By Glen Herbert
“She’s just a bubbly energetic loving little girl,” says Kate Corbett of Rinette Ollivierre, a nine-year-old from Bequia. “She’s got a phenomenal spirit.” Still, for most of her life, what many people saw first wasn’t Rinette’s energy or her spirit. They saw her ailment. She was born with an orthopedic condition called Blount’s disease which affected the growth plate in her tibia causing a significant, debilitating curve of the leg. She had her first surgery in Saint Vincent but needed further surgery to align her leg and grant a truly life-long fix.
For that, last November she travelled to the US, one of many young people that make similar trips each year thanks to the World Pediatric Project. Run largely by volunteers and funded by donors, Corbett, senior program director of the WPP, admits it’s a pretty great field to work within. “I started the St. Louis office in 2004 because the medical professionals in the US saved my child’s life. And the fact that I get to bring that joy to another mother, another father, or even grandparents. You know, it’s this ripple effect. Because I know what it did for our whole family. And, ultimately, it’s our responsibility to share that. That’s what I get to do every day? Yes, it’s incredible.”
In an academic sense, the work of the WPP is impressive. Through the Kingstown office, in 2018-19 the WPP mobilized 16 pediatric medical teams, seeing more than 500 children. They sent seven children to the US for surgical care.
Those are impressive numbers, to be sure, though the real stories are the smaller ones. One day when I visited the clinic in Kingstown a boy who had been to the US for a hip replacement arrived for a checkup. He was moving fluidly, and because of his newfound mobility, had lost a considerable amount of weight. Prior to his operation, he had been struggling with obesity, the result of a sedentary lifestyle. Without the operation it’s conceivable that, instead of having a healthy, productive, active life—he’s now actively engaged in athletics—he would have eventually been a resident of a long-term care facility.
He and Rinette are good examples of how a single issue can realise a much larger array of challenges, physical, social, and emotional. “It’s hard for kids to develop their confidence when they have an orthopedic condition,” says Corbett of Rinette. “It’s not easy being different.” Often the work isn’t so much about a leg, a hip, or a heart, but a life. Corbett notes that, in the most immediate sense, the primary goal is simply to let children be themselves. “You know, just being able to just do what all the other kids do. To do everything a nine-year-old should be doing at that age. And not being left behind.” She adds, “that’s a pretty amazing feeling,” both for the child and the child’s family, “of not feeling just isolated and stuck in a specific situation.”
Rinette’s leg is now completely straight though she will be monitored at the clinic in Kingstown in the months and years ahead. “She is still growing,” says Corbett, “but anything else that would need to be done could be done in Saint Vincent.”
The result, perhaps it goes without saying, will be lasting and profound. The surgery, particularly at this point in her life, will open the world to Rinette in more ways than perhaps first come to mind. “You look ahead to what her life would have been like later on. Her ability to get a job. To raise her family in the future if that’s what she chooses. To be able to be a part of society. It’s going to look very different now.”
Rinette’s stay in St. Louis, due to the recent travel bans, has been a bit longer than originally intended. She and her father have been billeted at the local Ronald McDonald House. Corbett says that “I think she will leave dozens of friends here in the US.” Assuming all goes well, and the flight doesn’t get cancelled—in which case it will be one of the very first to travel between the US and SVG—she and her father will have sand beneath their feet soon. Fingers crossed. It’s been a journey, across cultures, countries, and communities. Once home, Rinette will walk the beach unaided for the first time. Says Corbett, “now she can just get back to being a kid.”