Saving the Man Who Saved My Life

I was in Haiti in October 2005 researching my book on modern-day slavery when I contracted a severe case of malaria. A young Haitian man named Bill Nathan, then 21, who manages a shelter for homeless boys in Port-au-Prince, took me in and attended to me daily as I lapsed in and out of consciousness. He found the chloroquine that kept me alive.

When the epic earthquake struck Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010, I saw a chance to repay the debt.

At 4:51 p.m. on that day, Bill was on the seventh floor garden on the roof of the Maison St. Joseph, a sanctuary of peace for some 20 boys who have been abandoned by their families, or who, like Bill himself, were child slaves. He had just ushered five of the boys down to their chores on the ground floor, so that he could enjoy his one daily indulgence: a few moments of solitude in the roof’s little gazebo, surrounded by potted plants, before evening prayers.

Two minutes later, the quake smashed open the building, and the top three floors pitched northward, hurling Bill down nearly 80 feet onto a neighbor’s concrete roof, where he landed briefly, apparently on his back. Almost immediately, he tumbled onto a tin-roofed shack, and then to the ground. A neighbor later said she saw Bill “flying like a bird.” In his last moments of consciousness, Bill saw the top three concrete floors of the orphanage, along with a massive wind charger hurtling toward him. Instinctively, he rolled out of the way and grabbed a clothesline, pulling himself into a corner before the cement crashed exactly where he had fallen. His legs wouldn’t work, so he crawled for several feet over broken glass, before passing out.

The first three floors of the house, where all but one of the boys were gathered, shook “like a scene out of Titanic,” said house founder Michael Geilenfeld, but, miraculously, they did not collapse. Had the quake hit 15 minutes later, all of the boys would have been on the sixth floor. Tragically, a 25-year-old American seminary student was crushed on the fourth floor.

Forty-five minutes passed before the others in the house discovered Bill, unconscious but alive. The older boys carried him on a table to Kez Furth, 24, a volunteer American nurse living next door. For the next four days, Furth treated him on the floor of her 500-sq. ft clinic-apartment, outfitted with less than the average public school nurse. At the same time, she attended to dozens of other victims, who convened in a refugee camp up the block. Some had traveled up to a mile for treatment.

When news of the quake reached me, I immediately called Bill’s cell phone, to no response. On Wednesday morning, I reached out to Miles Wright, the no-nonsense, burly Texan who serves as treasurer of Hearts With Haiti, the group under whose umbrella Maison St. Joseph and two other similar facilities run. Over the next 48 hours, we heard just sporadic reports that Bill had regained the ability to sit up, then to walk gingerly, but that overall his condition was worsening. Miles immediately resolved to act: “‘Round where I’m from, when your family’s in trouble, you show up.” On Thursday night, we convened in Ft. Lauderdale. Through the extraordinary support of Hollywood director Tom Shadyac, a friend of Bill’s and mine, we were able to hire a small twin-engine plane. Although that morning the FAA had ordered a ground stop on all flights bound to Haiti, I worked the phones, and by the next morning, we were packing the six-seater with two Haitian surgeons and some 200 lbs. of medical supplies and baby formula.

After dark on Friday, the U.S. military finally cleared us to land in Port-au-Prince, and we drove into the city past clusters of Haitians standing in defiance of the destruction around them, praying and singing in impromptu street concerts. The orphanage lay half-shattered. Concrete chunks hovered precariously over surviving structures, suspended only by rusty re-bars. Maison St. Joseph had been looted of its store of rice and beans. When Geilenfeld hired a neighbor to carry some of the remaining food to a more secure location, a desperate crowd by the Caribbean Market mobbed the neighbor, beat him, and stole the provisions.

In the candlelight of Furth’s clinic, Bill lay on his stomach on a mattress on the floor, his arms outstretched. He was in a great deal of pain and had difficulty moving from that position, but he managed a smile when I came in to hold his hand. I lay next to him that night, with Furth resting on an adjacent mattress. It was a sleepless night: on the other side of the wall lay a trapped dog that howled whenever tremors moved the rocks around it. Furth said it had been slowly starving to death for four days. The clinic had just finished the last of its clean water.

The next morning, I helped Furth make her rounds of the refugee camp, and we rushed Bill by van to the airport. We faced resistance from the Marines guarding the entrance. Attempting to make an order from chaos, they were understandably wary of admitting a non-responsive Haitian, even when he was carried by three passport-holding Americans. Finally, a lieutenant named Brandon, disciplined but sympathetic, heard my plea: “It’s a matter of honor,” I said. “This man saved my life, and I need to help him.” ABC News anchor Dan Harris, a mutual friend of Bill’s and mine, backed up my story, Lieutenant Brandon waved us through. French medics gave Bill a morphine drip and we loaded him, along with a 19-year-old American who survived the quake, onto our waiting charter. (See the top 10 deadliest earthquakes.)

Why did Bill deserve a special mission? Not just because he saved my life. Helping people is what Bill Nathan does. Orphaned at age seven, Bill was taken in as a slave by his neighbors who forced him to do domestic work and beat him mercilessly when he did not perform to standard. According to UNICEF studies, such child slaves number as many as 300,000 in Haiti; typically, desperate parents yield their children to fraudulent recruiters willingly, a phenomenon that becomes more pronounced after natural disasters. After three years of bondage, Bill was rescued by an American nun who had known Bill’s mother. She brought him to St. Joseph’s, where he thrived and soon he was managing the recovery of hundreds of other boys. “God kept me alive for a reason,” he told me in a fleeting moment of lucidity. “I will keep doing the work that I’m doing.”

There is a theory of massive disaster triage that advises that the first people who should receive treatment are doctors with non-life-threatening injuries. Though Bill is not a doctor, he has a demonstrated ability to improve the lives of hundreds and to resurrect his community and his country. Saving Bill means saving more lives.

The fall that Bill endured should have killed him, but he was in peak physical shape. His injuries are painful but survivable. While his condition continued to be assessed, we know he has suffered an abrasion on his liver, broken ribs, extensive muscle damage around his vertebral column, cuts and contusions all over his body. The Israeli trauma specialist who attended to Bill upon arrival in Ft. Lauderdale said that he had seen some lucky patients since he first practiced medicine as a war medic in 1965, but Bill was certainly up there. “We can debate the role of luck, I suppose,” muttered Miles, who is a devout Christian. Maybe Bill has good fortune on his side, maybe he has God. He certainly has friends.

By Benjamin Skinner

Meditation: And now may the Lord show kindness and truth to you. I also will repay you this kindness, because you have done this thing. – 2 Samuel 2:6

You will succeed because Jesus loves You!

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