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Beating Bureaucracy and Time: Alumna Helps Victim of Haiti Earthquake

Elaine Witty '88S, '91C

The emotional aftershocks from the recent earthquake in Haiti were felt worldwide. Responding to desperate conditions, people across the globe reached out to provide assistance in any way they could. One person, Molly Marks, a pediatric nurse from Knoxville, TN, traveled immediately to Haiti on a medical mission where she became particularly involved with the case of Bella, a 16-month-old orphan with life-threatening cases of pneumonia, bronchitis and giardia, an intestinal parasite.

Devastated by the earthquake, Haitian hospitals were ill-equipped to care for Bella, so Marks sought to bring the child to the U.S. for treatment. She soon found that the paperwork required to transfer victims from Haiti to the U.S. was an overwhelming task needing hours of attention--hours that Bella just didn't have. So, Marks turned to Elaine Witty '88S, '91C, who was referred to her by a local church group that Witty had helped in the past.

Now based in New York City, Witty is an accomplished lawyer with her own practice, Witty Law Group, and an extensive background in handling cases involving battered and abducted immigrants. Applying her expertise--and her passion for pursuing justice for her clients--Witty took up the task of expediting the necessary paperwork for Bella's transfer.

''The ability to influence a person's life is incalculable. I'm changed forever by this experience.''

Even in the best of circumstances, it's a struggle to navigate the labyrinthine structure of U.S. and international immigration bureaucracy. But in post-earthquake Haiti, the complexity of Witty's task was staggering. With Marks in Haiti and Witty in Tennessee, where she was based at the time, the smallest, most routine chore--such as getting a copy of Bella's birth certificate and other documents--became a monumental effort. With no access to a photocopier or a computer, Witty had to be creative. She asked Marks to use her cell phone to photograph the necessary documents, and then she used the photos to get the paperwork started.

As daunting as it was to handle the legal side of the process, the greatest challenge for Witty lay in keeping Marks focused and on-task in the midst of chaos and upheaval. Marks faced enormous pressure, and she relied on Witty to cope with it. ''You're asking people to clamp down on their emotions and focus on documentation in a life-or-death situation,'' said Witty. ''You have to be their emotional lifeline.".

There were many moments where things nearly fell apart. At one point, Witty had secured Marks a critical appointment with the necessary officials in Haiti--no easy feat itself--but Marks was turned away from the gates of the U.S. Consulate in Port-au-Prince because the guards had not yet received word of her appointment with immigration officials inside. After some frantic phone calls to Washington, D.C., and Haiti, with Marks waiting on the street outside the office, U.S. immigration officials located Marks and Bella at the gates and ushered them in for visa processing.

Today, thanks to Marks' compassion and Witty's tenacity, Bella is getting the medical attention she needs, while staying at Marks' home in Knoxville. ''It simply would not have happened without Elaine,'' said Marks. ''During the time that I was in Haiti, the government and the laws regarding the Haitian orphans were changing daily--sometimes hourly. She worked furiously to stay abreast of the latest information and present my case to the appropriate people. It was so comforting to know that she was here in the U.S. fighting on my side while I was there in Haiti focusing on Bella and her health. When Elaine finally called me with the good news, I was overcome with emotion, and I could hear tears in her voice as well.''.

While she's overjoyed that she was able to help Marks and Bella, Witty is not resting--she has since been contacted by other humanitarian workers in Haiti and is now handling five similar cases. The whole experience was ''indescribable,'' said Witty. ''Now I understand, firsthand, the Talmudic saying, 'And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world,'' she said. ''Most lawyers don't get this type of an opportunity. The ability to influence a person's life is incalculable. I'm changed forever by this experience.''