His skin is healing, his spirits are soaring A 3-year-old Haitian could be joined by a friend.

Posted: April 27, 2005

The little boy with the skin grafts on his face toddled past rows of glum adults in the waiting room of St. Luke's North hospital in Bethlehem.

He was headed for physical therapy, which is sometimes painful, often uncomfortable and, for most people, not much fun.

But the minute that 3-year-old Gregory Andre spotted his therapist, he bolted toward him and jumped into his arms. Off they went, chattering like old friends.

Which, by now, they are.

Just five months ago, Heather Maeding brought Gregory to the United States from an orphanage in Haiti so that he could get medical care. He was clingy and skinny and scarred from head to toe from third-degree burns.

Since then, he's had several surgeries and skin grafts. He's grown two inches and gained five pounds. And he no longer wakes up crying for Heather in the night.

But his six-month medical visa expires May 19, the day after his birthday, and Heather is praying that she'll be able to get his visa extended. Then she and her husband, Glen, hope to make him a permanent part of their young family, which already includes two toddlers - a biological child and an adopted son with chronic lung disease.

The idea didn't seem so complicated last year. But the political situation in Haiti continues to be volatile, and Heather knows that the foreign adoption of a Haitian child, even one with serious medical needs, is no sure thing.

Now the Maedings want to adopt a second child from the orphanage - a little girl who was Gregory's best friend there. Heather had a feeling when she met Carlene Pierre, who at age 3 is HIV-positive, that it was "meant to be."

One day, when they were packing up clothes and toys to send from their Nazareth, Pa., home to Carlene at the orphanage, Heather asked Gregory, "What do you want to send Carlene?"

"Gregory!" he yelled.

His pronunciation sometimes needs help, but he is now fluent in English. When Heather speaks to him in his native Creole, Gregory sometimes says "no" - and answers her in English.

She talks back to him in Creole. She has to.

In case he goes back.

*

Heather, a nurse practitioner who has volunteered at Haitian medical clinics, learned Gregory's story from workers at God's Littlest Angels, the orphanage near Port-au-Prince: He was abandoned on April 17, 2004, and was probably burned by falling face first into a charcoal-filled cooking pit.

"His story struck my heart," she said.

The burns formed ugly scars that forced his right eye open even when he slept, pulled his mouth down, and splayed both of his pinky fingers outward. Without surgery, Heather learned, he could lose sight in his eye and the ability to grasp things in his palms.

She lobbied doctors and hospitals in Philadelphia until St. Christopher's Hospital for Children agreed to treat Gregory for free. In December, doctors removed burn scars on his hands and face and replaced them with artificial skin. In January, his own skin was grafted over the artificial layer, and earlier this month, his right eye had more work. He will need additional surgery.

Today the grafts are healing, although his thighs - where the skin was removed - need watching so they don't become scarred. His slender fingers are straighter but need strengthening, which he gets from physical therapy several times a week. The therapy is donated at St. Luke's Hospital, where Heather works in the neonatal intensive-care unit.

To prevent new scars, Gregory wears green or chocolate-colored pressurized gloves on his hands and forearms, neon orange pressure shorts, and a clear plastic face mask. Because of the recent work done on his eye, he needs a better fitting mask, which will cost another $2,200. He'll be measured next month.

He wears the mask 23 hours a day, taking a break only for a bath. But he doesn't seem to mind. Life is good.

He's still scared of the ocean. The Easter bunny was a nightmare. While he used to sit quietly in church, now he is walking around and wanting to color. "He's Mr. Independent," Heather says.

And a favorite at physical therapy.

"How are you, Mr. Gregory?" therapist Brian J. Smith asks as their session begins.

"Good," Gregory replies, lunging for a dump truck.

To get Gregory's fingers moving, Smith cajoles him into putting plastic squares, triangles and circles into the appropriate spaces, tossing beanbags into a bucket, and pounding mounds of Silly Putty.

While Gregory is playing, Smith massages his fingers and forearms and works on range of motion. Smith makes so many silly noises and faces that his tiny charge plays right through the discomfort that the exercises cause.

"Let's put the bags in the bucket," Smith says finally.

But Gregory is played out. "No, thank you," he protests in a small voice, sending Smith - and then himself - into hysterics.

When Gregory left the orphanage with Heather last November, he brought with him a short video of Carlene that Heather had shot. Once in his new home in Northampton County, with a new family, new country, new everything, he did not forget her.

He asked to play the video again and again. "Carlene," he would say, pointing to the screen.

The Maedings hoped that a couple they were close to would adopt her. But their friends hesitated, not because of the HIV but because they were older - and already had seven children.

Then, one night in late February, Glen turned to Heather. If their friends decided not to adopt Carlene, he said, "I think we should adopt her."

Heather was stunned. And then relieved.

"When I went to Haiti and met Carlene, I thought, 'We are meant to adopt her,' " Heather said. "Then I came home and thought 'no way.' We had not even decided to adopt Gregory yet."

As a nurse practitioner, Heather knows that Carlene's HIV would not be a death sentence but a manageable disease. At the moment, Carlene receives HIV drugs through a clinical trial at Cornell University.

Heather also knows that she and Glen are blessed with family and friends - doctors and nurses and people from their church - who will embrace Carlene as they have Gregory. Her parents already baby-sit.

"I felt this was God calling me to provide her with a home and security that she may never get if we never bring her into our family," Glen, who is deaf, wrote in an e-mail.

How the application to adopt a second child from God's Littlest Angels will affect Gregory's situation isn't known. Both applications are with the Haitian government now.

Meanwhile, Gregory's packages for Carlene arrive regularly at the orphanage - lollipops and a baby doll, hair barrettes and power bars, new sandals and shorts.

Back come pictures of a radiant Carlene holding her new doll, Carlene modeling her new orange outfit or wearing pretty barrettes in her hair.

Gregory points to the images, one by one. "Carlene," he says, "Carlene."

Contact staff writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

Inquirer readers have given $10,000 toward Gregory's nonsurgical medical bills. Contributions can be sent to the address below. Indicate that the funds are to be used for that purpose:

God's Littlest Angels

2085 Crystal River Dr.

Colorado Springs, Colo. 80915

Information about God's Littlest Angels orphanage in Haiti is available at www.gla-missions.org.

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