By the time Mahalia Desruisseaux was 6 or 7 years old, she had already decided that she would be a doctor. The now 46-year-old recalls her frequent trips to the Haitian orphanage run by her father, where her mother was a teacher. She saw firsthand her parents’ desire to help those who are less fortunate, which they passed on to their daughter.
The strangest thing: Whenever Mahalia, the little girl, needed an injection, she never flinched or cried. She was calm, collected, while other children freaked out. That gave her parents –– and Mahalia –– a notion that she had the fortitude to become a doctor.
“I don’t know if any particular experience drove my decision” to become a doctor, said Desruisseaux, who now makes her home in south Bellmore. “It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do.”
And now she is a doctor. Not only that, she is an associate professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, one of the most prestigious institutions of medical education in the world.
The wife and mother of two is one of more than 900,000 Haitian immigrants who have escaped extreme hardship in one of the poorest, most desperate places on earth. Many, if not most, Haitian immigrants have not forgotten their roots.
It is common among Haitian immigrants to give back to their homeland. According to the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute, the Haitian diaspora sends a combined $1.1 billion in remittances –– funds sent to aid people back home –– in 2012. Those remittances accounted for roughly 20 percent of the tiny Caribbean island nation’s annual gross domestic product.
Desruisseaux is among those who remember where she came from. In 2010, she took part in a life-saving humanitarian mission in her homeland after a massive earthquake leveled the already impoverished country.
Coming to America
Desruisseaux, who immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager, remembers her childhood in Haiti fondly. She recalls playing with many children, including at her parents’ orphanage.
Her parents, though, understood that her and her siblings’ prospects were limited in a country where the average annual family income is less an a $100 a year in many rural parts of the country and $350 to $500 a year in more urban areas, according to Haiti Health Ministries, one of many relief organizations at work in the country.
The Desruisseaux family didn’t have enough money to relocate together. So her father brought Mahalia and her sister to Brooklyn, leaving behind her mother, a brother and a sister. Mahalia was just 12 years old, a stranger in a strange land, unaccustomed to the frenetic pace of life in one of the world’s largest metropolises.
“I don’t remember a whole lot,” she said. “But I do remember moving here.”
Like so many immigrants, her father worked a series of odd jobs –– gas station attendant, security guard, handyman –– to feed his family and make ends meet –– while saving to bring the rest of his family to the U.S., which he was eventually able to do.
Desruisseaux took care of the house –– cooking and cleaning –– all while studying hard in school. She had never even boiled a pot of water before arriving in Brooklyn. She described the experience as “trial by fire.”
“It was a an adjustment, first being in a new country, trying to learn an entirely new language, and then doing stuff we’d never done before,” said Desruisseaux, who is now fluent in English, in addition to French and Haitian Creole.
Making it in America
“In school, I was a nerd, but I didn’t care,” Desruisseaux said. “I knew what my goal was” –– to become a doctor.
After high school, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Queens College in 1996 and her medical degree from Rutgers’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in 2000. She completed her residency in internal medicine at North Shore University Hospital in 2003 and a fellowship in infectious diseases at Montefiore Medical Center in 2007.
She was then appointed an instructor in pathology and medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, before she became an assistant professor at the college in 2009. She was recently promoted to associate professor. She has also been an attending physician at Montefiore since 2007.
Her husband, Jean Beauharnais, is a paralegal with the New York City Department of Labor.
“Infectious diseases are my specialty,” Desruisseaux said. “I knew when I was doing my internal medicine residency I didn’t want to do general medicine … I just wanted to be that person who could identify the issue, come up with a recommendation and cure that issue.”
No doubt, she has made a name for herself. She even had a laboratory named for her at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the Desruisseaux Lab, which is a part of the Department of Pathology. The lab specializes in the study of cerebral malaria.
Return to Haiti
Desruisseaux returned to Haiti for the first time since her childhood in 2010, in the aftermath of one of the world’s deadliest earthquakes. The quake, which measured 7.0 on the Richter scale, killed more than 300,000 people and displaced 1.5 million, some 65,000 of whom remain in refugee camps to this day, according to the U.S. Earthquake Engineering Research Institute.
Desruisseaux went to Haiti to check on family and to assist in the relief effort. She volunteered in a private hospital in the Sacre Coeur, or Sacred Heart, region of Port-au-Prince. While there, she diagnosed a teenager named Lovely Ajuste with a congenital heart defect that could have killed her. Desruisseaux spearheaded the international effort to bring Lovely to Montefiore Medical Center, with the help of Gift of Life International, to receive life-saving surgery to correct the defect. The operation came just in time for Lovely’s 16th birthday.
"When I met Lovely, she had a severe cough and shortness of breath, which she thought was due to the dust in the air and living outside in crowded conditions," Desruisseaux said. "After taking an X-ray, I noticed that she had an enlarged heart and vascular congestion, so I asked for a cardiac specialist to further examine her."
Lovely had a hole between two of her heart’s chambers. "The procedure needed to repair this defect would be difficult, if not impossible, to have been performed in Haiti, but it is routine in the United States," said Dr. Samuel Weinstein, director of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery at Montefiore, at the time. "Following surgery, her life expectancy should be near normal."
Life in suburbia
Desruisseaux and Beauharnais moved with their two girls from Queens to Bellmore in 2012. “This was our first experience with suburbia, and the day we were moving, the next-door neighbors invited our girls to go to the pool while we unloaded the truck.,” she said.
Their daughters, Gabrielle and Jade, now attend Kennedy High School in Bellmore. Desruisseaux said she had worried about how they would adjust to a new school environment. “I think that was one of the biggest concerns we had,” she said. “They were so into their friends when they lived in Queens.”
Their children resisted the move at first, she said, but later adjusted. Their younger daughter, Gabrielle, now competes on the school’s track team, while Jade performs with the drama club.
“There are several things that I would consider my favorite aspect of Bellmore,” Desruisseaux said, “not the least of which is the fact that the girls adjusted really well in school and were able to make friends, and found activities both in and outside of school, which they really love.”
She only wishes, she said, that certain people in the close-knit hamlet were “a little more open-minded about diversity –– whether it be ideological, cultural or political diversity.”
According to the 2010 census, of the more than 15,000 people who call Bellmore home, 65 were black or African-American. Ten percent, or 1,500, were foreign-born.
Desruisseaux and Beauharnais are both “painfully aware” of the lack of diversity in the Bellmores. It’s evident “every time I commute on the Long Island Rail Road,” said Beauharnais, who takes the train in to the city from the Bellmore station and can count on one hand the number of black people he sees on the platform on any given day.
“Being from a community that is as diverse as Queens, I never had to worry before about how I would fit in when I leave the immediate vicinity of our house, even in places of worship,” he said. “We tried out a couple churches locally, but they just didn't feel like home. We went to one church where we were sitting next to a kid, with plenty of room in the pew. When the mom came in, she made a point of taking the kid and moving to a different pew that actually already had less room than where we were sitting.
“The pastor of the church was extremely nice,” Beauharnais said. “He'd even invited us to dinner at his home. But being at that church just didn't feel welcoming, so we still drive 30 minutes to our church in Queens, which is as culturally diverse as the many parts of New York City.
“Despite this,” Desruisseaux said. “I really like the fact that where we are is really quiet. The feeling of community and family village mentality, particularly in our immediate neighborhood, was really heart-warming. Even now, four years later, it is still a very supportive environment.”