” he said of his family’s courage and positive outlook.

On Jan. 13, 2016, Joselaine was home alone in Gonaives, Haiti, her husband teaching in a town some 30 miles away, where he had stayed overnight because of the distance. Dieufoit had become politically active, speaking against the government in volatile Haiti. Two unidentified men came looking for him at his home but found Joselaine instead.

They beat her nearly to death, Joselaine and Dieufoit said through a translator, Sister Yannick Saez of St. Mary’s Church in Greeneville, during an interview Feb. 21 in Joselaine’s hospital room. When she recovered, family and friends urged her to move to the United States with her two young children and seek political asylum.

Dieufoit Jean Pierre would remain in Haiti, teaching and earning money, while keeping a low political profile. He moved frequently, staying briefly with different friends to reduce chances of being found.

“I wanted to come here to find more security,” Joselaine said through Sister Yannick. “I wanted to be safe here.”

On Feb. 26, 2016, Joselaine, her daughter, Dina, then 11, and 3-year-old Kensley moved to Norwich, where her husband’s brother, Aslain Jean Pierre, was living. She applied for political asylum, working with the staff of U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney. She got a job in the hospitality department at Mohegan Sun Casino and an apartment on Cliff Street in downtown Norwich.

Besides worrying about her husband in Haiti, her everyday life for the next year became mundane. She worked and took care of the two kids.

When Joselaine came home from work on Tuesday, May 30, 2017, she felt sick. She had a fever and was shaking with chills. She wrapped herself in blankets and tried to warm up. “Everything was hurting,” she said. She couldn’t sleep.

The next morning, a friend came to pick her up for a job interview. Joselaine could barely walk but the friend coaxed her to go to the interview. She somehow made it through but the friend had to help her get into the car afterward.

By the time the friend helped her into her apartment, Joselaine couldn’t walk. The friend called Joselaine’s brother-in-law to come and take her to the hospital. He came and checked her blood pressure. It barely registered. “My blood pressure was zero,” Joselaine said in English.

He got her into the car to take her to Backus, and she lost consciousness.

An infection of unknown origin turned into sepsis and attacked her entire body. She was given little chance to survive. For months, her children, family and friends came to visit and cried at her hospital bedside while she remained in a coma. Nurses said Joselaine seemed to be crying with them at times.

“A lot of people came to visit, but I didn’t know anything,” Joselaine said. “People came and were crying with me. They thought I was dying.”

Dieufoit was teaching in Gros Morne, Haiti, when his brother called and said: “Get ready, be strong, I’m going to give you some news about your wife.” Doctors gave Joselaine a 1 percent chance to recover. “Since you are people of prayer,” his brother told him, “pray for a miracle.”

“Since then, I started praying,” Dieufoit said.

Dieufoit had to be careful when he applied for a visa to visit his wife. He didn’t want to draw attention and was worried the government would try to stop him from leaving Haiti. His visa was approved, and he arrived in Norwich on June 20, 2017, and went to Backus to see his wife.

“She looked like a monster,” he said. “Everything was swollen. She had tubes and was bloody.”

Gangrene had started attacking her extremities. The doctors asked for permission to take her off oxygen support, believing she would die. “The family said no,” Dieufoit said, “because we have faith in God. We know God can help someone who is sick.”

At first, Dieufoit’s brother, Aslain Jean Pierre, took care of the children while Joselaine was in the hospital. When he moved to Michigan in August 2017, the children were sent to live with the brothers’ aunt, Benita Jean Pierre in Florida.

In August 2017, three months after lapsing into a coma, Joselaine awoke. But she was disoriented and didn’t even recognize her husband for weeks. She was transferred back and forth to Hartford Hospital from time to time and talk of amputations started.

The doctors wanted to remove her breasts, but Dieufoit said no. They recommended her legs be amputated above the knees, but again Dieufoit objected. She seemed to have no life in her forearms and hands, and doctors wanted to amputate her lower arms. The family resisted.

In December 2017, her lower legs were amputated below the knees. Her eight fingers were amputated at her knuckles in March 2018. Her condition improved enough that removing her breasts became unnecessary.

Dieufoit had to return to Haiti as Joselaine slowly recovered, working with Hanger Prosthetics of New London and Backus physical therapists on a pair of lower legs. She learned to walk, grasping the walker with her palms and thumbs. She could make it to the hospital elevator to go up to the third floor for dialysis treatment — sepsis also damaged her kidneys — three times a week.

