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Jim Kenyon: ‘Chaos and waiting’ as DHMC couple stuck in Haiti amid pandemic

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 3/24/2020 9:24:38 PM
Modified: 3/24/2020 9:24:35 PM

With everything that’s happening in the world, the announcement late Thursday that Haiti had abruptly closed its two international airports due to the growing coronavirus pandemic was easy to miss.

The news, however, wasn’t lost on Eric and Teresa Bauernschmidt. The West Windsor couple found themselves stranded in Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince last week with no immediate way out.

The Bauernschmidts are in the process of adopting three boys — brothers all under the age of 10 — from an orphanage in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

On March 14, the Bauernschmidts flew to Port-au-Prince to meet the boys for the first time. The couple was scheduled to return to the U.S. on an American Airlines flight last Friday. (The boys must remain at the orphanage in the small Caribbean country until their adoptions are finalized.)

When the airport closings were announced, it was believed a few commercial flights from the U.S. and Cuba would still be allowed. With that in mind, the Bauernschmidts headed for the Port-au-Prince airport on Friday morning with the driver they had hired to take them around the city of more than 1 million people.

At the airport’s entrance, they encountered a police roadblock and were ordered to turn around. The Haitian government had reversed its earlier decision to keep the airport open for U.S. and Cuban flights, the Miami Herald reported.

I can guess what many people are thinking about now: Why did the couple risk going to Haiti in the first place?

The Bauernschmidts both work at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where Eric, 38, is a nurse anesthetist and Teresa, 35, is a nurse practitioner.

Before they left for Haiti nearly two weeks ago, they knew the coronavirus outbreak was likely to worsen. (Haiti didn’t have its first two confirmed cases until late last week.)

They also knew that on March 5, the U.S. State Department advised Americans not to travel to Haiti due to ongoing civil unrest and crime in the country.

“It’s not something we took lightly,” Eric told me in a phone interview Monday from Haiti.

But after talking with their contacts in Haiti, the Bauernschmidts, who visited the country in 2017, figured the benefits outweighed the risks.

The “socialization visit,” as it’s known, is a “big hurdle” in the adoption process, Teresa said. The couple couldn’t begin the immigration paperwork to get the brothers into the U.S. until after the visit, which lasted several days.

With the coronavirus outbreak worsening, Teresa said, “If we didn’t go now, we knew it was going to be a while.”

The Bauernschmidts, who don’t have children, started the Haitian adoption process 3½ years ago.

“This is something we’ve wanted to do,” Eric told me. “It’s something we have a heart for.”

With the airport closed last Friday, the Bauernschmidts headed for the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince. They joined a half-dozen Americans already in line in the embassy’s courtyard. No one was being allowed inside, but the embassy took the Bauernschmidts’ contact information over the phone.

“There was a fair number of people in similar situations to us,” Eric told me. “Essentially, we got zero help.”

On Sunday, The Hill website reported that tens of thousands of Americans were stuck in more than a dozen countries where airports, along with land and sea crossings, have closed in recent weeks.

During crises, everyday Americans rely on their U.S. embassies to help them out of tight spots. I have to wonder how much Donald Trump’s gutting of what he calls the “deep state department” has contributed to so many Americans having trouble getting home.

On Friday, the Bauernschmidts drove to a hotel near the airport that the embassy had recommended. When they got there, it was closed.

Fortunately, the guest house they had been staying in, located in a Port-au-Prince gated community, was still available. It also provides meals.

Realizing the U.S. embassy wasn’t going to be much help, the couple started sending off emails to the Upper Valley. They reached out to state Rep. Zachariah Ralph, whom they met at the West Windsor Town Meeting in early March. Ralph initiated a chain of emails to elected officials that resulted in Vermont’s congressional delegation getting involved. Friends at DHMC also emailed Washington. (I heard about their predicament from a DHMC doc.)

Sen. Patrick Leahy’s staff took the lead in working with the State Department to assist the Bauernschmidts and other Vermonters stranded in foreign countries in similar predicaments. (Leahy is vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has a large say in State Department funding.)

For the past few days, the Bauernschmidts have been in a holding pattern while the situation in Haiti has grown more tense. The country is under an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. The Associated Press reported that by Friday afternoon, gas stations had largely run out of fuel and supermarkets were crowded with people buying up food and water.

“At the grocery store yesterday, they had armed guards outside,” Teresa emailed Monday. “If this virus hits here it will be devastating for the people of Haiti. I just pray it doesn’t spread beyond the two travel-related cases.”

On the phone, Eric told me that he and his wife were in a “good place and we’re safe, but we’re certainly anxious to get home.”

They’ve stayed in touch with friends at Trinity Evangelical Free Church in Windsor. “They are special people,” said Paul Voltmer, the church’s pastor. “They knew (traveling to Haiti) was a risk, but the window for getting the adoption done was small. We’re praying they get home.”

On Monday, the Bauernschmidts learned Eastern Airlines (a rebirth of the carrier that folded 30 years ago) was being allowed into Haiti. Shortly after we talked Monday afternoon, they were able to book a Tuesday evening flight to Miami, albeit an expensive one. A ticket for the 45-minute flight has jumped from $200 to $1,400 since last week. They’re scheduled to fly to Boston on Wednesday.

As of Tuesday afternoon, they didn’t expect to travel alone to Miami. Plans called for them to escort two boys whose adoption by a U.S. family was just finalized.

“We can’t bring our boys home yet, but we can bring these two boys,” Teresa said. “It makes all this chaos and waiting so worth it.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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