Transforming Young Lives
By Christa Michaud
Christa is the Development Manager at Project Medishare. She regularly travels to Haiti to capture the stories of the people who benefit from your generous donations. Here, she recounts the story of a patient she recently met at Hospital Bernard Mevs.
It’s a Monday morning in late March. I’ve arrived in Haiti from Miami to learn about some of the people Project Medishare helps through our programs in Port-au-Prince and the Central Plateau. As I make my way from the airport to Hospital Bernard Mevs (HBM), I begin to mentally prepare myself for the day ahead. Over the seven years I’ve worked in international development, I’ve witnessed many heartbreaking situations. It never gets easier, but I’ve learned to keep my emotions in check – at least in public. I often find myself fighting back tears when visiting HBM. No matter how hard I’d try, this day would turn out to be no different.
After a cup of coffee and brief conversation with first-time volunteers from Chicago, I set off in search of Dr. Henri Ford, a Project Medishare board member and Chief of Surgery at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. As he often does, Dr. Ford brought a team of doctors and nurses with him to Haiti to perform life-changing surgeries for children.
I find Dr. Ford in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit huddled with doctors and pediatric residents. They’re discussing the case of a patient he’ll operate on within the next hour. “Follow me. I want to show you something,” he says as he wraps up his patient consult. As we make our way to the administrative building, he begins to tell me about a patient his team operated on last year. She was back at the hospital for follow-up plastic surgery later that day.
“Alexandra you’re here. Are you ready?” Dr. Ford asks as we pass a young woman in the waiting room. With a brief look at Alexandra, it’s not immediately apparent to me what she’s having done or what she had done in the past.
Once inside an office, Dr. Ford invites his colleague Dr. Jeff Hammoudeh, an oral/maxillofacial and plastic surgeon at CHLA, to tell me more about Alexandra’s case. In November, Dr. Hammoudeh removed a large mass from her face. Known as myxoma, the aggressive, non-cancerous tumor started forming in Alexandra’s jaw. As it grew, Dr. Hammoudeh explained that it essentially consumed her face, causing the mass to push against her eye. Though rare, he’s seen plenty of patients with myxoma throughout his career. In the U.S. and other developed countries, it’s usually diagnosed and treated early. But this is Haiti, where access to healthcare is limited, and people like Alexandra go years without receiving the critical medical care they need. In Alexandra’s case, the tumor became so large that she was unable to eat, drink or enjoy activities outside of her home.
“She was really skinny when we first saw her,” Dr. Hammoudeh recalls. “She’s eating and drinking again and has put on some weight. She looks great.”
To better put in perspective Alexandra’s transformation, Dr. Ford searches through his phone to show me a picture of her before November’s surgery. The tumor covered half of her face, distorting the shape of her nose and leaving only the left side of her face visible. I was stunned into silence. I could not believe the girl in the photo was the same one I saw in the waiting room just minutes earlier. I didn’t understand how it was possible.
Seeing my disbelief and confusion, Dr. Hammoudeh explained that after removing the tumor, he replaced Alexandra’s cheekbone with skull bone to reconstruct her face. Later that afternoon, he planned to do a fat transfer to fill in the sunken area under her eye, and take a mold of her mouth to have new teeth fabricated.
“This is what it’s all about,” Dr. Hammoudeh replied when I asked him why he travels to countries like Haiti to perform surgeries for children in need. “I’ve been doing [it] for 7 or 8 years now. It’s something I’m really passionate about.”
I return to the waiting room to talk to Alexandra; I’m anxious to hear her side of the story. Her mother, Emme Rose, is sitting by her side. I ask Alexandra if I can ask her a few questions. She hesitantly responds yes, but her he mom is much more eager to talk.
Emme Rose is a mother of six children. The family is from Les Cayes in the South, but has been temporarily living in Port-au-Prince to be closer to HBM for Alexandra’s surgeries and recovery.
Emme Rose began to notice a change in her daughter seven years ago. When the tumor began to grow on Alexandra’s face, she didn’t know what to do. The larger the tumor grew, the more hopeless she became. As a mother, she wanted to ease her daughter’s suffering but she felt helpless. Emme Rose became sick herself, making it even more difficult to care for her daughter. She laid Alexandra in the bed, made her as comfortable as possible, and waited for her to die. “It was the only thing I could do,” she said.
As Emme Rose continues to talk, Alexandra becomes increasingly uncomfortable. I’m not going to stop talking,” Emme Rose says after Alexandra expresses her embarrassment. “Everyone needs to hear this story. I’m not ashamed. It’s a miracle.”
After taking a few photos, I decide to give Alexandra some space. About an hour later, I see her sitting alone in the pediatric ward. I don’t want to make her uncomfortable again; I simply smile and say hello. I’m relieved when she smiles back. She seems more relaxed than earlier, so I decide to ask her how she’s feeling. She quickly replies yes and then asks if Dr. Ford and I are siblings – a question that was clearly at the forefront of her mind since earlier that day. (We are not.) We make a bit more small talk before I wish her good luck and say goodbye. “I like you,” she says as I turned to leave. “I like you too,” I respond.
As I walk out of the pediatric ward, I can feel the tears begin to well in my eyes. Behind her shy, quiet nature, is a vibrant, hopeful young woman with an opportunity to live a full, healthy life – something that was impossible five months ago. Alexandra’s story is truly a miracle, and like her mother, I believe it’s one that deserves to be told. Since that day, I’ve been sharing her Alexandra’s story with anyone who will listen.