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53 Haitian orphans arrive in Pittsburgh

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By The The Tribune-Review
Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010

A plane carrying 53 Haitian orphans landed today at Pittsburgh International Airport, ending a weeklong struggle to rescue the children from an earthquake-battered orphanage run by two Ben Avon sisters.

One of the sisters and an orphan were left behind during the desperate scramble to leave Port-au-Prince airport. They are expected to arrive in Pittsburgh by tomorrow, said Gov. Ed Rendell, who along with U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, led a contingency of medical staff, family members and others to the Caribbean nation devastated by last week's 7.0-magnitude earthquake.

"These kids were unbelievable, after all they've been through with their lives and the earthquake," Rendell said. "Their spirit was unbelievable."

Medical personnel who traveled with the children said some of them were suffering from mild dehydration, but none was in serious condition, according to Chris Gessner, president of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

"It's pretty mild," he said.

About 50 doctors and nurses began medical treatment aboard Port Authority buses that met the plane at Pittsburgh International Airport after its 9:20 a.m. arrival. All of the children were examined at Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville.

Dr. Richard Saladino said the orphans were in remarkable condition considering what they endured over the last week.

"They're doing well and are in quite good shape," Saladino said.

He said a few had upper respiratory infections, fevers and dehydration problems.

Saladino met the children at the airport and rode in a bus with a toddler on his lap.

"Imagine if I put an 18-month-old baby in your lap. You wouldn't have an extensive conversation, but you would play with them," Saladino said. "There were some communication issues. Most of us do not know French or Creole. But at the same time, kids are kids. ... They did just fine. They got over that initial stranger anxiety."

Gessner said the children will stay in a "comfort center" up to 24 hours. Most are younger than 4 and more than half are younger than 2.

"They just seem to be in great shape given what you'd expect them to have gone through," Gessner said. "You have to give a lot of credit to those two women, who must have done a phenomenal job caring for these kids."

Hospital officials also set up a makeshift courtroom, and a judge is expected to address any legal and adoption issues, Gessner said.

Many families from across the country have arrived or are expected to arrive today in Pittsburgh to finalize adoptions for most of the children, said Marc Cherna, director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. U.S families, including one from Pennsylvania, are in line to adopt 47 of the children. Three are going to families in Canada and four to families in Spain.

"Most of them were just about there in the adoption process, so this was just the last step," Cherna said. "If they have their paperwork and everything in order, hopefully they can take them home."

Plans called for the children stay with temporary caregivers licensed by Allegheny County. Volunteers from The American Red Cross and Catholic Charities also are helping with arrangements.

The mission capped an emotional week for relatives and friends of Jamie and Ali McMutrie, who have run the BRESMA orphanage since 2007. The facility housing about 150 orphans was mostly destroyed by last week's earthquake. The other children are being cared for by people from the countries where they are being adopted, such as France and Holland, officials said.

Jamie McMutrie, 30, stayed behind with a child who was left on a bus at the airport in the Haitian capital, Rendell said. She is expected to fly home today on a military plane. Emma, the orphan girl, could arrive tomorrow on a commercial flight, Rendell said.

The sisters refused to leave Haiti if all of the children under their care could not come together, said Ali McMutrie, who turned 22 today.

"I don't have any biological children so people think I don't understand, but these are my children," Ali McMutrie said. "To be asked to leave without a single one of them was not an option. It just was not an option."

Rendell and Altmire led the mission that began when a plane carrying the Pittsburgh delegation left for Port-au-Prince about noon Monday.

Republic Airways provided the charter jet to Haiti, according to officials at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which helped coordinate the effort. They were supposed to be in Haiti for only an hour to drop off 2 12 tons of medical supplies and retrieve the children, Rendell said.

That did not happen, however, as their U.S. pilots were forced to return to Florida without them because of flight-time restrictions, Altmire said.

"It's not a good feeling to watch the plane you were supposed to leave on fly away without you," he said.

After the group waited about five hours at the Haitian airport, U.S. officials were able to place the contingent aboard a military cargo plane that was returning to Florida after dropping off supplies. The group reboarded their original plane in Orlando for the final leg to Pittsburgh.

Altmire praised officials at UPMC — his former employer — for their persistence that the mission could be accomplished.

"When we ran into brick walls in Port-au-Prince, they kept saying we could get it done," he said.

At least two UPMC officials also were on the plane, including Leslie McCombs, UPMC senior consultant for government relations, and Alan Russell, director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

McCombs choked up several times as she recalled the experience.

"It's been an emotional mission since day one, just hours after the earthquake," McCombs said.

The mission took shape after officials at UPMC contacted Rendell and asked for his assistance in arranging a trip, said Rendell spokesman Gary Tuma. Rendell worked over the weekend by making arrangements with the military and federal officials, including those from the Department of State and Customs and Border Protection.

Rendell worked closely with a key contact, Kenneth Merten, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti.

"The ambassador advised Rendell that he should personally go on the mission because bringing along someone of his stature might be important if they run into obstacles," Tuma said.

In addition to medical professionals from UPMC, the charter plane from Pittsburgh included personnel from West Penn Allegheny Health System and the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System. Those from West Penn included Dr. Chip Lambert, an emergency medicine physician, a neonatologist and a pediatric critical care physician assistant, said Dan Laurent, a West Penn Allegheny spokesman.

Two representatives of the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System were on the plane, according to spokeswoman Kimberly Flaherty. They were: Dr. Mary Carrasco, who runs the child advocacy program "A Child's Place at Mercy," and Smana Pamphile-Clerse, a native of Haiti who is a crisis clinician for Mercy Behavioral Health.

The McMutries' parents, Jamie McMutrie's husband and Dr. Joyce Leifer, a Children's pediatrician, also were on the plane, officials said.

Staff writers Luis Fábregas, Jason Cato and Chris Togneri contributed to this report.

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