She has mastered “a small flight of stairs,” her care manager Jessica Rivera said, and has been working with prosthetic specialist Sean Perkins of Groton, who is creating sets of prosthetic fingers for her.

Joselaine has become a fixture among the Backus staff on the second-floor wing, where she has lived for the past several months. “We love our little lady,” patient care technician Liz Turley said. Joselaine called Turley her favorite, but Turley teased that she says that about all her caregivers.

“Look at you!” Turley said one afternoon as Joselaine walked steadily down the hall for exercise. Others greeted her, and she smiled and greeted them in return.

Turley is helping Joselaine with her English, and Joselaine is teaching Turley a bit of French Creole.

“I’m honored to be part of her life,” Turley said.

Throughout Joselaine’s hospital stay, from the time she was in intensive care through the multiple surgeries to the daily care, physical therapy and kidney dialysis, the Jean Pierre family has not seen a medical bill from the hospital.

Dr. Rocco Orlando, medical director at Hartford Healthcare, said the hospital will never refuse treatment for a patient, even if “the economic impact is profound.”

All of Hartford Healthcare facilities, including the William W. Backus Hospital, are “safety net hospitals,” Orlando said. “If you show up, we’re going to take care of you.”

He did not have specifics on the cost for Joselaine’s care but said “it’s substantial, it’s a seven-figure number.”

Joselaine’s care is being funded through the hospital’s uncompensated care fund, paid for through hospital revenues in general. He said many immigrants, who do not qualify for government medical services, fall into that category if they come to the hospital.

Shawn Mawhiney, spokesman for Hartford Healthcare, said last fiscal year, Backus Hospital provided, 30 million was for unreimbursed care.

“I can’t say enough about Backus,” said Norwich Human Services Director Lee Ann Gomes. “They have done this all along.”

Dieufoit obtained a tourist visa and returned to Norwich in December 2018. His aunt came to Norwich, too, and brought Kensley home from Florida. He enrolled in kindergarten at Veterans’ Memorial School in Norwich. Now 14, their daughter, Dina returned to Florida with her great-aunt.

Dieufoit’s visa expires in September, when he will have to return to Haiti, unless his visa can be extended or he is granted permission to stay in the United States through another avenue.

Kensley, who was born in Florida and is an American citizen, said last week that he, too, has been praying for his mother. Sister Yannick said Kensley at first was very upset. He said he couldn’t eat because his mother was so sick. “I know God will help her,” Sister Yannick recalled him saying.

Kensley said he couldn’t remember his first reaction to seeing his mother when she was really sick nearly two years ago. But when his father asked him one afternoon to show how he prays for her, Kensley turned around in his chair in his mother’s room, got on his knees, squeezed his eyes shut and clasped his hands together tightly.

“Thank you, God. You help us to go to sleep and to go to school,” Kensley said.

Now, the urgency for the family has shifted to the greater community around them. Joselaine soon will be recovered enough to leave the hospital nearly two years after going into a coma. But hospital officials, Gomes and her care manager, Rivera, said they can’t let her leave without a good home and a solid support system in the community — especially if Dieufoit has to return to Haiti in September.

“I’m trying to make sure she’s as independent as she can be,” Rivera said.

Since Dieufoit is here on a tourist visa, he cannot work. He volunteers doing chores at his church, St. Mary’s Church in Greeneville, which in turn is helping to coordinate support for the family.

Joselaine does not qualify for either public housing or fuel assistance programs, Gomes said. Joselaine was featured in The Day’s annual “Make a Difference” appeal for families in need back in December 2017. That brief outline of her medical condition and family needs at the time raised 600 remains in the account.

Gomes met recently with the Norwich Area Clergy Association, and members there promised to bring the family’s situation back to their individual churches for possible donations or fundraisers.

A regional immigrant advocacy group, Emma Lazarus Society — named for the author of the script on the Statue of Liberty — has agreed to focus on the Jean Pierre family to ensure that when Joselaine finally is discharged from Backus, she will come home to a secured apartment with a long-range support network. Member Laura Gray of Old Saybrook suggested reaching out to other civic activist groups throughout the region for assistance, as well.

A Greeneville landlord who learned of their needs offered a first-floor apartment for reasonable rent on Roath Street. The entrance has four steps onto a deck. Dieufoitand Kensley moved from a cramped room they shared in another apartment into their new home Friday, Feb. 22, with donated twin beds, a refrigerator, stove and a couple of chairs.

