AP Medical Writer

Half-buried in rubble, Bazelais Suy struggled to breathe. A dead woman lay on his chest. He knew he had to get her off, fast. Because he could still move his arms, he somehow managed to remove his belt, loop it around the woman's own belt and drag her off. But his legs were still pinned.

In the ruins of a flattened, five-story university building, Suy was surrounded by survivors and corpses — students crushed in Haiti's catastrophic earthquake.

Suy, leader of an activist group working to help Haiti's youth lift their homeland out of poverty, was climbing the stairs to a fifth-floor classroom when the building at the University of Port-Au-Prince began to shake. In seconds, the structure collapsed, and the 28-year-old Suy tumbled four floors below.

He landed flat on his back on the ground, half-buried in broken concrete. The impact crushed his spine. He lay dazed on his back in a small, dark hole. For hours, he heard the cries of people who had been buried alive and he feared an aftershock would silence them all.

“I thought, ‘I don't want to die,’ ” he said. “I told them not to be scared.”

Suy did not die. Instead, he embarked on a nearly 2,000-mile journey that would restore his health and allow him to return, a half-year later, to the ground that almost killed him.

Suy's odyssey reads like a cliched Hollywood movie, but it's a real-life drama, starring a serious and charismatic young Haitian who owes his life to strangers from Chicago, now friends. They transported him to another world for six months of intense treatment, free of charge, while his country, too, tried to heal.

Suy was given little chance of ever walking again, but Haiti without legs is unimaginable; the able-bodied have a hard enough time getting by. Disability there is a stigma, a source of shame.

Stubborn and determined, he set his mind to beating the odds.

Suy was born poor in southern Haiti and sent as a boy to live with an aunt in Port-au-Prince and attend school. He was one of the lucky ones. More than half the population lived in poverty even before the quake left more than one million homeless. About 40 percent of Haitian adults are illiterate and almost half of Haitian children don't attend school.

Deeply religious, Suy loves his country but hates its poverty. A few years ago, he formed an advocacy group named GRRANOH, a French acronym meaning roughly “group for ideas, research and action for redirecting Haiti.” Its volunteers have tutored orphans, fed the homeless, visited hospital patients and raised awareness about Haiti's needs.

“He doesn't have much but with the little he has, he wants to help people,” said his girlfriend, Jeanna Volcy.

In the chaos of post-quake Haiti, Ivankovich was equipped to handle amputations and fractures, not spinal cord injuries. Nor was the damaged hospital in any position to host spinal surgery.  Suy, meanwhile, had pressure sores on his back from lying prone for more than a week and the risk of infection was grave.

When Ivankovich mentioned he would be going back to Chicago, the frightened young man pleaded with him.

“Take me with you,” he cried, in halting English.

The doctor in black could not turn away. Ivankovich worked with U.S. authorities to help secure a humanitarian visa. Sixteen days after the quake, he flew to Chicago in an air ambulance. It was Suy's first trip out of Haiti.

In a three-hour operation, surgeons at Northwestern Memorial Hospital stabilized Suy's broken bones with titanium rods and screws. Their aim was to remove pressure on the spinal cord and prevent additional nerve damage, while allowing the surrounding bones to heal.

Afterward, Suy was still unable to move his legs. He had little sensation below his waist, except for patchy feeling in his thighs.

Ivankovich told him: “My friend, you're paralyzed. You're going to be in a wheelchair and this is just what you need to accept.”

Suy had other ideas.

He was moved to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, one of the nation's best-known hospitals for brain and spinal cord injuries. Humanitarian funds at Northwestern and the hospital paid for the treatment, which would normally have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Suy listened when Silverman said he needed to eat to get strong. And gradually, he did.

Rehab therapists doted on the handsome foreign student and put him through months of rigorous, painful workouts to rebuild his body. His daily routine became several hours of physical therapy: leg lifts from his wheelchair, tossing a big rubber ball, scooting down parallel bars on his arms.  The hope was that some neurological function would return.

One day in March during a visit from Ivankovich, Suy lifted a leg up off his bed. The doctor was stunned.

“It was miraculous. It was the kind of recovery that we couldn't even have fantasized about,” Ivankovich said.

Suy was soon ready to try using a walker. His thighs had regained more feeling and become strong enough to help support his weight. But lifting his feet to step forward required concentration. Even moving awkwardly down the 100-foot hospital corridor was a struggle. The plastic braces on his ankles hurt.

“When I see myself right now, and I think about how I used to be, I cry sometimes,” he confessed.

Even when his therapy sessions ended, Suy worked out alone in his room, doing leg lifts to speed the healing. “You should never be discouraged in life,” he said. “I know the day will come when I can do what I want.”

By June, Suy could walk with crutches or two canes, haltingly, and not very far, but he had surpassed anyone's expectations.

After a month at a transitional Chicago rehab center, he was ready to return home.