As five o’clock in the afternoon approached on January 12, 2010, Pierre “Gardy” Boncoeur was just beginning to relax and close up shop for the day. Business had gone well that day, and he was just going outside to collect some merchandise from the front of his clothing and shoe store in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In its six years, the business had grown to include three employees and he was proud of what he had built.
In an instant, though, everything in life changed. At 4:53 pm that afternoon, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shook Haiti. “As the building began to tremble, I tried to run away, but it all happened very fast,” Gardy says. Within seconds, the building collapsed, and he was buried under a tangled mess of cement, wood, and wire. “I was trapped,” he says. “There was nothing I could do.”
Gardy called for help, but there was chaos and commotion everywhere. A tailor in the building next door saw Gardy and tried to help to no avail. For several hours, Gardy faded in and out of consciousness until a man who just had escaped in the quake from a nearby prison saw Gardy. The prisoner moved much of the heavy debris over Gardy but was unable to completely free him. Gardy lay in the rubble for several more hours until street bandits Gardy knew from the area saw him and were able to finally free him. Gardy had been trapped for 12 hours.
Out of the rubble, Gardy could not feel or move his legs. The bandits created a make-shift stretcher for him and left him on the side of the road. Gardy’s brother and cousin eventually arrived and began looking for care for Gardy. “It was chaos everywhere. I had to ride in a truck with deceased bodies while we looked,” he says. Gardy was turned away from four facilities before the group found a Doctors Without Borders hospital that would take him.
Gardy remained at the facility for four days until the staff declared they did not have the capacity to care for his injuries. Desperate, his family took him to a nearby pediatric hospital affiliated with his wife’s work. With the help of his wife’s boss, he was examined by an American medical team and selected to go to a U.S. hospital for care.
On January 20, Gardy was evacuated by the University of Michigan’s Survival Flight jet and taken to Ann Arbor.
Over the coming weeks, Gardy’s condition slowly stabilized, and the University of Michigan Hospital connected Gardy to several Haitian French translators who helped him adjust to the culture and understand what was going on.
During the treatment process, Gardy learned that he has a C6 spinal cord injury which causes him to be paralyzed from his chest down and have very limited use of his arms and hands. He also had to have one of his legs amputated. “When I first learned this I was in shock,” he says. “I didn’t want to accept it. In Haiti, someone with a condition like this is put on the street. They are shunned and cast aside. I couldn’t believe it was me.”
During his rehabilitation process, Gardy met Ann Arbor CIL staff member Tom Hoatlin, who also has a spinal cord injury. Tom directs the CIL’s Spinal Cord Injury Support Program, which provides independent living training and peer support to patients with new spinal cord injuries. The Ann Arbor CIL has been partnering with U-M’s Spinal Cord Injury Model Systems since 1985 to help patients during the important and difficult adjustment to life with a new spinal cord injury.
With the help of a translator, Tom counseled Gardy about what life will be like with the new injury and showed Gardy how to do things with a wheelchair. “I had never met anyone like Tom before,” Gardy says. “He was using a wheelchair and had a good life. I had never seen anyone like that in Haiti. I saw how well he adapts, and it gives me hope. He showed me that a good life is possible.”
Gardy is now at Special Tree rehabilitation facility in Romulus and is working on improving his strength, range of motion, and independence. “I’m working on transferring from the wheelchair to my bed by myself,” he says. “I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it. I want to be independent.”
Gardy continues to receive care and support from the translators who have now become his friends and visit him several times a week. “Their friendship means a lot to me,” he says. “They have become my family. I get courage and strength from them, and I am so grateful for their support.” Gardy also talks on the phone every day with his wife, Yolaine, who has been able to visit Gardy three times since he arrived.
After his rehabilitation, Gardy is hopeful he will be able to remain in the United States. “There is no life for me in Haiti now,” he says. “They treat people with disabilities like they are broken, not a part of society. There are no laws for people with disabilities, no rights, no respect. Here I have a chance at having a life. The culture here accepts people like me. This place saved me,” he adds. “I thank God that I have been able to come to the U.S. and that I am alive.”
Even practically, Gardy would have a very difficult time living Haiti. The terrain and buildings are not accessible for someone using a wheelchair, especially his house, and he would have no means of powering or servicing his chair. He also would not be able to purchase vital medical supplies, and there are no support services for people with disabilities. However, the future remains unclear for Gardy. Without any income and an uncertain immigration status, he does not know whether he will be able to stay in the U.S.
Gardy says as his future is sorted out, the translators continue to support and help him. And with plans to go to a soccer match this weekend, life is beginning to feel normal again. “I’m rooting for Michigan,” Gardy says.