Bernard Mevs: A hospital saves Haiti

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Suddenly a dozen men emerge from the shadows of a nearby tent city, machine guns drawn.

"Freeze!" one yells. But Jean-Uber has been robbed before, and with three children, he can't afford to lose another 1,500 gourdes: roughly $50, or a week of his pay as a delivery driver. He slams on the brakes and shifts the truck into reverse. The bandits are all around him. They open fire but miss. Jean-Uber switches back into drive and guns the engine toward the roadblock. 

Just as the truck plows through the debris and away from the ambush, a single bullet pierces the cab door and ricochets into his side. 

His legs go numb. Jean-Uber feels the warmth leak out of his body, but he keeps driving. Finally, the truck shudders to a halt on the side of the road, inches from a family's blue tent. 

A passenger, Achile Ronald, leaps from the truck bed. A powerfully built man with a shaved head and mustache, Ronald pulls Jean-Uber from the front and lays him in the vehicle's rear. He slides into the bloody front seat and parks the still-idling truck, then calls his cousin, Jean-Uber's wife, for help. Soon, the wounded man is loaded into a police car and delivered to Bernard Mevs.

The cruiser arrives around midnight. Pugmire meets it at the gate and helps pull an unconscious Jean-Uber from the back seat. Blood splashes onto the street. Medishare doctors slice into his chest and then his side, looking for the bullet. Finally, they take him to a double-wide trailer parked in the hospital lot. A motorized platform lifts him and his doctors inside the only public CT scanner in Haiti. Within minutes, the machine renders an image of Jean-Uber's chest: The bullet has lodged in the exact middle of his spine. 

"He's a para," or paraplegic, Pugmire says. Jean-Uber will probably never walk again. 

His story ends better than Natanael Louissant's. Like many of his countrymen, he is locked in limbo, waiting for a miracle.

"My kids are so young," he says, shortly after waking up in the intensive care unit. "If I can't drive, how can I take care of my kids?"

A tube runs up his nose. Another exits his groin and empties into a clear plastic bag. After a few moments, an unfamiliar short, muscular man appears next to bed number four. "My name is Wilfrid Macena," the stranger says. "I work here, but I am an amputee." 

As machines hiss and beep around them, Wilfrid tells Jean-Uber about his horrific injury and his recovery. "This is your life," he says. "You are not dead. You are alive. God willing, you will walk again one day." 

A nurse comes to clean Jean-Uber. Wilfrid steps away from the truck driver's bed, then he leans in again. "I will be back," he says. 

As Wilfrid leaves the ICU, Jean-Uber sits up on his elbow and watches him go, one foot after the other.

Thok. Thok. Thok. The hollow plastic thud echoes over the small courtyard of Bernard Mevs on a quiet Sunday morning. Patients in wheelchairs and visiting family members look up to locate the unnatural sound: perhaps the first time it's ever been heard in Haiti.

Thok! Thok! Thok! Something flies by in a blur of white T-shirt, dark skin, and metal joints.

"Into the pits!" yells a fierce-looking white man in a military cap and Ray-Bans. He waves his arms like a NASCAR crewman. "Into the pits!"

The blur comes to a stop and into focus: Wilfrid Macena, once a cripple, has been sprinting — fast. Sweat pours from his closely shaved head and down his face. His powerful thighs peek from beneath black shorts. But where his leg once was there is a futuristic carbon-graphite running apparatus shaped like an upside-down question mark and worth $50,000. Wilfrid is likely the first person in Haiti to wear one.

Adam Finnieston, the Ray-Ban-wearing Miami orthotist, examines Wilfrid's new leg. With a wrench, he adjusts the metal knee joint. Then he asks Wilfrid to try again. The young Haitian sprints into the distance, his plastic foot again scraping the pavement. Finnieston still isn't satisfied.

"He's swinging his leg side-to-side too much," Finnieston scowls. A thunk like that of a mortar being fired sounds when Wilfrid pops the artificial limb off his thigh and hands it to Finnieston, who adjusts it again.

Wilfrid has come a mighty distance since arriving at Project Medishare's field hospital nearly 14 months prior. Finnieston gave him his first artificial leg: a much cruder prosthetic that initially hurt his still-healing stump. Within half an hour, however, Wilfrid began nudging a soccer ball with his prosthetic and smiling. Doctors were stunned. 

"It's just not normal," remembers physical therapist Jason Miller, a powerfully built but gentle-voiced Texan. "When most Haitians learn that they are going to lose their leg, they say that their life is over. But Wilfrid didn't even want to cover his [prosthetic] leg." 

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.

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