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Encounters | An occasional feature

One year later, a survivor can't bear to face the world

Magdala Joseph has tried different things to lift her out of the depression that set in after surviving the Haitian earthquake and losing her baby and leg. But nothing has worked.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Magdala Joseph has tried different things to lift her out of the depression that set in after surviving the Haitian earthquake and losing her baby and leg. But nothing has worked.

TAMPA

The bedroom door is closed. Not because it is the one-year anniversary of the earthquake. Not because it muffles the gurgling sounds of the month-old baby in the other room. But because Magdala Joseph can't bear to face the world.

It is noon on Jan. 12. A year ago at this same time, Magdala had a beautiful, month-old baby boy, an adoring husband, a university degree and a job as an accountant.

"The world was mine," she whispers. "Then, in seconds, I had nothing."

She waves her hand in front of her, palm down as if she were wiping something away.

"Nothing," she says again.

At 4:52 p.m. on that day in January 2010, she was at home in Carrefour, Haiti, nursing her baby, Gimpsley Lenny Joseph. He wore a little blue knit cap and a matching top. A minute later, the masonry house shook. The masonry house where Magdala sat in a big cushy chair, next to a spray of bougainvilleas on the coffee table.

She woke up a week later in a Port-au-Prince hospital, asking for her son. No one said he was dead, still under the rubble. No one said her right leg would need to be amputated below the knee, or that it didn't matter because she was paralyzed below the waist.

"I didn't know until I got to Florida that it was over for me," she said.

She was one of the lucky ones: Airlifted to Tampa. Treated with the best medical technology. Cared for by wonderful nurses and doctors. Installed in a furnished apartment in South Tampa from Catholic Charities.

"Lucky?" she asks.

Every day, she puts on a matching outfit and maneuvers her wheelchair around the room to make up her twin bed with perfect hospital corners. Her thick Larousse French/English dictionary is on a table next to her child-care books. Perfumes and moisturizers cover the dresser, along with a vase of silk tropical flowers and a teddy bear. Tapes in English.

But she doesn't see them.

"I only see the sound in my head that never stops," she says.

She tried church. She tried counseling. She tried physical therapy. Taking the bus places. Helping with dinner. Talking to neighbors. But the sound always shuts her in.

"The sound of no tranquillity," she calls it.

In the living room of the two-bedroom apartment, her roommates, also earthquake refugees, hold up their baby boy and laugh. He wears a little blue knit cap and matching top like the one her child died in.

"He is our future," his mother says.

From her room, Magdala hears this and looks away.

Her baby was dumped in a mass grave. She can't imagine having another. Her university degree, thumb-tacked to the wall, yellows. Outside, her husband circles on a bicycle in the parking lot, reluctant to go back to a room with a door that is always closed.

On this day of blue skies and bright sun, dozens of Haitians in the apartment complex go to doctors' appointments, apply for jobs and walk their children home from school. But not Magdala Joseph. She closes her eyes and puts her hands over her ears.

Meg Laughlin can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8068.

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Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of it. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor Mike Wilson at [email protected] or (727) 892-2924.

One year later, a survivor can't bear to face the world 01/16/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 17, 2011 7:36am]
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