On the day the earth convulsed in his native Haiti, 9-year-old Peterson Exais was watching an action movie on television with one of his best friends, Sekwa.
“The house started shaking. We thought the movie had an explosion and stuff,” he said. “We figured out it wasn’t the TV.”
The ceiling and concrete blocks rained down on the boys.
“I tried to grab him,” Peterson said of the best friend he still calls “my brother”. Slabs of concrete crushed Peterson’s head, pinning it onto the edge of the bed. Nearby, Sekwa’s body was buried beneath the rubble on the bed.
“At first he was making a little bit of noise like yelling and then he stopped,” Peterson said. “I knew he was dead.”
Peterson would spend the next four days entombed in his sister’s crumbled Port-au-Prince apartment and emerge as a lucky survivor after the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake. Treatment of his injuries would land him and his fractured family in the United States.
Today, Peterson, now 12, and his mother, Amenise Jean-Baptiste, are learning to survive a new life in South Florida.
Trapped and terrified
Unable to heave the pile of debris that pressed on his head, and with his best friend dead, Peterson remained trapped and terrified. “I couldn’t, I just left it alone,” he said.
He fell in and out of consciousness. No food or water. When he could, he screamed, “Help me!” No one answered.
On the fourth day, Peterson said he felt his head would burst. The pain was excruciating. People were walking on top of the blocks that pinned him down, searching for lost loved ones.
“I felt like the blocks were pushing my head down more and more,” he said. “I started yelling for them to stop walking, but they couldn’t listen I think.”
Someone heard Peterson’s cries. His mother, who had frantically been searching for him nearby, asked the neighborhood men to dig.
“I heard him yelling. I knew it was my son,” said Jean-Baptiste, who had been at the market when the earthquake struck.
A group of men and women freed Peterson.
“I kind of seen like the light, the sunlight bright from a little hole,” he said. “That’s when I said, ‘I’m here.’ ”
Peterson would travel to three different hospitals before he ended up at the Project Medishare field hospital on the grounds of the international airport.
There, he met Dr. Chad Perlyn of Miami Children’s Hospital, who was in Haiti volunteering.
Perlyn said he didn’t realize the extent of Peterson’s injuries until he gingerly peeled back the bandages the previous hospital had wrapped around Peterson’s head .
“When I saw him and took off his bandages, his wounds were profound. He had lost most of his cheek and his facial bones were crushed and his ear had been torn off and a large part of his scalp was missing. And really the amazing thing was his face was full of maggots.”
After being treated for gangrene and a number of infections, Peterson and his mom were flown to Miami along with 17 other children who were in need of more serious medical attention.
When he arrived in Miami days after the earthquake for medical treatment, Peterson spoke very little English. He underwent 16 surgeries at Miami Children’s Hospital to reconstruct his ear, his left cheek and parts of his scalp. He now bears a thick scar that runs across his left cheek and several thinner scars on his head.