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Bound for home, healed, heartsick

Four grievously injured Haitian children were flown here for treatment, but on one condition: They would go back. Yesterday was the reunion; the feelings were bittersweet.

By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / May 1, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — They landed on New England soil battered and bruised, some with shattered legs held together by metal pins and rods. They were among the fortunate few to escape the devastation of their homeland, delivered to America to treat their grievous wounds. Now, after 11 weeks of care at Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield, and a flight aboard a plush private jet, four Haitian children severely injured in the January earthquake — the youngest 3, the oldest 13 — are back home, their recovery almost complete.

But the two boys and two girls arrived under the unforgiving midday sun yesterday in a country that is, itself, far from healed. Most of their families, among the 1.3 million people left homeless by the quake, are living in tents or lean-tos cobbled together from wood beams and corrugated metal, shielded by tarps.

That made the return bittersweet. The uncertainty of the children’s future could be seen in the cloudy eyes of the oldest, James Decilus, as he peered out a window of the jet while it descended over the capital city. And it was evident, too, in the conflicted words of their parents, relieved to see them healthy but distressed that the dream of so many Haitians to find refuge in America would not be realized for their children.

“As a dad, you might think that I don’t care because I want him to stay in the United States, but at the same time, if you understand me, that’s the way I express my love to him,’’ said James’s father, Decels Decilus, whose own scalp, sliced open by the quake, was covered with a bandage and white gauze. “He would have a better life. He’s a smart boy.’’

After a quiet reunion aboard the jet, James and his mother rode in a sport utility vehicle to a small en campment established behind a school run by the Salvation Army.

James, his demeanor wary, examined the shack shared by six members of his family, whose house was shattered in the quake. It was smaller than most bedrooms in a Boston apartment.

“I feel unsure,’’ said James, his right cheek bearing a snaking scar, his left lower leg still clad in a plastic brace. He spent three days under rubble at his school.

“I feel happy I’ve seen my mother and father and sisters and brother,’’ James said, before stopping to shake his head. “I think back in America, it’s much better for me. But do I have a choice?’’

James and seven other children, their injuries so serious they faced the possible loss of limbs, were spotted in February by a nurse and a doctor from Western Massachusetts at a hospital on Haiti’s northern coast. They had been ferried there for care, but the hospital could not provide the complex treatment they needed.

Getting them out of Haiti required a passionate doctor, the long-distance interventions of a Wisconsin executive who specializes in getting people out of tight spots, and a call to the office of Haiti’s prime minister.

It was an especially tense moment in the chaotic and confused first few weeks after the calamity. A religious group from Idaho stood accused of attempting to spirit children out of Haiti.

“The Haitian government wanted to make sure we weren’t just taking the kids,’’ said Sasha Gainullin, vice president for operations for MyAssist, a Wisconsin company that arranges emergency travel assistance, among other services. It is a subsidiary of Noel Group, a Stevens Point, Wis., firm that provides travel insurance, concierge, and personal assistance services.

But Gainullin secured permission to fly the children to the United States, and the Shriners Hospital in Springfield promised to tend to their wounds. They had broken bones in their legs, and some had flesh and muscle sheared away by the raw force of the earthquake.

By Thursday afternoon, after multiple surgeries, the four were ready to go home. All appearances in a sun-bathed playroom at the hospital suggested that the children had not just recovered — they were thriving. They were running and jouncing. Peals of laughter caromed off the walls.

Two other children remain at the Springfield hospital, their recovery not complete but their spirits no less ebullient. Two more were taken with burns to the Shriners Hospital in Boston and will remain in the United States while they heal.

“Certainly, it was a harrowing experience what they had gone through, and they had traveled up here without their parents,’’ said Dr. Peter Masso, assistant chief of staff at Shriners. “They were much more reserved than they are now. Now, their personalities have all popped — they’re part of the family here.’’

Their departure early yesterday evoked tears. Luz Garcia-Santa, an interpreter at the hospital, dabbed her eyes as she watched James prepare to leave, sunglasses on his face, a soccer ball cradled under his arm.

“You get so attached to them,’’ Garcia-Santa said. “You’re just afraid of what they’re going back to after being cared for so well here. Especially my James. I love my James.’’

The ending of the children’s odyssey was ordained from the moment they arrived in the United States.

Government authorities in Haiti and the United States agreed to let the children come to Springfield for treatment with the explicit understanding that the children would return to their homeland. And family members were not allowed to accompany the young patients, another measure taken to discourage attempts to stay.

“We tried to heal the children, each child individually, and I think the country needs to heal now,’’ said Mark Niederpruem, administrator of Shriners Hospital. “It is difficult to send them back to a situation that everyone knows is really desperate.’’

Contacts have been made, measures taken to try to assure that the children get follow-up medical care in Haiti, Niederpruem said.

Each child’s family was given $800 in plastic money cards by the Noel Group and $100 from the hospital, money that could last months in impoverished Haiti. They were also given tents, and James’s parents said they intend to raze the shack where they live and replace it with a tent.

As the returning jet passed over the rubble-strewn blocks of Port-au-Prince yesterday, company president John Noel, a father of six grown children, bid James to his side of the plane with its unobstructed view of the broken city. James perched on Noel’s lap.

“Going home,’’ Noel said. “That’s Port-au-Prince. Going home.’’

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.

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