Finally out of the hospital, Haitian woman continues to recover from sepsis

Joselaine Jean Pierre walked from the kitchen to the living room couch in her new apartment in New London, a broad smile on her face, her walker standing idly and untouched near the couch.

She talked about going shopping at Aldi, Stop & Shop and Walmart, cooking dinner, going to church and pestering her teenage daughter to eat more fruits, vegetables and protein. She laughed at little things and spoke evenly of daily problems and confusions. Her daughter, Dina, fixed her mother’s errant hair and sat next to her before turning her attention back to her smartphone.

But life is not as normal as that scene on Wednesday afternoon seemed for the Haitian immigrant mom.

Jean Pierre turned 50 in September in the hospital room at the William W. Backus Hospital, where she had lived for two years and five months, slowly recovering from an attack of sepsis that ravaged her body. Her legs were amputated below her knees, and she lost all eight fingers. Kidney damage means she needs dialysis three times a week, and now doctors think she might have an ulcer — forcing her to minimize the spicy Haitian Creole food she loves.

A swell of community support

Communities in Norwich, New London and throughout southeastern Connecticut have rallied to help Jean Pierre through her medical and personal ordeal that dates back four years. Backus Hospital absorbed the cost of her care throughout her stay, as Norwich Human Services and a regional committee formed to help new immigrants led fundraisers and planned for her eventual release and post-hospital care.

A fundraiser walkathon in October raised $13,434 alone, bringing the overall total to about $27,000 to pay the $900-a-month rent, groceries and other household costs, said Norwich Human Services Director Lee Ann Gomes, whose agency is managing the funds. One anonymous donor gives $100 per month. Others have donated multiple times as well, Gomes said.

On Nov. 7, those efforts came to fruition as Jean Pierre was discharged from Backus and moved into the first-floor apartment at 25 Jay St., New London, next door to All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church. The church bought the house several years ago with a mission to help provide “a soft landing” for new immigrants, Pastor Carolyn Patierno said. Jean Pierre’s home caregiver, Nanotte Fonvil-Michel, who speaks French Creole, lives in the upstairs apartment.

Like others involved in her care, Patierno marveled at Jean Pierre’s resilience.

“She’s determined. She’s tenacious,” Patierno said. “She has to be. It works in her favor.”

The Jay Street apartment is available only until May, when church offices will move there during a long-planned major renovation of the church, Patierno said.

Fundraising continues as Gomes seeks another, more permanent apartment in Norwich or New London with easy access to stores and services. Jean Pierre attends the Seventh Day Adventist Church in New London not far from her apartment, and church members have helped provide rides to church and other places to allow her to get out, Gomes said.

Gomes said Backus agreed to pay for dialysis treatment, transportation, prescriptions and home care twice a week for one year following Jean Pierre's discharge. She was fitted with prosthetic legs, but an effort to provide her with fingers didn't work out. She makes do with daily tasks as best she can with her thumbs and palms.

Sitting on the couch Wednesday, Jean Pierre repeatedly said “thank you, thank you” to everyone and anyone who has helped with her recovery, her care and to what she hopes is her continued return to normal life. Part of that effort is her progress in mastering English. Sister Yannick Saez of St. Mary’s Church in Norwich, who has befriended the family, has been needed less and less for translation as time goes by.

Because of her frequent medical appointments and uncertain health — including two brief hospitalizations at Lawrence + Memorial since November — Jean Pierre hasn’t been able to take formal English classes. She attended Norwich Adult Education prior to her illness and would love to go back to school. Nurses and caregivers have helped teach her English.

Dina, 15, who had moved to Florida with her great-aunt when Jean Pierre was stricken with sepsis, rejoined her mother in New London in December to help with her care and improve her outlook. Dina, raised in the United States, speaks fluent English. She admitted she has lost her grasp of speaking French Creole, however. But through a smartphone app, she is learning Chinese.

Dina started as a sophomore at New London High School at the start of the second semester Thursday. She already had completed the first semester, including mid-term exams, in Florida.

On Wednesday, the two engaged in banter any mother and teenager would find familiar. Dina spends too much time with her head bent over her smartphone, her mom said. She eats too much “pizza and chips,” and doesn’t like vegetables, meat and legumes. Mom wants to teach Dina how to cook, but Dina said she doesn’t like to cook. She said she would have a salad for lunch but “I only really like lettuce.”

Life, and family, shattered

Jean Pierre’s medical crisis has been only one part of a personal ordeal that dates back four years to January 2016 and has split up her family as much as it has hurt her body.

On Jan. 13, 2016, Jean Pierre was home alone in Gonaives, Haiti, as her husband, Duifoit, was teaching at a school 30 miles away. Two strange men opposed to her husband’s political views attacked and nearly beat her to death. Family urged her to move to the United States with her youngest two children, Dina, then 11, and toddler Kensley.

The three of them moved to Norwich, where Jean Pierre's husband's brother, Aslain, was living. Her husband and three older children remained in Haiti. Jean Pierre applied for political asylum, working with the staff of U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District; she got a job in the hospitality department at Mohegan Sun Casino and an apartment in downtown Norwich.

On May 30, 2017, Jean Pierre felt feverish and achy, but a friend helped her get to an interview for a better job. By the time she got home, she could barely walk. The next day, her brother-in-law rushed her to Backus, where she was diagnosed with a full-body attack of sepsis from an unknown infection.

During Jean Pierre's three months in a coma, Dina and Kensley would visit and cry at her bedside. The children were being cared for by their uncle. Her husband, Duifoit, obtained a tourist visa in June 2017 and came to Norwich. When their uncle moved to Michigan in August 2017, the children moved to Florida to live with their great-aunt.

When his visa expired, Duifoit took young Kensley, now 6, with him back to Haiti.

Now, husband and wife have become estranged, separated by more than just the thousands of miles, and Duifoit does not plan to return to Connecticut. Jean Pierre doesn’t talk about that.

But their older son, Dumas, 26, has applied for a humanitarian visa to come to Connecticut to care for his mother. He would bring young Kensley, who was born in Florida and is a U.S. citizen, to rejoin his mother.

The family and the expanded network of supporters continue to hope and pray for approval soon of both Dumas’ visa and Jean Pierre's asylum application.

In the best-case scenario, they will have answers by May, when Jean Pierre, Dina and caretaker Fonvil-Michel will have to move from the Jay Street house. If she is granted asylum, Jean Pierre would qualify for food stamps and medical assistance. As a U.S. citizen, Kensley already qualifies for assistance. That would ease the family’s financial needs, Gomes said.

To prepare for that scenario, fundraising continues, and Gomes is seeking a new first-floor apartment with two or three bedrooms in either Norwich or New London.

“Any generous landlords looking to work with us, please contact us,” Gomes said.

And on the donations, she added: “No amount is too small. We and Joselaine are so grateful for everything. Nanotte is a great addition to our team. She shops and cooks, and for very little money we can feed all three of them.”

c.bessette@theday.com

To donate

Norwich Human Services is serving as the fiduciary for donations to help Joselaine Jean Pierre in her recovery from sepsis and her family.

Make donation checks out to Norwich Human Services with a notation “Joselaine Fund” and send to Norwich Human Services, 100 Broadway, Norwich, CT 06360.

For information call (860) 823-3778.

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