Open Hearts, Open Homes

Sometimes the most basic ideas are not in our heads until someone plants them there.

Obviously many children were injured in the earthquake in Haiti. Obviously, there are certain injuries that can not be properly treated in Haiti and need the medical expertise or facilities that only the US can provide. Those two concepts I could grasp on my own but the details were eluding me.

Photo from Sondra Daroshefski's Family Album

If a child is lucky enough to receive medical treatment here in the States, it is very unlikely their parents will be able to travel with them. After the surgery, what is going to happen to them while they are recovering and going to follow up visits with doctors, physical therapy etc?

It makes complete sense once the obvious is pointed out to me - families host these children. Generous and kind people open their hearts and homes to sick and injured Haitian children so they can have a second chance at a new life.

You could do this! There are strict requirements and costs associated but a few months of your life could change an entire life of a child.

Too much you say? Not something you can commit to time wise or financially? It turns out you can still help. You can be a Respite Family which means you can help for an afternoon, an overnight or a weekend. Can't we all do that?

I learned about this vital link in the chain of care for Haitian children from Sondra Daroshefski a nurse in Roanoke VIrginia. She was kind enough to share her life with me and the life of Oyis, the remarkable Haitian boy she hosts.

Interview with Sondra Daroshefski:

What you have done in my eyes makes you a "Superhero" but the amazing part is you are an average wife, mother and nurse any American can relate to. Tell me a little bit about your background.

I'm a 45 yr old wife and mother of 3, now 4 children including Oyis. I work in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at a Children's Hospital in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains as a Nurse. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan in a "Global Neighborhood". I went to an elementary school with kids from around the world because many of their parents had come to attend The University of Michigan. I also lived briefly in Texas and Buffalo, New York.

I should also probably mention I had a lot of making up to do educationally. I was a high school drop out & obtained a GED when I turned 21. I went to Nursing School when my youngest child went to pre-school.

As a nurse and being familiar with trauma, what were your thoughts when the earthquake hit in Haiti? Where you immediately inspired to do something?

When the earthquake happened I had just had surgery 5 days earlier and was scheduled be out of work for 6 weeks recovering. I felt helpless; I was an able bodied nurse who was on bed rest. I quickly called the toll-free number for the Red Cross and gave as much as we could afford, which I had to carefully consider since I was receiving only a portion of my usual pay while on leave. 

I knew the statistics: Haiti was the most impoverished nation in the western hemisphere. More than 50% of the country's population is under 18 - that means CHILDREN! I work in a children's hospital. I work in an ICU. We save children's lives! I kept hearing the call for Nurses: Surgical Nurses, Orthopedic Nurses, Nurse Anesthetists...etc but nowhere did I hear them calling for Pediatric Nurses.

Is that when you were decided to do something?

Yes, my frustration was growing, slowly, silently just under the surface. I reached my boiling point one day and ranted on Facebook. I immediately got a message from a friend of mine, another RN who works in the newborn nursery at my hospital. She wrote, "If you really feel like you said, there is a doctor in town who is planning a medical mission trip to Port Au Prince, Haiti in February." I called her right away to find out more. She asked if I had a passport, and gave me the phone number for the doctor. She said if I really wanted to go, I should call him at that exact moment, as the number of people going was limited.

I think I was in shock at that point. My mind was reeling with a flurry of thoughts emotions and questions. What would my husband say? How would we manage our family/responsibilities? Would my doctor say it was ok to go? I still wasn't fully recovered. Worse, would I be fired if I went to Haiti while I was out on surgical leave? How much would it cost? Where would we get the money?

I picked up the phone and called. The doctor answered and informed me I would be the last person on the team! He took down my information and said he would call me later that evening. I decided to start the phone calls with my own Doctor (yes, I called him before my Husband!) and if he said I could go, I would deal with the rest one by one. I left a message on my Doctor's line with my questions & concerns. Less than an hour later, I was told it wouldn't be a problem. My husband was next.

I am pretty sure at this point you weren't thinking, "I'll go to Haiti AND then host a Haitian boy in my home for as long as is necessary..."

