How Detroiters stepped up to help save Haitian child’s life

Three weeks. That’s how long he had gone without eating. His water intake had been minimal, small sips, whatever he could keep down, and he couldn’t keep much down.

Something was wrong with Gaelson, a 7-year-old orphan — at least we think he’s 7, as there were no parents or paperwork when he was brought to us. But there was coughing, always coughing, a wet, unsettling cough that shook his small frame violently. In time, fever and vomiting followed, and no appetite, and a dazed look that let us know this was not some cold, not some flu, this was something serious.

More serious than we imagined.

This is a Christmas story of one little boy and a whole line of adults, from Haiti to Detroit, who pitched in to save his life. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t happen all that often in these days of cynicism and self-protection.

Gaelson Augustin is a regal sounding name, fit for a king, but we are not even sure it is real, or who created it. Like many children in Haiti, the second poorest nation on earth, Gaelson’s documents, when we met him, were as absent as whoever brought him into the world. We know that somehow he survived for four or five years near Belle-Anse, a small fishing town by the Caribbean Sea that is poor, even for Haiti, and has no hospital. A woman claiming to be his aunt brought Gaelson to a clinic there. The child was, by reports, frail and ill and terribly malnourished, a near skeleton, and the aunt admitted she hadn’t taken care of him, as she was raising many children of her own.

It would turn out, later, that Gaelson likely never had tuberculosis, which seems crazy, but medical time and resources are limited in Haiti, and assumptions are made and treatments given and people try their best. In good cases children live and in bad cases they die, and this is something anyone who works in Haiti comes to accept.

He was airlifted to a malnutrition clinic in the Port-au-Prince area, looking like a dead child walking, his eyes huge against his bony face, his elbow and knee joints poking out his meager flesh. In time, due to his coughing, he was taken to a tuberculosis clinic, where X-rays showed pulmonary collapse. It was assumed to be tuberculosis, and he spent a year being treated for that disease.

“So there’s this little boy who’s been left behind at a clinic,” Gina Wymore, our assistant director at the Have Faith Haiti Mission, told me one day. “No one ever came back for him. He’s a sweet boy, but he’s just been living there, and they can’t keep him anymore. They’ll turn him over to the government, unless…”

“Unless?” I said.

“They asked if we could take him.”

Which is how Gaelson came to us.

Something is wrong

Six years. That’s how old they said Gaelson was when we got him. A thin, quiet boy with a soft, high-pitched voice, uneven shoulders, and a birthmark near his left eye, he joined 45 other children at the Have Faith Haiti Mission, an orphanage I have operated in Port-au-Prince since shortly after the deadly earthquake of 2010.

Gaelson claps while Manes plays the drums.

And for his first year with us, Gaelson seemed to do OK. He played, often by himself, he sang prayers, he slept through the nights. His cough was constant, and it was scary, bigger than him, as if he’d trapped a beast in his lungs.

“It’s just residual from the TB,” we were told. “He’ll grow out of it.”

But in time it grew worse. Two months ago, he began vomiting, unable to keep food down. He was taken to a doctor, then a hospital, then another hospital. Soon he wasn’t eating at all. He grew even thinner. A chest X-ray was taken, and eventually a CT scan. The results were scary.

Which is when Detroit got involved.

I phoned some doctors I know and sent them the scans. They shared them. And suddenly, in an order I can’t remember, 1) Dr. Lisa Allenspach of Henry Ford, 2) Dr. Richard Keidan of Beaumont and 3) Dr. Rudolph Valentini of Children’s Hospital of Detroit were communicating with 4) Dr. Marie Colette Alcide Jean-Pierre of St. Camille Hospital in Haiti. I am numbering them to show how many people came to the aid of one child.

Four different hospitals. Multiple doctors.

And they were all perplexed.

“It looks like a fistula,” Dr. Keidan said.

“A what?” I replied.

A “fistula” is basically a hole between two organs. The scans suggested that hole was causing a “communication” between Gaelson’s esophagus and lung. Which meant any food and water that went down his throat would end up not in the stomach, but in his pulmonary region.

Which is when Gaelson, by doctor’s orders, had to stop eating and drinking altogether.

Now, in the U.S., in such cases, we would put a feeding tube into the child’s stomach, so he could be nourished and hydrated while a plan of action was created. But there is no place in Haiti that uses a stomach feeding tube, only tubes that go down the throat, which would clearly not work for Gaelson and could, in fact, be deadly.

