Dispatch from Haiti: Baby Jenny’s Journey

BY Larisa Epatko  February 5, 2010 at 11:40 AM EST

Kathie Klarreich, a freelance writer who also worked as a fixer/producer for the NewsHour in Haiti, sent us the story of one child’s rescue from the earthquake rubble, her transfer to the United States for medical treatment, and her family’s eager anticipation of her return:

“Four days after Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake, I was driving up the Canape Vert Road that connects downtown Port-au-Prince and the uptown suburb of Petionville when I heard people shouting from atop a pile of collapsed homes and mounds of rubble. Wreckage was common, but the shout of ‘she’s alive’ wasn’t and there, running down the street, was a man holding what appeared to be a small child. Without thinking, I raced up the hill and seconds later had a baby in my arms.

“Back in the car, my heart was pumping for two — I was terrified that this tiny little girl, with dried mucus covering her eyes, nose and mouth, indents on her head, dust on her skin and, as I later found out, maggots in her clothes, wouldn’t make it to the hospital. While one friend drove and another gave the baby water to suck on from a rag, I sang Creole lullabies, tried to ease the gook off her face, jiggle her to stay alert and comfort her after 80 some hours of being alone. Anything, anything to keep her alive.

“We wanted to take her to the United Nations triage near the hospital because we thought it would provide the best facility, but that meant a long ride. It was unbearable between my angst and the traffic. When we finally got there, a team from the University of Miami was assisting, and within minutes a staff of four was attending to her.

“I can’t say I didn’t feel incredibly relieved when the professionals took over. I’d seen so much death in the preceding days that I wasn’t sure how I’d handle the trauma of watching a baby die in my hands.

“Returning to the site of the rescue, I found the baby’s uncle. He was with his parents, his sister Nadine and her husband Junior — the baby’s parents — in the house when it collapsed. His parents died. I explained where the baby was, got Nadine’s number and promised to keep them current on the baby’s health. I called Nadine, who told me that her daughter’s name is Jenny.

“But once I got to the U.N. triage center, I discovered that Jenny, whom the hospital administrator named Baby Jeanne, had been moved. Seems she’d taken a turn for the worse so the University of Miami staff pulled some strings and jetted her to the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport.

“From here, the story gets more complicated. It’s not that simple to reunite a mother and daughter when the parents have no documentation to prove they are the parents, when all their possessions — and I mean all — save a few random bottles of medicine, are buried in rubble.

“There are forms to fill out and maternity and paternity tests to take. Meanwhile, baby Jenny, who was treated at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, was assigned a foster family by the Florida department of child services.

“When I went to see Nadine, she showed me a Xeroxed photo of Jenny, which a reporter from The Miami Herald had brought her. In Florida, she was given a new name, Baby Patricia. She looked well fed, well coddled in a bonnet and lace bassinet, and well cared for. A far cry from the photos I had in my camera of her rescue, when she was still called Baby Jenny, before the nurses in the triage called her Baby Jeanne.

“The International Red Cross people I spoke with said it’s unlikely that Junior and Nadine Alexis will get permission to come to the States to join their daughter. It’s more likely that the baby — whatever her name is now — will be returned to them. The Alexis had been living in a six-person tent donated by a French NGO.

“I asked the French if they could look out for the couple when I returned to the States. They’re special, I said. The Frenchman I spoke with didn’t disagree, but, he replied, everyone in the tent camp was special.

“He’s right. Just as the Save the Children representative in the tent camp was right when she said the best thing to do was to find a place for the Alexis to live so that if/when their daughter was returned to them they would be better able to provide for her. If only it were that easy.”

Editor’s Note: On Friday, Mark Riordan, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Children and Families, said Jenny was discharged from Jackson Memorial Hospital and brought to a foster care facility in Miami called His House Children’s Home. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families is now handling Jenny’s case, and she will receive federally funded care until her next step is determined. A DNA kit was shipped to Nadine in Haiti, and once she is confirmed as the mother, the reunification process will begin, Riordan said.