Pittsburgh generosity provides Haitian man with needed operation

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One year ago, Tassy Fils-aime had a potentially fatal tumor the size of a tennis ball growing on his face. His home country of Haiti was ravaged by earthquakes, destroying the hospital where he hoped to seek surgery to remove the tumor.

Prayer was the only solution he knew of that remained.

But in April, Mr. Fils-aime met Ian Rosenberger, a Pittsburgh man visiting Port-au-Prince to find a way to help Haiti.

Mr. Rosenberger helped Mr. Fils-aime seek treatment at Allegheny General Hospital, and now the 19-year-old Haitian is tumor-free and ready to return home.

"We got really lucky to find each other when we did," said Mr. Rosenberger, 29.

After meeting Mr. Fils-aime in April, Mr. Rosenberger, his friends and a group of people called "Team Tassy" raised $50,000 in three weeks to help fund Mr. Fils-aime's trip to Pittsburgh and the expenses of his surgery. Mr. Fils-aime has been living with Mr. Rosenberger in Shadyside since November, when he underwent surgery.

"We had the chance to go down and actually sit down and tell [Mr. Fils-aime's mother] we were going to be able to save her son's life," Mr. Rosenberger said. "There's just not a better feeling than that -- and it was because Pittsburgh, because of the community here, that it happened."

Allegheny General Hospital otolaryngologist Jeb Blaugrund and plastic surgeon Michael White volunteered to perform the surgery to remove Mr. Fils-aime's tumor at no cost. The tumor, an ameloblastoma, was benign, but Mr. Fils-aime still faced the risk of infection and death if the tumor continued to grow.

"Most physicians like doing what they do because they're helping people, and they meet somebody like Tassy who fundamentally changes their life," Dr. Blaugrund said. "I would imagine that Tassy will pay it forward."

Dr. White removed part of Mr. Fils-aime's calf bone as well as some of the skin in order to reconstruct Mr. Fils-aime's jawbone and the inside of his mouth.

Three months after surgery, Mr. Fils-aime has a nearly undetectable scar where the underside of his chin meets his neck. Seeing himself in the mirror feels "comfortable" and "very good," he said.

Mr. Fils-aime will return to his hometown of Cite Soleil on Thursday, but he is scheduled to return to Pittsburgh in the summer for dental implant surgery.

After returning to his home country, Mr. Fils-aime hopes to "make some difference" in Haiti. He hopes to attend college and is thinking about a career in medicine, business or music, he said.

Team Tassy's efforts will not end with Mr. Fils-aime's return to Haiti, Mr. Rosenberger said. Team Tassy, which evolved into a foundation, is searching for "the next Tassy," another Haitian in need of medical help, Mr. Rosenberger said.

Mr. Rosenberger said he plans to continue helping Haiti recover through Team Tassy and through developing a business that converts recycled materials into fabric.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life," Mr. Rosenberger said. "Now I do."

Katie Park: kpark@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1964.


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