Faith as medicine

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The story begins in 1999 with a mango tree in Hinche, Haiti.

Saint Fleur Junior Charles, or simply Junior as most people call him, was 16 years old when he jumped into a tree, fell and broke his spinal cord. Nine friends carried him unconscious to the nearest hospital. When Junior woke up, he had no recollection of his fateful fall. His mother, Anne Marie Charles, a housemaid in Port-Au-Prince, 100 miles away, arrived later that evening and sat by her son's side. According to Junior, now 32, she remained there for the next two years.

Paralyzed from the waist down, Junior spent the next two years in bed, sometimes his own, sometimes in a hospital. He said every doctor he and his mother met agreed that Junior would spend the rest of his life bedridden. He withdrew from school, and Anne Marie, a single mother, left her job to care for him. Junior said that during this period, he woke up every morning hoping he would die.

Meanwhile, Anne Marie, now 69, whom her son describes as a faith-filled woman, prayed for an answer. Then one day, Junior said, it came.

Frustrated with local doctors, his mother decided they would leave Haiti for the island's more prosperous neighboring country, the Dominican Republic. Anne Marie reasoned that the doctors there were better trained and equipped with more resources at bigger, cleaner hospitals.

Peter Dirr, a board member for Medical Missionaries, a global health organization based in Manassas that runs St. Joseph's Clinic in Thomassique, Haiti, confirmed that Anne Marie's instincts were good.

"The people living in the central plateau off Haiti are some of the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere," he said. "In the Dominican Republic, people are poor but many times better off."

Junior trusted his mother, but was worried that they lacked passports and visas.

"How were we going to go to another country?" he asked.

Anne Marie insisted they would find a solution. A week later, a woman Junior had never met came to the hospital and handed him an envelope containing $500, a small fortune in Haiti. Lourde, as he learned she was named, only said that she knew he needed it.

Anne Marie used the money to hire a truck and driver to take them across the border. Yet before Junior and his mother could leave for the Dominican Republic, they had to go shopping. Anne Marie had no shoes, and Junior had nothing but bathing trunks.

When the truck Anne Marie hired arrived, she put a mattress in the back for Junior since he could not sit up or join his mother in the cabin of the pickup. Then they were off.

"We had no idea where we were going," Junior said.

The driver pushed through until the truck could go no farther. Because it was the middle of the rainy season, the rivers had flooded and turned the dirt roads into thick mud that the truck could not pass through. Anne Marie went searching for someone to help carry Junior to shelter. She found four strangers willing to carry him over two rivers to the nearest clinic.

Three or four hours later, they met one of the people Junior credits for changing his life: Father Jack O'Hara, now parochial vicar at Holy Family Church in Dale City.

"Father Jack really adopted Junior as his godchild," said Dirr.

Father O'Hara was serving at the Arlington Diocese's mission in the city of Bánica (where Father Keith O'Hare and Father Jason Weber now serve) when he recognized Junior's need for help. He facilitated the medical attention Anne Marie desperately wanted for her son. But just as in Haiti, doctors in the Dominican Republic said he would remain bedridden. Father O'Hara and Anne Marie were not ready to give up, though Junior said he was convinced he would be confined to a bed for the rest of his life.

"I didn't cry because my mother was sadder than I was," said Junior. "I had to have courage."

Then came the fall of 2001 when an American doctor in Santo Domingo suggested amputating one of Junior's legs and operating on the opposite hip to make it possible for him to use a wheelchair.

The plan worked.

By winter, after Junior had become comfortable in his wheelchair, Father O'Hara began asking him what he wanted to do. He said he wanted to finish high school.

Junior went back to high school and graduated in 2006. With Father O'Hara's assistance, he went to college, studied Spanish and English at night and graduated first in his class with a degree in public administration in 2010.

But even after the operation, his medical woes were not over.

One day in 2008, Father O'Hara noticed that Junior's eyes looked strange. He had a fever and tightness in his chest. Junior had a bone infection that led to sepsis. Father O'Hara arranged for Junior to go to St. Joseph's Clinic, where American doctors from Medical Missionaries were visiting. After what Dirr described as a "serious surgery," Junior rested in the hospital for a week and then at home for another two.

Three and a half years later, after Junior graduated from college and could not find a job, he began volunteering at St. Joseph's Clinic as an assistant administrator. By July 2012, he was hired full-time while he studied at night to pursue his law degree.

Father O'Hara said Junior's outstanding efforts and his willingness to learn eventually led to his promotion as hospital administrator. Junior took the initiative to organize the hospital's medicine and supplies, which had previously been kept unalphabetized on the floor, and to digitize thousands of patient records. He also started a garden, allowing patients to get staples like beans and plantains after a visit to the doctor.

Through partnerships with the University of Notre Dame and Washington University-St. Louis, the hospital now has programs that provide the community with fortified salt, clean water and high-protein food supplements for malnourished children, among other services. Under his administration, Junior said the hospital sees about 50 patients a day, or 25,000 patients every year. Annually, an average of 500 babies are born at St. Joseph's Clinic.

Impressed by his success, Medical Missionaries has brought Junior to Manassas two summers in a row. Last year, he came for the organization's annual fundraising gala. This July, Dr. Gary and Sharon DeRosa, who are parishioners at All Saints Church in Manassas, hosted Junior at their home for a week. During his trip to Virginia, he met with Medical Missionaries staff, went to doctor and dentist appointments and spent time with Father O'Hara, who continues to mentor him.

"In Hinche, I had no spiritual experience. It was my mother who had a lot of faith," Junior said. "I remember going to get my MRI and Father Jack telling me, 'You need to have faith.' Now faith guides me every day. I have no fear. I used to go to bed without saying my prayers. Now I wake up to pray daily. I thank God. I thank my mother. I thank Father Jack because I'm alive. I went through some really terrible times, but I like my life now."

Today, Junior spends his days and nights working, praying, taking care of his mother and writing a book on handicapped law. He hopes to one day become a judge who rules on cases related to rights for the handicapped.

"If you have faith, medicine works faster," said Junior. "You have hope. No stress."

Find out more

To learn more about the Medical Missionaries of Manassas or make a donation, go to medmissionaries.org. To donate to Bánica Mission, go to banicamission.com/donate.

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015