By Lindsey Tanner
ABOVE PHOTO: In this photo taken June 22, 2010, Bazelais Suy, right, Dr. Dan Ivankovich and registered nurse Rosite Merentie discuss plans to send Suy home from Glencrest Nursing & Rehabilitation Centre in Chicago. Suy is a Haitian student activist whose spine was crushed when a university building collapsed in Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake last January. He was airlifted to Chicago for six months of intensive rehabilitation and recently returned to Haiti with hopes of helping rebuild the country.
(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
Half-buried in rubble, Bazelais Suy struggled to breathe , a dead woman lay on his chest. He knew he had to get her off, fast. Because he could still move his arms, he somehow managed to remove his belt, loop it around the woman’s own belt and drag her off. But his legs were still pinned.
In the ruins of a flattened, five-story university building, he was surrounded by survivors and corpses , students crushed in Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake.
Suy, leader of an activist group working to help Haiti’s youth lift their homeland out of poverty, was climbing the stairs to a fifth-floor classroom when the building at the University of Port-Au-Prince began to shake. In seconds, the structure collapsed, and the 28-year-old Suy tumbled four floors below.
He landed flat on his back on the ground, half-buried in broken concrete. The impact crushed his spine.
Suy lay dazed on his back in a small, dark hole. For hours, he heard the cries of people who had been buried alive, and he feared an aftershock would silence them all.
“I thought, ‘I don’t want to die,”’ he said. “I told them not to be scared.”
Suy did not die. Instead, he embarked on a nearly 2,000-mile that would restore his health and allow him to return, a half-year later, to the ground that almost killed him.
Suy’s odyssey reads like a cliched Hollywood movie, but it’s a real-life drama, starring a serious and charismatic young Haitian who owes his life to strangers from Chicago, now friends. They transported him to another world for six months of intense treatment, free of charge, while his country, too, tried to heal.
Suy was given little chance of ever walking again, but Haiti without legs is unimaginable, the able-bodied have a hard enough time getting by. Disability there is a stigma, a source of shame.
Stubborn and determined, Suy set his mind to beating the odds.
In the dark, Suy (Soo-‘EE) drifted in and out of consciousness. He does not remember being pulled out and placed among bodies on the sidewalk.
Friends arrived and lifted Suy into a car, heading down bumpy streets, first to a public plaza several miles away where victims were being taken. His family found him there on the ground and took him to a hospital where conditions were filthy and the only treatment consisted of occasional painkillers. Eventually he was moved to a tent clinic outside Sacre Coeur Hospital in Port-au-Prince.
A doctor from an aid group asked Dr. Dan Ivankovich, a spinal specialist from Chicago, to check on Suy.
Ivankovich was incredulous. Under normal circumstances, patients with spinal-cord injuries would be immediately strapped to a backboard to immobilize the spine and avoid additional nerve damage. Most would then go straight to surgery.
Suy’s rescuers had no choice but to move him, probably making the injury worse, Ivankovich said.
And 10 days had passed since the quake.
“I said, ‘Are you out of your mind?”’ Ivankovich recalled.
Ivankovich, an irreverent, 7-foot-tall surgeon used to treating poor patients from the inner city, had just arrived in Haiti with a medical team. Like his idol, Johnny Cash, the doctor wears black , from his leather cowboy hat and boots to gaudy onyx rings and black diamond ear studs.
It’s an honor, he says, to help the downtrodden. And he shares that passion with his young patient.
Suy was born poor in southern Haiti and sent as a boy to live with an aunt in Port-au-Prince and attend school. He was one of the lucky ones. More than half the population lived in poverty even before the quake left more than 1 million homeless. About 40 percent of Haitian adults are illiterate, and almost half of Haitian children don’t attend school.
Deeply religious, Suy loves his country but hates its poverty. A few years ago, he formed an advocacy group named GRRANOH, a French acronym meaning roughly “group for ideas, research and action for redirecting Haiti.” Its volunteers have tutored orphans, fed the homeless, visited hospital patients and raised awareness about Haiti’s needs.
“He doesn’t have much but with the little he has, he wants to help people,” said his girlfriend, Jeanna Volcy.
In the chaos of post-quake Haiti, Ivankovich was equipped to handle amputations and fractures, not spinal cord injuries. Nor was the damaged hospital in any position to host spinal surgery. Suy, meanwhile, had pressure sores on his back from lying prone for more than a week, and the risk of infection was grave.
When Ivankovich mentioned he would be going back to Chicago, the frightened young man pleaded with him.
“Take me with you,” he cried, in halting English.
