One day earlier this year, as Kesner “Salvi” Salvent flew through his course work at Northeast Technical Institute, his instructor pulled him aside and asked how the 29-year-old Haitian student came to be enrolled in a medical assistant-phlebotomist program way up here in Scarborough, Maine.
“Google my name,” he told her.
The next day, when she arrived at school, instructor Annemarie Dawson greeted her student with an awestruck look on her face.
“Yeah,” Salvi said with a smile. “That’s me.”
His saga begins just before 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2010. Salvi, a talented artist who also worked in construction in Port-au-Prince to help support his 10 younger siblings, was walking from a job site to the bus stop when he heard a noise so loud he first thought a bomb had gone off.
He darted inside a store for shelter, only then realizing it wasn’t an explosion, after all. It was a massive, magnitude 7.0 earthquake – and the crowded store was collapsing all around him.
“I tried to get out, but it was too late,” Salvi said. “People in front of me had already started dying.”
He remembers only putting his backpack over his head. Then – how much later, he has no idea – he awoke on his stomach, pinned beneath the heavy debris and unable to move.
“I felt like my body was cut in half,” Salvi said. “My head was here, but the rest of my body was somewhere else.”
He lay there for four days before rescuers heard his weak cries for help. At that point, Salvi’s story rose from dramatic to downright miraculous.
Salvi is the best friend of Gabison Boisrond, another Haitian man who lives in Kennebunkport with his wife, Erin. Day after day following the catastrophe, Boisrond kept in cellphone contact with his family and friends in Port-au-Prince as they frantically searched for Salvi, whom no one had seen since the earthquake.
Finally, Boisrond’s brother, James, called. He’d located Salvi, surrounded by the dead and dying, lying on a board in the jam-packed hallway of a Port-au-Prince hospital. Salvi, with two fractured vertebrae in his upper spine, was paralyzed from the neck down.
Unable to get him treated there, James hoisted Salvi over his back and, for the next several days, carried him around the devastated city in search of help. He found none.
Enter Pam and George Lee of Cape Porpoise, Gabison Boisrond’s in-laws.
Pam had actually met Salvi via telephone in 2009 – she’d sent him $50 after his mother died and, when he called to thank her in what little English he spoke, they’d instantly bonded.
“I absolutely felt a connection with this kid,” Pam said last week. “I felt like he was someone who worked hard and didn’t have much to show for it. But he was a good soul.”
Pam got on the horn with U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s office and was connected with staffer Leslie Merrill, who specializes in immigration issues. (Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which publishes the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.)
Merrill quickly concluded that Salvi’s best bet was to get aboard the USNS Comfort, a massive Navy hospital ship that by now was anchored off Port-au-Prince.
“There were so many people involved in this,” Merrill said last week. “It was just wild.”
Merrill quickly compiled the paperwork needed to get Salvi to the hospital ship. The problem was finding Salvi, who by now was wasting away with James still at his side at a tent city in Port-au-Prince.
That’s where Jan Carter of Portland, a longtime friend of Merrill’s already volunteering in the northern Haitian city of Cap Haitien, joined in.
Carter agreed to make the long, arduous trip to Port-au-Prince – at times hitching rides on Argentinian and Chilean military tanks – to deliver the documentation needed for U.S. military personnel to grant Salvi passage to the hospital ship. It took her five days.
Finally, paperwork in hand, soldiers found Salvi and James in the camp and took them by helicopter to the USNS Comfort.
With James serving as Salvi’s moral support and translator, surgeons fused Salvi’s broken neck with four screws. Two weeks later, when he could finally be moved, he was transported to a medical holding facility on Haiti’s mainland.
ROAD LEADS TO MAINE
Back to Maine, where a nurse at Maine Medical Center’s spinal trauma unit who had read about the unfolding drama called Pam Lee and advised her to call the Shepherd Center, a nonprofit hospital in Atlanta that specializes in spinal cord injuries.
Pam, by now all but attached to her cellphone, knew getting Salvi out of Haiti was his only hope.
“In Haiti, if you’re paralyzed from the neck down, you are a lost cause,” she said. “You’re going to die.”
Dr. Donald Leslie, the Shepherd Center’s medical director, agreed to take Salvi. Better yet, Leslie enlisted the help of good friend Harold Anderson, a wealthy Atlanta philanthropist who was already flying prosthetics into Port-au-Prince on his private jet, to fly Salvi and James to Atlanta.
There, over the next weeks, Salvi slowly got back on his feet – and in the process forged a close bond with Anderson.
By mid-March of 2010, with Anderson’s personal driver at the wheel and James still at his side, Salvi made the long trip in the back of an SUV to Maine.
“That’s when they came to us,” Pam said.
Salvi and James lived in the Lees’ upstairs guest room for the next year. Both here on “temporary protective status” visas, they enrolled in Biddeford’s adult education program and earned their General Educational Development certificates.
At the same time, Salvi regained more of his strength and mobility, at no charge, through a therapeutic horse-driving program at Carlisle Academy in Lyman.
Salvi and James, still supported financially every step of the way by Anderson, eventually found work and moved into an apartment in Biddeford.
‘HE’S JUST FLOURISHED’
Then in January, Salvi enrolled at Northeast Technical Institute to become a certified clinical medical assistant and phlebotomy-EKG technician.
Wednesday evening, dressed in a white shirt and tie, speaking near-perfect English and walking without so much as a limp, he strode down the aisle with his fellow students at the Portland Marriott at Sable Oaks to receive his certificate.
Among the multitude cheering him on were Pam Lee and Leslie Merrill, without whom Salvi would long ago have become but one more victim of Haiti’s worst nightmare.
“This is a stepping stone for him,” instructor Dawson said as her star student traded handshakes and hugs with his classmates. “When he arrived, he was very shy, very reserved. But he’s just flourished here.”
Where Salvi goes from here is unclear – ultimately, he wants to go to medical school, become a doctor and provide much-needed help to his fellow Haitians, “just like help was provided to me.”
For now, though, he’ll look for a job in his new field – he keeps a stack of resumes with him wherever he goes – and marvel that something so good can blossom from something so bad.
He also says a prayer of thanks each night for the many people – he sees them as links in a long, powerful chain – who never stopped believing they could get him here from there.
Even now, almost four years later, not a day goes by without someone telling Salvi how lucky he is.
But each time, he quickly responds, “No, I’m not lucky.”
Then what is he?
“I am blessed,” Salvi said. “I am a blessed man, walking around.”
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: