Ten-year-old defies odds in surviving quake injuries

January 11, 2011 

Third in a series

By CAROL ROSENBERG

crosenberg@MiamiHerald.com

A year ago, Exais Peterson spent four days left for dead in the rubble of his Port-au-Prince home, the third floor pancaked on top of him while he sat on the second watching cartoons.

No one, says his mother, could have survived it.

But the 10-year-old boy did. Now, 15 rounds of reconstructive surgeries later, mother and son live in a homeless shelter by the Dolphin Expressway in Wynwood -- medical evacuees who made it out and are forging new lives in Miami after the country’s horrific Jan. 12 earthquake.

“I want to be a doctor,” says Peterson. “I want to help other people.”

It’s been a confusing year for mother and son, of trips to Miami Children’s Hospital, an uncertain future and hope that they can be joined by at least some family members left behind in Haiti, where his now 48-year-old mom made ends meet by selling mangoes on a street corner.

He attends the Eneida M. Hartner Elementary School -- where the corridors hum with a cacophony of English and French, Spanish and Creole-- and manages to crack a pleasing grin on a face still marred by scars.

Home, for now, is the New Life Center, run by Catholic Charities, which provides a cramped but comfortable dormstyle arrangement, a room with its own bathroom, a bunk bed and TV.

“When you’re hungry they give you food. If you’re thirsty they give you drink,” says the boy’s mother, Amenise Jean-Baptiste. “Whatever they tell me is what I’ll do.”

More than just meals, the Church also provides counseling for the walking wounded, entry to the local school system, and help for what could one day be baby steps toward autonomy.

At Children’s Hospital, pediatric plastic surgeon Chad Perlyn has helped chart that course. He first met the boy, then 9, a day or so after family members dug him out of the rubble of their home, intending to bury him, and found he had miraculously clung to life.

Marines brought him to a makeshift hospital where Perlyn unwound Peterson’s bandages to find most of his cheek gone, along with an ear and a big part of his scalp. Maggots were feasting on his rotting flesh.

“He was super, super sick,” says Perlyn. Yet, he displayed a trait that he has managed to keep through his year-long odyssey. “He was incredibly brave and unbelievably stoic yet so sweet and innocent at the same time,” says Perlyn.

The boy and his mother would like to stay in the United States, are satisfied with their accommodations, and hope family left behind in Haiti may someday join them.

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