An American Dream Expires

A little boy arrived from Saint Lucia to have a dangerous tumor removed. The tumor is gone, but so is his home and his ability to move.

On his sixth birthday this past September, Jamie Maitre was surrounded by a handful of strangers. Two adolescent girls and a rambunctious toddler played with balloons, petted a squirmy Chihuahua, and chased a long-haired cat. Grownups took turns sitting next to Jamie, and Naomi Maitre never left her son's side.

A video of Walt Disney's Aladdin played on the television. But Jamie mainly watched the kids, smiling at the fun in a devilish way. There was a sky-blue cake with white ruffles of icing, and everyone sang "Happy Birthday." With help Jamie blew out the candles. He closed his eyes and made a wish. "Oh I know what you wished for," Millie Solla de Villa, a Human Rights Advocacy Committee volunteer, exclaimed, perhaps a bit too cheerily. Jamie's birthday wish was probably that he would walk again. Instead he mostly got stuffed, plush bears.

Jamie Maitre and his mother long ago should have returned to their home in Saint Lucia. He should be riding his bike with neighborhood friends on the streets of the capital city of Castries, or climbing his grandmother's trees in the countryside during weekend jaunts with his parents. If all had gone as expected, the only reminder of Jamie's trip to South Florida would be framed press clippings hanging in some pastel-color hallway wall at Miami Children's Hospital, stories chronicling the happy ending for a poor immigrant boy with brain cancer whose life was saved by the sophistication and benevolence of U.S. medicine.

Jamie's new friends gathered to celebrate his sixth birthday in September
photo courtesy George Williams
Jamie's new friends gathered to celebrate his sixth birthday in September

In 1998 a neurosurgeon at Miami Children's removed an orange-size malignant tumor from Jamie's brain. But then the young boy suffered a rare reaction to the postoperative treatments.

Now Jamie remains in South Florida two years after his family scraped together their life savings for the trip to the United States and the operation that would save his life. He is paralyzed from the neck down and spends most of his days in bed. He doesn't go to school and doesn't receive any medical help. His parents have been offered scant assistance in dealing with, and caring for, a child who will be totally dependent on them for the rest of his life.

Jamie and his mother recently moved across the state to Naples to live with relatives. Before that they had been living in Miami on the kindness of others, including Solla de Villa, a newfound friend. Naomi Maitre says there is no future for her son back in Saint Lucia. "People like Jamie are hidden away from society," she explains. "That's not what I want for my son." But the struggle to get the boy U.S. citizenship may make for an unpromising future here as well. Good intentions and medical charity were not enough to produce the miracle Jamie and his mother came seeking. Instead they have exhausted the limits of the system that once helped them and have been left to fend for themselves.

For Maitre it has been a lesson in the limits of philanthropy and the unpredictability of miracles.

Jamie Maitre was born in September 1994, in Castries. Saint Lucia, part of the Lesser Antilles, is north of Venezuela, between Martinique and Saint Vincent. It is a resort hotspot where vacationers are carefully shielded from the relative poverty in which a quarter of the nation's population lives. Most of Saint Lucia's 150,000 inhabitants live along the coast, while farm families, mostly banana growers, live in the island's interior.

Choiseul, the small farming village where Naomi Maitre was born and raised, offered her few ways to make a living. "If you need to work, you have to work in the city, or else you work in the farms, or if you're a woman, in the garment factories," Maitre explains. "And I wasn't about to work in no garment factory." So Maitre headed for Castries, a harbor town where giant cruise ships dock and dump tourists onto the 27-mile-long island.

In the capital city Maitre worked at a preschool and studied to become a teacher. She met Frederick Maitre, a construction worker, and the couple married in 1994. Shortly thereafter Jamie came along. "The boy was growing up good," Naomi Maitre says. But trouble came in July 1998, when he started throwing up regularly. "He would vomit every morning," Maitre recalls. "Every time he ate, he would vomit. If he drank water, he would vomit. I took Jamie to every doctor on the island, and no one could tell me anything." Jamie suffered from severe headaches as well, she recounts.

In September 1998 the 28-year-old mother took her only child back to his pediatrician, Dr. Jacqueline Bird-Compton, and asked if the doctor would conduct a CAT scan of Jamie's head. "That type of technology had just come to Saint Lucia," Maitre says. The pediatrician viewed the test results with uncertainty, however. "The doctor said it looked like Jamie had a tumor, although she wasn't sure," notes Maitre.

Medical care in Saint Lucia is rudimentary. There often are shortages of basic medicines, supplies, and accommodations for patients. There are only 2 general hospitals and 34 health centers on the island, and just 5 doctors for every 10,000 people. If indeed Jamie had a tumor, Maitre says, she and her son would have to leave the country to seek surgery. The tiny nation hardly offered the level of medical sophistication needed to remove a brain tumor. In fact, there was not a single neurosurgeon on the island. Maitre confided her problem to her sister, Sabine Matthews, who lives in Naples. Matthews in turn mentioned the boy's plight to a family friend, Brenda Owusu.

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