I didn't know what to expect but it certainly wasn't in the plan. I met Oyis when we arrived in Haiti. Our contact advised she was going to get 3 patients from the USNS Comfort.  The first day we met our patients was a whirlwind. There was Easia, an infant with an unknown neurological problem, Christopher, a 5 month old with hydocephaly and Oyis, an 9 yr old who sustained a broken leg and a head injury. We received a little bit of printed information from their charts on the ship, meds, diet etc. and that was it - we went right into the frying pan.

When did you first know that Oyis was going to become part of your family?

After several days of caring for our patients we were visited by Momma V (Vanessa Carpenter, Director of Angel Mission Haiti). She discussed the realities that lay ahead for our patients if they remained in Haiti and discussed getting them to the States for surgeries/treatment. When I asked Momma V where would they go for that, she explained she already had a plan in the works to bring Oyis to Roanoke. I looked at her and asked, "Where will he stay? With you?" She chuckled a little, mentioning how many children she has already (she has fostered over 150 children), and then asked, "Would YOU want to take care of him?" Without a moments hesitation, the word "Yes" came out of my mouth.

She chuckled again and asked what would my husband & kids think. I told her, "to leave them to me."

So once the decision was made, what was the reality of making it happen?

It took several months to make it all happen. There was paperwork for me and a lot of stress for Momma V. It also couldn't have been done without a very determined Bostonian RN living in Haiti who kicked a few butts while taking names, spoke Creole, and got a Haitian Immigration Official involved in order to finally make it happen. Oh, and, we remodeled 3 bedrooms in 3 weekss in our home so that Oyis' bedroom would be near mine and close to the bathroom since he was wheelchair bound.

How is Oyis doing?

Oyis is making remarkable progress. He had a bilateral skull fracture as well as the broken femur. We were told he was a normal Haitian boy before the earthquake. He has had surgery to remove the fixator, but needs extensive physical therapy to build the leg back up. He has cranial nerve damage, and he says he has "a crooked face." He has a nerve palsy, resulting in some drooping of his face and a speech impediment so he also receives speech therapy.

Daily life has drastically changed for him. He had lived in Haiti with his oldest sister, since his mother had died several years before the earthquake. He has five siblings. I don't know if they all live together still but I think so. They visited Oyis several times while he was in our care in Haiti.

Our daily life now is busy with appointments, as well as "disguised therapy" - swimming, bike riding, playing soccer etc. Initially, he wasn't used to riding in a car and he didn't want to wear a seat belt. Now, since the pins/rods are out of his thigh and he doesn't meet the weight requirement he has to ride in a high back booster (a car seat! and he does not like it!) Also, he has to pee all the time. At first we thought he liked flushing the toilet and running the water for hand washing. Now we think he isn't used to being so well hydrated and every time he feels any urge to urinate... Yikes! We spent a lot of time in the bathroom.

How has this effected you and your family?

Most of our family and friends have been extremely supportive. (Our neighbors recently put their house up for sale, but I don't think the two are related!) I am more involved and tweet for Haiti trying to keep it in people's minds. As Americans, we have a short attention span. I've meet a lot of people who express a desire to go and help and have developed a network of people who live/help in Haiti. I try to match people up with people who can help them reach their goals.

I work closely with Angel Missions Haiti which hosts medical teams as well as helps find host families for children coming to the States for treatment.

The hardest thing so far has been the language barrier. Oyis didn't speak ANY English when he got here, and I only knew a little Creole from my 10 days there. 
My husband says most people are supportive or have positive comments. He did mention he gets horrible looks from white men, and that his trip to the black barbershop was a bit uncomfortable. You would think we would move past this.

We had a roller-coaster of emotions while waiting for Oyis to arrive; he's coming...he's not coming. Once. I was already on route to the Greensboro, NC airport and got a call and was told Oyis didn't get out of Haiti after all. The whole family was stressed. My son told me he wanted to close the door to Oyis' bedroom, because he was tired of looking at his empty bed every morning.

Knowing he is here and safe with us finally has made all the daily struggles seem so small and insignificant.

If you think you would like to host a Haitian child either long term or short term or would like to help in some way with this chain of caring, please visit the hosting page of Angel Mission Haiti.

If would like to read more about Sondra and Oyis, their local paper recently did a feature on them including video and new photos that you can read here: