Siblings walking in Komen 3-Day to remember sister killed in earthquake while volunteering in Haiti clinic
Jean Arnwine loved helping people. That’s why she was in Haiti on Jan. 12 when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the tiny Caribbean island nation, claiming the lives of nearly 250,000 people including Jean Arnwine.
Now, three months later, Jean’s three siblings are setting out on a mission to remember their older sister in the best way they know how — by doing something to help other people.
Johnny Bennett, Dee Turzo and Angie Bennett said this week they have all three registered to walk in the 2010 Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure, an event designed to raise money and awareness for the Komen for the Cure breast cancer foundation. They chose the three-day, 60-mile fundraising walk, they said, because it was one of their sister’s favorite charities.
"She had done the 3-Day twice before, and she planned on doing it again this year," Johnny Bennett said. "So we decided we would do it for her."
It’s still difficult for the three siblings to talk about how their older sister died. In fact, when it comes to explaining the circumstances, Dee and Angie prefer to sit quietly and let Johnny tell the story. And Johnny has to stop to brush the tears from his face and clear the lump of grief that gathers in his throat before he can continue.
Jean, he explains, was a clinical trials research coordinator for Texas Retina Associates in Dallas. One of the surgeons she worked with was Dr. Gary Fish, who was part of a mission team with Highland Park United Methodist Church that had, each year for the last 30 years, traveled to Haiti to provide free eye care to the people of Haiti.
It was a trip that Jean had always wanted to participate in. So in early December, when Dr. Fish told her that one of the 12 team members had dropped out and asked her to fill that empty spot, Jean jumped at the chance.
"She was so extremely excited about getting to go on this mission trip," Johnny said. "When we were all together at Christmas, that’s all she could talk about. She was just so excited."
One thing that all the mission team members do each year is collect old eyeglasses to distribute to Haitians who can’t afford to buy their own. Even though she didn’t join the team until a month before they left for Haiti, Johnny said, Jean managed to collect about 800 pairs of glasses to take. "She wanted to do everything she could to help," he said.
Then came January 12 and the earthquake. At first, Jean’s siblings weren’t worried about her.
"I knew she was going to Haiti, but I wasn’t sure when. I thought she may already be back," Johnny said about hearing the news of the quake.
Dee added, "I heard it on the news, and I thought, ‘Well, I haven’t gotten a phone call yet, so Jean must already be back home safe.’"
But then the call came.
Even then, Johnny said, they weren’t sure what was happening. The quake nearly destroyed Haiti’s infrastructure and it was close to impossible to make calls into or out of the country for several days. In fact, the first time the family knew anything for sure was when a local TV news station contacted Jean’s husband, David, saying they had found video of Jean lying injured on a cot as Dr. Fish sat next to her, fanning her and waiting to be evacuated.
"It was horrible just waiting and trying to get any word out of Haiti," Johnny said.
"And when you did get information, it was wrong. One person would tell you one thing, and somebody else would tell you the exact opposite."
Dee added, "Even after she had already died, we got a message saying they were moving her out of ICU and into a regular hospital room."
Eventually, the family heard what had happened from those who had been there with Jean.
Johnny explained that his sister and others on the mission were working at the clinic several miles west of the capital city of Port Au Prince. The cement block building housing the clinic had been sturdily constructed, but most of the other buildings around it were not — a common occurrence in Haiti. That’s why the devastation was so complete.
"She was in one of three clinic buildings, and the building she was in had been properly built. But the five-story building next door wasn’t, and it collapsed onto the clinic, caving it in, too," Johnny said.
Another woman near Jean was trapped beneath rubble, and those who escaped injury were able to free her relatively quickly. Not so with Jean; she was trapped beneath steel beams that weren’t so easily moved.
"It was getting dark, and she was in there, pinned under those steel beams inside what was left of the building. The aftershocks kept coming and people were stay inside the building, so she was in there alone. They said she just kept telling the people around her she wanted out of there," Johnny said.
But emergency rescue crews were slow in coming. Finally, as night was falling, Johnny said, a "mystery man" appeared and offered to help.
"Nobody knew who he was. He was just walking down the street and saw what was happening. He told them he had equipment on his boat that could get Jean out, if somebody would go with him to bring it back.
"So they went and got the equipment and used it to free her. Then the people helped the man put the equipment away and he just disappeared; before they could even say thank you, he was gone. They couldn’t find him anywhere," Johnny said. "Take him for whatever you want, but I certainly have my beliefs about who he was."
The earthquake happened on a Tuesday. The following Friday morning, 10 members of the mission team returned to Dallas. Dr. Fish stayed behind with Jean, to ride with her on a medical evacuation flight to a hospital in Martinique where she could be treated for internal injuries.
But Jean’s condition worsened enroute and the plane was diverted to island of Guadeloupe. She died in the hospital there on Friday. Dr. Fish accompanied her body home to Dallas the next day.
Despite their grief over their sister’s tragic death, Johnny, Dee and Angie are including a longstanding family joke in their act of remembrance. They are calling themselves "Team Clara" for the Komen 3-Day.
"Clara was Jean’s first name, and she hated it," Johnny recalled with a laugh. "Jean was the oldest, and the story we’ve been told all our lives is that right after she was born, the hospital people brought the birth certificate paperwork to Dad and said, ‘Fill this out.’ They didn’t tell him that he didn’t have to do it right then, that he could wait and talk to Mom about it.
"They hadn’t talked about what to name the baby, and so Dad had to come up with something on the spot. His mother’s name was Clara and his sister’s name was Bobbie Jean. So he decided on Clara Jean," he continued. "She hated Clara, and none of the rest of us had a middle name, so we always called her Clara to tease her. She would just give us these smirky looks when we did it. I know she is up there right now, looking down and smirking at us because we are talking about it."
The siblings decided to use "Team Clara" because "thinking about that makes us laugh," Johnny explained. "We do it out of love and respect, and it makes us laugh.
When you go through times like this, you have to do what you can to get through the day. If that means making yourself laugh, then you make yourself laugh. We try to think of the good things and not dwell on what happened in Haiti."
One of Jean’s close friends, Valerie McGuire, and Jean’s sister-in-law, Rhonda Arnwine are both walking with Team Clara in the 3-Day. But the rest of the family, including Johnny’s partner of six years, will be supporting them from the sidelines.
"Joe, my partner, isn’t going to walk because he said he knew this was more of a sibling thing, what the three of us are doing to honor our sister, and he doesn’t want to take away from that. But he’s totally supportive," Johnny said.
Dee noted that her husband, Jeff, is concerned that her chronic health problems — including severe allergies that keep her continually short of breath — and a hectic schedule that limits her training time might keep her from finishing the 60-mile trek.
"Lately, I have had trouble just walking 20 feet. He tells me, ‘You can’t walk to just over there [across the room], how are you going to walk 60 miles. He bet me I wouldn’t finish, but he’s going to lose that bet!"
Angie has no spouse or partner, but she said she has gotten amazing support from her coworkers at Southwest Airlines.
"Everyone at work has been extremely, amazingly supportive through this whole thing," Angie said. "When Jean died, I got cards and letters from people at work I didn’t even know!"
That support will come in handy, since each team member has to raise at least $2,300 in donation, and since they have set their team goal at $50,000.
The $2,300 individual minimum came as a bit of surprise to the siblings.
"When we decided to do the walk, we didn’t know we’d have to raise that much.
Then when we signed up, that’s when they told us," Dee said. "We were a little surprised, but we are determined to do it."
Johnny and Angie said Dee is the one who decided on the high team goal. But Dee said she definitely thinks it’s possible to meet that goal.
"They raised $50,000 just at Jean’s funeral to pay for a bench in her memory at the Dallas Arboretum. I figure if they can get that much just at the funeral, we can get that much for the 3-Day."
The siblings hope that their friends, Jean’s friends and others in the community will help them meet their goal.
"Not everybody knew Jean, and not everybody knows us. But everybody knows somebody who has had cancer," said Johnny. "That’s why we think people will be willing to donate."
He also said that anyone who wants to walk with Team Clara is welcome to join them.
"We’re doing this for our sister, to honor her memory and what she meant to us. If someone knew Jean and wants to join us, that’s great," he said. "But you didn’t have to know Jean to come with us. You just have to want to do something good to help other people. That’s what Jean would have done."
Interested individuals can donate to Team Clara or to individual members of the team by going online to The3Day.org and clicking on the link to donate to a participant. Type in the team or individual’s name and follow the links to donate.
Donations to a team do not count toward the individual team members’ $2,300 minimum.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 23, 2010.