Days passed. Gaelson was sent to a different hospital, hours away, in hopes of seeing a surgeon who specialized in thoracic work. He was left in a chair overnight because there were no beds, then was put in a hallway because of his cough. He waited five days and never saw the doctor. All this time, no food, minimal water, erratic IV fluids. 

Starving to death was suddenly a real possibility.

Which is when we decided he had to come to America.

Getting his chance

Two days. That’s how long it took a 67 year-old Michigan pilot named 5) Cody Welch to get a plane together for a flight to Port-au-Prince. Welch is a former Northwest Airlines captain who went into private aviation and founded Wings of Mercy East Michigan, a 100 percent volunteer pilot organization that flies medically needy people to get help. They’ve helped thousands, but usually over a 600-mile distance — not 1,700 miles, the distance to Haiti. But the “Mercy” in Wings of Mercy somehow moved Welch’s heart — as well as the owner of the airplane.

“I’ve never flown to Haiti before,” Welch admitted, which was not a problem, he said, until, just as he was about to leave, he discovered a glitch in the flight insurance: it didn’t cover Haiti. It caused a one-day delay. Paperwork in Haiti delayed things further. The U.S. Embassy there, and its amazing ambassador, Michele Sison, worked with us to get Gaelson out as fast as possible, but because he had been at a TB clinic, there was a great deal of red tape and clearance required, even though multiple tests had shown he did not have active TB, nor was it likely that he ever had it.

More days passed. Gaelson could still not eat or drink. More Michigan doctors got involved, like 7) Dr. Dana Kissner and 8) Dr. Eric McGrath, both from Wayne State Medical School and 9) Dr. Basim Asmar from Children’s, all of whom work in the area of Infectious Disease, to assure Gaelson and those around him would be safe.

Finally, with paperwork cleared, Welch and his co-pilot, 10) Jason Morford, flew a small plane to Ft. Lauderdale, stayed overnight, then flew into Port- au-Prince. Gaelson was taken from the Haitian hospital at 4 a.m., weak, thin, unaware of what was happening or where he was going. He was carried into the aircraft by 11) Alain Charles, our Haitian Director at the orphanage and tended to by 12) Myrtha Montas, a registered nurse at Michigan Medical Center who is Haitian by birth and volunteered to fly down and back just to take care of Gaelson, a boy she had never met.

And after nine hours of headwinds, and three stops for fuel, the small plane landed in the cold and dark of a Detroit evening, at City Airport, and an ambulance transported one sick foreign child, who didn’t have a chance, to Children’s Hospital, where he would get one.

Christmas celebration

Two weeks. He would have been dead in two weeks. That’s what doctors estimated once they examined the 43-pound Gaelson Augustin.

Instead, he got amazing care at Children’s. A surgeon named 13) Justin Klein led a team of doctors and staff that inserted a proper feeding tube to nourish and hydrate Gaelson, and a PICC line for the antibiotics and blood draws. They also did a biopsy and scans revealing that the child has had a pulmonary infection for years, probably dating back to his time in Belle-Anse. That infection has eaten half of his right lung. The fistula remains prominent and dangerous. Both must be dealt with through complex surgery in a month or so, once he gets stronger.

Meanwhile, Gaelson has been hugged and kissed and surrounded with stuffed animals and Legos. And after just one day of this, we saw a smile, a shy, beaming smile that is, for a child, the beginning of trust and, for an adult, hope.

Last Monday night, after nearly a week at Children’s, we put Gaelson in a wheelchair, rode down the elevator, lifted him into the back of a car, and took him home, with all the apparatus to feed and medicate him for the coming weeks.

And, although we didn’t plan it, my wife and I will now have a 7 year old for Christmas. When I asked if he knew what the holiday was, Gaelson shrugged no, and when I explained it, he was intrigued, and when I told him he could have a gift from Santa Claus, he asked, very softly, for one toy “machine,” which in Creole means car. One toy car. I think we can handle it.

Six years. Three weeks. Two days. We could easily have been burying this child before the New Year. Instead, he will celebrate it, because more than a dozen people, doctors, teachers, directors and pilots, took time to care for one little soul who wasn’t their own, but still deserved their love. Peace on earth. Good will toward children.

What’s more Christmas than that?

To help other children with medical needs from the Have Faith Haiti Mission, you can donate to The Chika Fund, through havefaithhaiti.org, or contribute via check to “A Hole In The Roof Foundation,” c/o ASOP, 29836 Telegraph Rd., Southfield, MI. 48034.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

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