Tennis friends make a rescue from Haiti

They had to save Jean-Maurice Duval.

Amid all the suffering in Haiti, where the scope of the devastation is almost impossible to grasp, a small group at the Racquet Club of the South fixated on one man. Snatching that man from the rubble and giving him a chance at life would require some heaven-and-earth moving, a generous soul with a big credit limit, and a chain of good fortune that stretched from Atlanta to Florida to Port-au-Prince.

Here was the payoff, a text message that flashed at 3:59 p.m. on Jan. 16 to all the key players in the drama: “THEY GOT HIM!!!!!! Should be in Fl. abt 6:30 P. And they’re shutting down flights so we got in and out in the [nick] of time. A miracle.”

Duval was aboard the life-flight jet out of Haiti. Today, his broken body knits in a Fort Lauderdale hospital, while he battles a pernicious infection. His daughter Vickie, a top-ranked junior player out of the Racquet Club of the South in Norcross, still has a father. His wife, Nadine, who moved to the U.S. nearly six years ago, still has a husband.

When Nadine Duval moved 14-year-old Vickie from the Bollettieri Academy in Florida to the Norcross club four months ago, it was to tweak the prodigy’s training. Nadine now believes there was another reason.

“A friend of mine told me, ‘God had the plan. You didn’t move to Atlanta for your daughter’s tennis. I’m sorry, you moved for this [saving Jean-Maurice],” Nadine told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a phone interview from Florida.

The Duvals had only begun to settle into their lives at the Racquet Club of the South — where Vickie trains and does much of her home schooling as part of the scholarship program — when the earthquake ravaged their homeland.

They had moved to the U.S. (the Duvals’ two sons are in college in Florida) shortly after a thug had waved a gun at young Vickie. The threat of kidnapping was constant. Jean-Maurice, a gynecologist and obstetrician, remained in Port-au-Prince with his practice, supporting his family in America.

Jean-Maurice had just finished a long holiday visit in Atlanta, returning to Haiti just two days before the earthquake. When it struck, it left his family back in the States grasping for any detail. They knew nothing of Jean-Maurice’s condition for several long hours.

Late that night, they got word he was in a hospital. But given spotty communications, it would be another day and a half before they learned how serious his injuries were.

Jean-Maurice had tried to flee his house when the trembler began. He made it just outside when the walls collapsed and carried him into the yard beneath a wave of concrete. His legs were pinned, both broken, his left arm was shattered, five ribs were broken, one puncturing his lung. Knocked unconscious, he awoke nearly a half hour later and managed to dig himself free and crawl to his cellphone to summon friends for help.

As grave as his injuries were, Jean-Maurice saw himself a lesser priority than many others at the overwhelmed hospital where he was taken. He called on another friend, a doctor, to take him away. That friend inserted a chest tube, without anesthesia, to help Jean-Maurice breathe.

By that Thursday, it was becoming clear how desperate his situation was. While Jean-Maurice rested as best he could outside his friend’s ruined home, he developed an infection.

By Friday, the options were two. Either Jean-Maurice would get out of Haiti, or he would die there.

“Things changed from ‘I wish we could do something’ to ‘We’ve got to get him out,’” said Anne Keeton, the player liaison at the Racquet Club of the South.

Despite all the reports about how inaccessible post-earthquake Haiti was, the determination to extract Jean-Maurice grew. Vickie’s coach and part owner at the racquet club, Brian de Villiers, was in Australia with his headline player, Melanie Oudin. From there, he simply told the staff back in Norcross, “Do whatever it takes. Get him out.”

It fell on Keeton to midwife an improbable rescue. In turn, it fell on two of the club’s members — Harry and Charlotte Kitchen — to back the effort.

The Kitchens had gotten to know Vickie through their own daughters — Ashley and Natalie — who also train at the club. They had shared a few dinners with the girl and her mother during breaks at a tournament around Thanksgiving. In the soloist world of junior tennis, the Kitchens had always endorsed the family atmosphere the Racquet Club was trying to create.

“The club embraced Vickie Duval and her mother from the start,” Harry said.

“I just think people are nicer here than they were in Florida,” Vickie said.

From Atlanta, Charlotte called her husband in Hilton Head when she learned of Jean-Maurice’s deteriorating condition.

“Vickie’s father needs to get out of Haiti. He is in very critical condition,” she told him.

“I’m very sorry honey. What do you think I can do?” was his first response.

“Well, you can do something, and you need to do it.”

“OK, I need to do something, but what is it? I can’t go to Haiti.”

“And then,” Harry remembered, “she said, ‘You can figure it out,’ and hung up. And that was that.”

The real estate developer and Keeton began the search for a minor miracle. Calls to the U.S. State Department, the Haitian embassy in Washington, the Mayo Clinic and a series of other life-flight companies were dead ends.

Finally, they were directed to a Fort Lauderdale-based company, Trinity Air, whose motto happens to be, “When others can’t do it, Trinity can.”

Trinity had made one other successful pick-up in Port-au-Prince, after circling the airport for hours and once being diverted to Guantanamo, Cuba. They decided to take on another assignment for a fee that would range between $18,000 to $28,000, according to the difficulties they might encounter. The bill ended up to be $18,000.

Kitchen gave Trinity his American Express card number and told them to charge whatever it took. All to help a man whose first name Kitchen didn’t know at the time.

At any one of a dozen key moments, this story could have taken a tragic detour.

Nadine said her husband hates cellphones, but happened to be talking to someone on his when the earthquake hit. Otherwise, his phone wouldn’t have been in reach later when he needed to call for help.

Without his passport, Jean-Maurice would not have been allowed to leave the country. A small group performed a needle-in-a-haystack search of the ruins of his home and somehow unearthed it.

When there was barely enough time to get Jean-Maurice to the airport before the window for departure closed, a policeman whose family members had been patients of the doctor helped clear the path to the airport.

Timing and opportunity intersected perfectly.

“When we got the word, I remember a lot of tears and lot of happy jumping around,” said his daughter, Vickie.

“It’s a beautiful story of human love of coming together and helping one another,” said Nadine Duval.

Jean-Maurice is not in the clear yet. He remained in intensive care this weekend. His family imagines beginning a new life with them all together in Atlanta, since Jean-Maurice’s clinic was destroyed and his injuries will prohibit him from practicing medicine anytime soon. The racquet club has begun a fund to help the family. Donors may go to nationaltennisfoundation.org to contribute.

While he heals, Keeton and the Kitchens are decompressing from an experience that drained them completely. When Keeton got word of the successful pick-up, she collapsed in tears.

“We really were overcome with emotion,” Harry Kitchen said. “Both overwhelmed with our good fortune being able help someone but also with sadness that so many people are suffering and we could only help one.”

Everything that needed to be said in the aftermath fit in another text message, this one sent out by Nadine Duval to her friends at the racquet club on Saturday afternoon, Jan. 16:

“I’m so deeply moved. Tomorrow is my husband’s b-day [his 54th] and the Kitchens have granted him the amazing present of LIFE! We are so grateful and appreciative.”

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