On Monday, Feb. 25, the furnace malfunctioned. Dieufoit and Kensley used space heaters to keep their bedroom warm, while Father Bob Washabaugh of St. Mary’s Church worked on the problem.

“I thought the worst we were going to do tonight was figure out how to hang up curtains and maybe get a TV for Kensley to watch,” Washabaugh said at a Emma Lazarus Society that Monday night. “But this is much bigger.”

Washabaugh contacted a plumber who has done work for the church, and the race to replace the furnace was on. The landlord, who asked not to be identified, couldn’t pay up front for the job. The contractor offered a reduced price, and the supporters at St. Mary’s Church scraped together the money to pay for the furnace. The landlord will repay the loan in installments, Washabaugh said.

The plumber noticed the lack of furnishings in the apartment and offered to donate furniture and toys for Kensley, as well, Washabaugh said.

Kensley on Wednesday seemed oblivious to the cold apartment and sparse furnishings, proudly announcing he loved his new home. But he had even better news, when he sprinted up the steps after school and greeted Sister Yannick, who was visiting with Emma Lazarus Society member Alex Matthiessen of Ivoryton.

“I did good in school! Really good!” he told Sister Yannick. He showed her the box of crayons and colored pencils he won for his “good manners” and good behavior, he said. He also announced that his teacher was teaching him how to count.

Matthiessen came to deliver something for Kensley. She brought the small TV with a built-in VCR her children had enjoyed many years ago and a box full of children’s movies and programs. Kensley excitedly pulled “Toy Story II” out of the box.

“That was my kids’ favorite, too,” Matthiessen said and showed him how to insert the tape and work the play, stop, rewind and power buttons. The tutorial didn’t take long, as he pointed to the correct buttons as she reviewed the lesson before leaving, the movie starting to play.

Gomes said Norwich Human Services can serve as the recipient of funds for the Jean Pierre family, since the city is a secure, audited entity. Gomes said there is no timetable yet for Joselaine’s release from the hospital.

The support group first needs to create an itemized budget of financial and support needs for the family — rent, utilities, food, clothing, household goods, laundry money, a prepaid cellphone and incidentals. Gomes also will itemize commitments from various groups pledging to help, including how much money or what in-kind services each church, civic group or individual has offered.

“If it was easy, it would have been done already,” Gomes said. “I don’t want to take her out of the hospital prematurely.”

Gomes hopes to secure at least one year’s worth of funds and support before Joselaine is released from the hospital.

Washabaugh said the St. Mary’s Church parish, which includes many Haitians and other immigrants, already is getting excited about an upcoming fundraiser.

“There is a lot of immigrants helping immigrants here, across lines of language and culture,” Washabaugh said. “Also, the Haitian community at St. Mary’s is taking a good supportive role across church membership lines. They’ve embraced enthusiastically the idea of a fundraising supper on March 31.”

Advocates hope a date will be set soon for Joselaine’s homecoming.

“Every time I go see her,” Sister Yannick said, “she says, ‘Please get me out.’”

Joselaine Jean Pierre suffered a sudden onslaught of sepsis that ravaged her body, left her in a coma for three months and required amputation of her lower legs and fingers.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she’s not alone. About 1.7 million adults in America develop sepsis each year, and one in three patients who die in hospitals have sepsis.

“Sepsis is an overwhelming response by the body to an infection, which causes a cascade of events which affect your organs and immune system,” said Dr. William Horgan, regional medical director for quality and safety at Hartford Healthcare.

Horgan said several factors can put a person at higher risk, including chronic conditions such as cancer, hypertension, diabetes and any number of untreated chronic illnesses. A person suffering from severe pneumonia also can develop sepsis, he said. But the origin can remain a mystery, too.

The CDC lists signs and symptoms including fever, shivering, confusion, disorientation, shortness of breath, extreme pain and clammy or sweaty skin.

“A simple infection that can be treated with antibiotics can turn into sepsis within 24 to 48 hours,” Horgan said. The key to successful treatment is early detection, he said, likening the situation to that of a person suffering a stroke or heart attack.

“Recognize the symptoms immediately and get help,” he said. “Fluids and antibiotics. Early administration of antibiotics appears to be the one true measure that can have a major outcome as long as early detection is there.”

c.bessette@theday.com