November 3, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Many hands make life work for Haitian earthquake survivor

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.

click image to enlarge

Kesner “Salvi” Salvent, a survivor of the Haiti earthquake, found his way to Maine with a lot of help and recently graduated from the Northeast Technical Institute.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

“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.”

(Continued on page 2)

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