Catholic Charities Community Services, Rockland County

Jovins Dorestan

Photo: Richard Perry/The New York Times

Jovins Dorestan, a survivor of the Haitian earthquake, in his Rockland County apartment. He got his prosthesis in this country.

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The New York Times also produced a video feature of Jovin's inspiring story.
Watch it here.

The New York Times
November 22, 2010

Losing a Leg, but Keeping His Drive to Succeed

By JENNIFER MASCIA

HAVERSTRAW, N.Y. — Jovins Dorestan is lucky, and he knows it.

He was standing in the doorway of his home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck on Jan. 12, killing hundreds of thousands. Mr. Dorestan, 26, a police officer, came uncomfortably close to being one of them.

“A quick movement pushed me out the door,” he recalled. “I leaned on a wall and watched the house begin to collapse.”

A beam fell on his leg, pinning him. Fortunately, his two brothers, sister and father were not home at the time of the quake. After only a few minutes, five of Mr. Dorestan’s fellow officers arrived and freed him. His left leg was crushed and he was in mind-numbing pain, but as he surveyed the scene around him, his perspective began to broaden.

“People were burned, they were crying,” he said. “When I saw a lot of people die, and I got this chance to survive, I almost forgot about the pain.”

A stranger carried Mr. Dorestan on his back to Canapé Vert Hospital in Port-au-Prince, where he spent the next 24 hours. But the only treatment patients received was at the hands of volunteers in a triage area in the parking lot. A friend arranged transportation to a private clinic in Pétionville, where he spent the next two days. But treatment there also proved elusive.

“I couldn’t keep up with the pain,” he said. “I thought I was going to die.”

But the industrious Mr. Dorestan, a native of the city of Jérémie in the south, got word to Maxime Roumer, a Haitian senator and fellow Jérémie native, who put Mr. Dorestan’s surgery on a fast track. His leg was amputated below the knee.

“There was no other way to prevent me from dying,” he said.

After the operation, Mr. Dorestan found himself on the side of the road, where he was placed while still under anesthesia. A friend found a spot for him to sleep in someone’s backyard; that someone happened to have a cousin who had come to Haiti with a group of nurses from Rockland County. The nurses found American doctors to arrange a transfer to Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, N.Y.

Mr. Dorestan entered the country on a tourist visa on Jan. 28. As soon as he was fitted with a prosthetic leg, he began English classes. When he left Haiti, Mr. Dorestan only knew how to say “Good morning, how are you?” in English. Ten months later, he can read and write it fluently.

“I have determination,” Mr. Dorestan said, a broad smile lighting up his face. “Education is the best way to succeed.”

“He’s our earth angel,” said Martha Robles, the executive director of Catholic Community Services, where a destitute Mr. Dorestan was referred while in the rehabilitation center. Because Catholic Community Services is an affiliate of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, one of the seven organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, Ms. Robles was able to secure $824 in Neediest Cases money for a bed.

Ms. Robles said her organization had since “adopted” Mr. Dorestan, and more charity soon arrived in the form of clothes, home-cooked meals and a donated apartment in Haverstraw, N.Y. Though painted an optimistic yellow, the one-bedroom apartment is run-down, but Mr. Dorestan says it is nicer than the house he lost in the quake.

He may have survived the disaster, but Mr. Dorestan has only $30 in his pocket, his family is living in a tent in Port-au-Prince, and he needs a different visa to stay in the United States and work — something he is eager to do, despite his handicap.

“In Haiti, there’s no way to take care of the leg,” he explained.

But he must wait for his current visa to expire in January before applying for a new one, keeping him in a legal limbo, one that offers him no government entitlements. For now, he is dependent on charity — and his family in Haiti is dependent on him.

“He was the breadwinner,” Ms. Robles said.

Once his immigration status is resolved, Mr. Dorestan plans to study civil engineering, a childhood ambition abandoned to put his siblings through school. He hopes to use his skills to rebuild his city. So the earthquake that took his leg gave him a second chance at his dream.

“I always say, ‘It’s a new life,’ ” he concluded. “Forget about the old one.”
 

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