Faith & survival, a newly ordained priest returns home

Posted on 08/15/11

By Kaitlin Keane, PIH summer intern

Walking the tall, tiled halls of St. Thomas Seminary, Norbert Tibeau looks almost at ease. Having survived a decade of illness and pain, he is finally healthy; and the stone buildings of the serene Connecticut seminary have become a temporary home.

It is a stark contrast to the world he left in Haiti, where the 28-year-old student suffered from a cerebral aneurysm that plagued him for most of his adult life. With debilitating headaches came a constant fear of death, as the weakened blood vessel in Norbert’s brain ballooned to a staggering two-centimeters – making complicated surgery his best chance for survival. 

The surgery was not an option in Haiti, where health systems do not have the capacity for complex interventions such as brain surgery. But treatment became a reality for Norbert last year when the Partners In Health’s Right to Health Care (RTHC) team arranged his travel to the United States to have the aneurysm removed. While hopeful, the trip was also shrouded in tragedy – coming months after Norbert’s life was forever changed by the destruction that befell Haiti in the January 12, 2010 earthquake.


Right to Health Care patient Norbert meets with Dr. Ketan Bulsara before returning to Haiti.

A life-saving illness

Norbert was 13 when he first knew he wanted to be a priest – just a few years before realizing he was very sick. By the time he entered seminary school in Port-au-Prince at 18, the headaches had become more severe and often left him bedridden for a week at a time.

After his first diagnosis – a Haitian doctor incorrectly told Norbert he had a brain tumor – he struggled with the decision to tell his mentors in the seminary that he was sick, fearing he would be forced to leave the program. Having a terminal illness, he worried, could make him appear too weak for a life serving the church.

“In Haiti, there is no distinction between diseases like AIDS and cancer,” Norbert explained with the help of his translator, Matthew Isaac, a fellow Haitian and seminarian at St. Thomas. “If you have a type of serious disease, you have a deadline – you will die.”

But summoning the courage to speak to the priests helped save his life, as one of them reached out to Michael Page, a doctor of emergency medicine from Michigan who was doing work in Haiti with his parish. After hearing Norbert’s story in 2009, Dr. Page pledged to find a way to treat him – sending him for a series brain scans at a clinic in the neighboring Dominican Republic. The images that emerged allowed doctors in the US to make a clear diagnosis of the aneurysm.

In early January 2010, Norbert was on his final trip to the clinic in the Dominican Republic, when he felt the ground rumble beneath him. He remembers wondering if Haiti had felt the jolt, thinking of his family and fellow seminarians. When he reached a television, he saw scenes of utter destruction in his home city.

It was days before he was certain of the fate of his fellow seminary students – all nine were tragically killed when the structure they were in collapsed. Had Norbert not required medical care that took him away from Haiti, he would have likely shared the same fate.

Twists and turns to treatment 

Having heard Norbert’s case, Dr. Page vowed to bring him to the US for the lifesaving intervention – and PIH’s Right To Health Care team stepped in to help him keep the promise. Drs. David Walton and Evan Lyon, clinical directors of the program, worked with the RTHC team to find an institution and a doctor that would take Norbert’s case – a difficult task considering the complexity and cost of the procedure he required. Over the course of two years, RTHC program coordinators Sybill Hyppolite, Naomi Rosenberg, and Anne Beckett searched extensively for a facility to perform the surgery free of major costs – and found a willing participant in Yale-New Haven Hospital and Dr. Ketan R. Bulsara. 

The choice of hospital and surgeon were both vital to Norbert’s survival, as is condition was not a simple one: the aneurysm had grown to a staggering size and was threatening vital structures and his chance of survival without devastating neurological consequences – including paralysis, an inability to talk, blindness and very likely death, given its size and location. As director of neuroendovascular and skull-based surgery for Yale Medical Group, Dr. Bulsara was one of a handful of surgeons in the world capable of the procedure that would save Norbert’s life.

On April 22, Dr. Bulsara threaded a thin catheter through Norbert’s femoral artery – delicately snaking the instrument up the narrow vessel in his thigh and into his brain to relieve his aneurysm. Hours later, he woke up without the ailment for the first time he could remember.

Life after surgery

Life post-surgery has been calm. Norbert immediately went back to work on his thesis, writing about The Creation and preparing to present his work to seminary leaders. He returned to Haiti on August 8, with the hope of soon graduating to the priesthood – a path from which he never wavered.

His illness, and the tragic way it saved him from the fate of his fellow seminarians, has strengthened his faith and given him a new purpose among the people of Haiti. The experience has also brought him a new family among the priests at St. Thomas, who have welcomed and protected him as a son.

Leaving Matthew Isaac, who he has come to think of as his Haitian brother in the idyllic grounds of their shared home, will be particularly difficult. But he is ready to go home and use the gifts of health and life to heal others with faith, he said.

“God uses people like instruments to help other people,” Norbert said. “This time God used Partners In Health to give me life.”

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