The Power of Love cont'd...
The passion for helping children in third world countries began for husband and wife team Drs. Ellen and Jeff Kempf 25 years ago with their first mission to Northern Haiti. Since that trip, they have donated their time in Belize, Guatamala, Kenya and Ethiopia, in many cases opting to carry their personal affects in a backpack so that they could use their quota of two checked bags to carry medical supplies to their destination. When Jeff heard from a coworker in Akron Children's Hospital's Emergency Department about the desperate need in Haiti after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake they suffered in January of 2010, he and Dr. John Pope, a pediatric critical care physician at Children’s, headed on a mission to St. Damien's Hospital, the only pediatric hospital in Haiti. What they found was a 120-bed hospital delivering acute and crisis care to the sickest of the sick children in this island nation. At the time, Haiti was still experiencing strong aftershocks, so much of the care was performed in courtyards near the hospital rather than in the concrete, two-story hospital.
In subsequent trips to Haiti, the Kempf's watched helplessly while children who would have had fairly routine heart surgery in the United States died needlessly due to a lack of resources in their home country. This was something they could not just accept and walk away from.
Then Jeff found out about a non-profit called Gift of Life who had arranged for surgeries for patients at St. Damien's in the past. Surprisingly, there was a Northeast Ohio branch of Gift of Life who had previously provided heart surgeries at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland.
In November of 2010, Bill Considine, CEO of Akron Children's Hospital, along with Ellen Kempf, Vanita Oelschlager, and other volunteers from the Akron area went to earthquake-ravaged Haiti to join Jeff. In this instance, they had the opportunity to fly on the Oelschlager’s private jet, allowing them to bring fresh linens donated by Paris Linen, toys donated by Little Tikes, and a much needed ventilator, among other supplies. So when the Kempfs approached Bill Considine about bringing children to Akron through Gift of Life, his answer was that we SHOULD do this. Gift of Life provides a token payment of $5,000 toward each child’s surgery, the remainder of the cost is borne by the hospital.
The process then began to decide who should come to Akron Children's for surgery. Dr. J. R. Bockoven, a cardiologist at Children's, helped to assess each patient's information to decide who would have the best outcome with the least risk and the least need for follow-up. Once the field was narrowed to two candidates, Dr. John Clark, another Children’s cardiologist, had the task of going over the procedures, along with their risks, with the families of those selected. Then, two young boys, Kurtis Petion, 17 months old, and Elie Pierre, just shy of his fourth birthday, along with Denso Gay, a Haitian interpreter and employee at St. Damien's, were on their way to Akron. Due to governmental difficulties in Haiti, the boys’ parents were unable to come with them.
In anticipation of their stay, Jeff approached the Ronald McDonald House of Akron to get a tour of the House and find out what services they could provide. While the children were having their surgeries it would be essential to have a place for their interpreter, Denso, to stay that would be close to Children’s Hospital.
The Kempf's had already decided that they would serve as surrogate parents for the children when they were in Akron but the challenge was in preparing for their arrival. Jeff's first meeting with Kurtis and Elie was only two days before they met at the airport and their parents gave them into his care for the next six weeks. Jeff remembers Kurtis's father, a 6'4" man, crying as he handed his son to Jeff, saying, "Make sure you keep him safe."
On the plane, the entourage was halfway to Cleveland Hopkins Airport before they discovered that Elie's first name was Elie and not Pierre (his last name). But this was a minor bump compared to the questions that arose at home with the Kempfs’. Were either of the boys potty trained? What did they like to eat? How would they react to being in a strange new country without their parents? If the boys had trouble sleeping through the night, how would the Kempfs handle being sleep-deprived parents again?
While there were some challenges, the community surrounding this new family began to kick in. Denso became the Kempfs’ link to the boys, being a caretaker to them, helping the Kempfs to navigate the language barrier with them, even sleeping in the same room with the boys--that is when they weren't sleeping with their new surrogate parents. Elizabeth Kempf, Ellen’s and Jeff’s daughter, made up a list of the top 50 phrases in Creole that would be necessary for parenting (“Stop,” “Come here,” “Are you hungry,” etc.), which they copied and laminated and carried with them. Ellen had lists of people willing to stay overnight and help with Elie and Kurtis. The Kempfs’ banker would drop off lasagna and cupcakes. Medical residents at Children's found read-along books written in Creole. There were donated clothes and toys, so many that the boys went back to Haiti with two suitcases packed with them. There was support from Little Tikes and GoJo. There was support from the hospital, from the Kempfs’ friends and from their adult children. While Denso stayed at the Kempfs’ home with the children, he spent time at the Ronald McDonald House when the boys were having their surgeries.
Once Elie and Kurtis were discharged from Children’s, Denso, Jeff and the boys made a visit to the House to thank the staff and volunteers for the good care they showed to Denso and to introduce them to these special visitors from Haiti. Aside from thoroughly enjoying the visit, staff and volunteers showered the children with presents from the House. Everyone at the Ronald McDonald House is looking forward to being a part of the community that will care for future patients who will come to Akron through Gift of Life and the Kempfs.
In the spirit of that sense of community, five medical residents from Akron Children’s (a few of whom the Kempfs did not know) offered to babysit for Elie and Kurtis during their stay in Akron so that Jeff and Ellen could have a “date night.” The Kempfs came home to find the boys had had their baths, had snacks, had story time, and had sung songs with the residents, but had not been put to bed!
In speaking with the Kempfs, their love for Elie and Kurtis came shining through, but something that Ellen said struck me. She said that with Elie's engaging personality and obvious intelligence she could see him being president of Haiti one day. It is true, he could grow up to be president. Or a doctor. Or a missionary. But because of the love of two amazing doctors and the support of the community around them, Elie gets to grow up and decide.
The Kempfs, along with Children’s Hospital and Gift of Life, are hoping to bring four children to Akron for heart surgery in the coming year. To get more information on St. Damien’s Hospital in Haiti, visit stdamienhospital.nph.org, and for more information about Gift of Life, visit giftoflifeinternational.org.
Article by Casey Hughes.