Haitian teen with cancer flown to city for treatment
February 1, 2010 4:15 PM
Jean Kenson met his first new friends onboard a chartered 737 that took him from Port Au Prince Haiti to Pittsburgh, where surgeons at Allegheny General Hospital will try to save his leg -- and his life.
Jean Kenson, 16, a Haitian teen with an advanced case of bone cancer, was cleared to enter the U.S. after a surgeon from Allegheny General spotted him at a field hospital in Port Au Prince during earthquake recovery.
By Dennis B. Roddy Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- A cancer-stricken child from Haiti was brought to Pittsburgh over the weekend, the only child able to leave the island on the latest relief mission from this area.
Jean Kenson, 16, the son of a Baptist minister, was carried on board seconds before the plane departed from Port-au-Prince. He was in Allegheny General Hospital's Suburban Campus in Bellevue on Sunday, where doctors hoped to save his leg and, if not that, his life.
His father is a minister on an island village and Jean was in Port-au-Prince with his uncle seeking medical help when the quake struck.
"The first thing I want is to go to the hospital and be treated," said Jean, stretched across three seats on a jet chartered by a Sewickley businessman who jetted to Port-au-Prince Saturday to deliver several tons of medical supplies to field hospitals there.
The team had hoped to bring back a large group of orphans, but their plane, which is painted with the distinctive emblem of Miami Air, did not have clearance to land in Miami, the orphans' destination. They were sent later on a military C-130.
In a miracle of man-over-bureaucracy, the Pittsburgh group received the go-ahead to bring home a cancer-stricken teen who loves soccer, cheers the Brazilian team, and has never seen snow.
Howls of joy greeted Jean as a team carted him down the aisle of the charter jet. Seconds earlier, U.S. immigration authorities had given the go-ahead for the teen to enter the United States, a bureaucratic miracle amid a near total ban on transporting Haitian immigrants without family already here.
The boy was diagnosed last week with bone cancer in his left leg. Swollen and deformed, the limb appears to be the largest part of the spindly youth's body. He had never been to a hospital. He saw private doctors and relied on them and prayer in his search for a cure.
His uncle, Ernst Calixt, brought him to a field hospital outside the Port-au-Prince airport where he was examined by Mark Sangimino, a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon at Allegheny General Hospital.
"He needs surgery and chemotherapy. Without it he would be dead in six months," said Dr. Sangimino. He discovered the boy while working at the field hospital.
Treating Jean in a tent hospital was impossible, he said.
Dr. Sangimino hopped on a motorcycle, with Jean's uncle behind him, and rode to the United States Embassy in Port-au-Prince where he was stopped at the gate. Military guards told him a visa, even for medical treatment, was out of the question.
Climbing up the ladder, Dr. Sangimino also worked the telephones.
At the same time, he wrangled a meeting with an immigration official who agreed to hear him out.
Saturday night, things still looked bleak, he said. Jean remained at the tent hospital a half mile from the airport. Dr. Sangimino said he put in a call to U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter's staff and an aide, Bill Bayer, reached out to the U.S. Department of State.
Time was running out. The charter jet had only two hours on the ground before it would be ordered to take off. As the jet's engines roared, U.S. officials gave Jean permission to come to the United States.
"I jumped the fence, took a taxi over to the field hospital and took him out of there," Dr. Sangimino said.
Settled into the flight, Jean made his first friends.
Aubrey Bouchard, who celebrated her 12th birthday by joining her father on the mercy flight, wandered over with her companions, Jane Blaugrund, 12, and Eva Simakas, whose parents were also part of the mission.
They chatted a while and spoke through an interpreter.
"We asked what does he like to read," said Aubrey. "He said French literature. He loves soccer. He was an offensive player."
Whether he will play again is very much in question.
Dr. Sangimino said the odds of saving Jean's leg are long.
Then again, he said, long odds were overcome just by getting one Haitian boy on a plane bound for Pittsburgh.