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Healing the Children

Family Becomes More Than Host to Injured Haitian Girl

By Vincent T. Davis
San Antonio Express-News

When the Tips family vacationed in the northern coastal region of Costa Rica, they saw scenes that lingered long after they departed. They arrived during Spring Break in March 2010 to visit a friend who had opened a preschool. It was the first time the three Tips children had seen poverty up close as their Jeep rolled past youngsters in tattered clothes, asleep on the side of the road, as still as stone.

When they returned to San Antonio, Bev Halter, a local nurse, called Lori Tips with a request — could she host Naika Etienne, a 10-year-old girl who had suffered a compound fracture to her right leg when a cinder block wall crumbled on her during the Haiti earthquake.

The request came from Healing the Children, a nonprofit that dispatches medical teams abroad and transports youngsters with severe conditions from underdeveloped countries to the United States for medical treatment.

Lori Tips' husband, Fred, agreed they had to help. Her only worry was how the children would react to the proposal.

“Hey kids, come here, we have to run this by you,” she said as Natalie and Rocky, then 16 and 12, walked into the kitchen. They replied seconds after hearing the proposal.

“OK, yeah, we'll do it,” Rocky said. “When she's coming?”

The interviews were more involved. Each home visit left stacks of paperwork to fill out. There were background checks, fingerprinting and interviews by two nurses and Healing the Children Kentucky Chapter founder Steve Diamond.

The Tips' friends, former Express-News reporter Nicole Foy and her husband, KSAT-12 news anchor Steve Spriester, went through the same process to host Bethlie Paul, who also suffered a compound fracture in her right leg when her school building collapsed in the earthquake.

The nurses asked if the Tips were willing to do whatever it took to make Naika comfortable and change their lives to accommodate her. The answer was always, “Yes.”

Diamond flew to San Antonio for their final interview. He asked why the Tips wanted to foster Naika. Fred and Lori took a few seconds to compose an answer. Natalie and Rocky didn't hesitate.

“We felt this is a great way for our family to give back,” Natalie said, with the sleeping kids on Costa Rican roads still on her mind. “And help another person who has been through so much.”

“We as a family can do this,” Rocky added. “We've talked and this is something we want to do.”

The Tips are among the families that hosted more than 18 Haitian children injured in the 7.0 magnitude earthquake and evacuated to the United States for medical treatment. They joined a select group that's helped more than 7,000 children from 105 countries over the past three decades through the nonprofit's International Inbound Program. Their commitment was for six weeks as Naika recuperated after surgeries at Christus Santa Rosa Children's Hospital, which provided care pro bono. A year and a half later, Naika is more than a guest.

“It's like my family that I'm living with,” Naika said.

All host families go beyond the basic mission asked of them, Diamond said.

“They help the child navigate the health-care system, and when they're well enough, they return home,” he said. “These host parents really championed and formed lasting relations with these kids; it's the American spirit at its finest. I'm extremely proud of what they were able to accomplish.”

When the families arrived at the airport and saw Naika and Bethlie on stretchers, they knew their stay would be longer.

“They have nobody here, being thrown from one stranger to the next, they need something that's consistent through the hospital treatment,” Fred Tips said. “We were prepared for whatever it was going to be.”

Both families stayed with Naika and Bethlie at the hospital.

The main concern was saving the girls' lives, Tips recalled surgeon Dr. Travis Murray saying. If not for Medical Teams International, Christus Santa Rosa and several groups that carried out the airlift operation, the girls may have died from their open, infected wounds.

Naika and Bethlie left with external fixators, heavy, metal cylinders that held their bones intact. The Tips' felt helpless as Naika cried through each exercise of physical therapy, but they helped in other ways.

Rocky pushed her in a wheelchair through the halls at Alamo Heights Junior High before she was strong enough to move to crutches and then a walker. In the fall of 2010, Lori Tips taught her to swim; an activity Murray said strengthened her leg. While she was in a cast, Fred Tips carried her upstairs to her bedroom each night. Months later, she was back to the wheelchair — Murray had to re-break her leg above the knee to lengthen it.

Naika called her family weekly, savoring the chance to speak Creole. At the same time she was learning English at a fast clip with help from iPod apps, her foster siblings, school and classmates. It wasn't long before she moved from pointing to items to joking with her hosts in her new language.

She would stop Fred Tips in the kitchen and ask him, “Are you hungry?”

“Yeah, I'm hungry,” he'd answer.

“Hi, Hungry,” she'd say, laughing, “I'm Naika.”

“It was amazing, I still brag about her,” Natalie said. “I didn't know you could learn a language so quickly.”

Naika left San Antonio in late summer and took a flight to Boston to live with relatives. There were tears and promises they wouldn't say “Goodbye,” but “See you later,” as she walked to her gate at the airport.

“Seeing someone you've lived with for a long time walk out of your life is really hard,” Rocky said.

Days after Naika left, Natalie would walk into her bedroom, expecting to see Naika dancing and gushing about her favorite pop singer, Justin Bieber.

“She always will be my little sister,” Natalie said.

Naika talks with the Tips' once a day about everything from chats she's had with her family in Haiti to problems with her iPod. Recently, Lori Tips talked to Naika before she went to bed about coming back to San Antonio for Christmas.

She told her she might visit Naika's family in Haiti in January. Her oldest son, Quatro, is working to raise money to build a complex for Naika's relatives and several other families near the ruins of their old home.

If she makes the trip, she plans to tell Naika's mother how her 12-year-old daughter made a deep impact on many people thousands of miles away.

“I feel that we got as much out of the experience as Naika,” Lori Tips said. “She's a member of the family.”

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