The doctor in black could not turn away. Ivankovich worked with U.S. authorities to help secure a humanitarian visa. Sixteen days after the quake, he flew to Chicago in an air ambulance. It was Suy’s first trip out of Haiti.
In a three-hour operation, surgeons at Northwestern Memorial Hospital stabilized Suy’s broken bones with titanium rods and screws. Their aim was to remove pressure on the spinal cord and prevent additional nerve damage, while allowing the surrounding bones to heal.
Afterward, Suy was still unable to move his legs. He had little sensation below his waist, except for patchy feeling in his thighs.
Ivankovich told him: “My friend, you’re paralyzed. You’re going to be in a wheelchair and this is just what you need to accept.”
Suy had other ideas.
He was moved to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, one of the nation’s best-known hospitals for brain and spinal cord injuries. Humanitarian funds at Northwestern and the hospital paid for the treatment, which would normally have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The 18-story center stands in Chicago’s glittery Gold Coast neighborhood, lined with swank shops, posh hotels and gleaming skyscrapers. Suy, who was used to tropical heat, arrived in the dead of Chicago’s bitter-cold winter. The buildings were gigantic, the language strange, his broken body seemed foreign, it all felt like another universe.
“He looked like he had seen a ghost. He seemed pretty shell-shocked,” recalls Kate Silverman, a French-speaking rehab therapist who worked with him.
Suy was haunted by terrifying flashbacks from the earthquake. He wouldn’t eat strange-tasting American food, and couldn’t sleep because the U.S-sized hospital room seemed huge. A room that big in Haiti would house at least five people.
But Suy listened when Silverman said he needed to eat to get strong. And gradually, he did.
Rehab therapists doted on the handsome foreign student and put him through months of rigorous, painful workouts to rebuild his body. His daily routine became several hours of physical therapy, leg lifts from his wheelchair, tossing a big rubber ball, scooting down parallel bars on his arms. The hope was that some neurological function would return.
“It’s OK if it’s hard,” a therapist told him.
“It’s not hard,” Suy insisted.
One day in March during a visit from Ivankovich, Suy lifted a leg up off his bed. The doctor was stunned.
“It was miraculous. It was the kind of recovery that we couldn’t even have fantasized about,” Ivankovich said.
Suy was soon ready to try using a walker. His thighs had regained more feeling and become strong enough to help support his weight. But lifting his feet to step forward required concentration. Even moving awkwardly down the 100-foot hospital corridor was a struggle. The plastic braces on his ankles hurt.
“When I see myself right now, and I think about how I used to be, I cry sometimes,” he confessed.
Even when his therapy sessions ended, Suy worked out alone in his room, doing leg lifts to speed the healing. “You should never be discouraged in life,” he said. “I know the day will come when I can do what I want.”
As spring arrived, Suy went outside in a wheelchair.
Port-au-Prince’s narrow sidewalks are covered with merchants’ wares , piles of T-shirts, shoes, pots and pans, and blue jeans , and now, rubble. It’s an impossible obstacle course for someone in a wheelchair. Suy’s dark eyes shone as he talked about the broad American sidewalks, imagining building them in Haiti someday.
He lit up, too, whenever Ivankovich visited. “My angel,” Suy called him.
“Angels don’t come this big and don’t wear black,” Ivankovich joked.
Knowing the street conditions in Haiti, Suy’s therapists created an obstacle course in the corridor, with rubber bumpers on the floor to simulate earthquake rubble. Suy struggled to lift the walker and his wobbly legs over the humps. But he wanted to try, again and again.
By April, he circled the entire seventh floor, even though his steps were unsteady and sweat dripped down his nose.
All the while, Suy spoke by phone or a donated computer with family and friends, but he did not always ask about Haiti. He feared the answers.
By May, Suy was ready for another test. He used to cook for his family, so he asked to make Haitian rice in the hospital kitchen, which is set up to help disabled patients relearn usual skills.
A walk to a grocery store less than two blocks away took almost half an hour, as Suy slowly maneuvered his walker over sidewalks and curbs. But he seemed happy to be out in the fresh air. Lake Michigan glistened in the distance, and a construction worker yelled, “Good work. Keep it up!”
Silverman fretted about the ethics of returning disabled patients to an ailing country. It was a topic of debate among the doctors and therapists.
“We wouldn’t send somebody home to live in the street” if they couldn’t live independently, Silverman said.
By June, Suy could walk with crutches or two canes , haltingly, and not very far, but he had surpassed anyone’s expectations.
Suy’s story continues in next week’s issue of the SUN.