Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that Tanglewood, in Lenox, Mass., is the home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Tanglewood is the orchestra's summer home. The orchestra's home is Symphony Hall in Boston.
Blind violinist injured in Haiti quake fighting the odds, once again

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2010; A03

MIAMI -- As darkness fell on what was left of his music school in Haiti, Romel Joseph found a distraction for his pain and fear. He imagined himself performing Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. His right hand gracefully slid the bow and his left hand caressed the violin's neck as his fingers glided along the strings.

But the soaring notes he heard were an illusion. The blind, Julliard-trained musician was buried beneath the rubble of the New Victorian School in Port-au-Prince. Joseph's left hand was broken and his right hand was impaled by nails from a wall that had fallen on him. A second wall had crushed his right leg and pinned his heel. Trapped for 18 hours, he wondered if he would survive -- or if he would want to.

"I said, 'Oh my God, am I going to die? Will I ever play violin again?' " Joseph recalled. "My hands, they were made for the violin. I had the feeling that I had lost everything. The violin was life."

The first question was answered by doctors at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, who saved his life after the January earthquake that devastated his birth country. But the second question -- "Will I ever play . . . again?" -- could remain unsettled for a long time for Haiti's most-recognized violinist.

Across the United States, friends and strangers have rallied to aid Joseph, 50, who lost his pregnant wife, Myslie, 26, in the rubble. Last month, Andover Chamber Music in Massachusetts held a benefit concert for him. Another concert at San José State University was aimed at helping the New Victorian School's 300 students, who had already gone home before the quake struck. Stevie Wonder gave Joseph a keyboard to aid his recovery. South Miami middle schoolers brought their instruments to Joseph's bedside and played Mozart for him.

"Romel is a treasure in Haiti," said Gwendolyn Mok, a pianist whose concert at San José State raised $4,000. She said Joseph's survival is "a story of hope. Romel lived for a reason. His mission is not finished. He has work to do."

'God's perfect machine'

Overcoming a crushed hand is no small accomplishment for any musician. The hand is "God's perfect machine," a marvel of tissue, tendons and 27 bones, said Thomas Wiedrich, an associate professor of clinical surgery at Northwestern University Medical School. When a hand is crushed, tissue and tendons often fuse, tightening fingers and limiting their range. "For musicians, it can affect the psyche a great deal," Wiedrich said. "Certainly, we've had experiences with musicians where an individual with this kind of injury . . . does not play again."

It took virtuoso pianist Leon Fleisher 30 years to resume playing with two hands after focal dystonia, a neurological condition, incapacitated his right hand. Acclaimed German violinist Augustin Hadelich, who suffered severe burns to his face and upper body in a 1999 house fire, had 20 surgeries and extensive rehabilitation to regain the use of his bow arm and hand.

Joseph has dealt with adversity before: He overcame blindness as a boy to master the violin. He said he'll work to do it again, gesturing with his swollen left hand. He sat upright in his hospital bed, typing into a computer, gingerly flexing his ailing fingers, forcing them to bend, flex and work as they once did.

While Joseph is grateful for the care he's getting, he also betrays flashes of frustration, fussing at the nurses, turning up his nose at the soup, and pecking at the keys longer than his physical therapist would like.

"He doesn't like being a patient," said his doctor, Patrick W. Owens. "He has all these things he really wants to do outside the hospital and sees this as a big setback to his plans."

Owens, a hand specialist, didn't know who Joseph was when they met. "His number just came up and I was there," he said. But after learning that he was a violinist, "there was some pressure" to perform a perfect operation "on someone whose hand is their entire being and purpose."

A life in music

Joseph, a U.S. citizen, has long divided his time between Miami, where he founded the nonprofit Walenstein Musical Organization, and Port-au-Prince. He was born in the heart of Haiti, in Gros-Morne, and went blind because his parents couldn't afford to treat infections in his eyes.

At the St. Vincent's School for handicapped children, a nun put a violin in his hands. "I used to practice eight and nine hours a day," Joseph said. "You get a lot of attention. You learn a lot of pop songs that the girls like. Plus, I loved classical and I played piano and violin and the viola. I was the best of everyone because I spent so much time practicing."

In 1978, Joseph, then 19, earned a scholarship to the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music. After graduating, he went to Boston to study piano tuning at Tanglewood, the home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Mok, who studied with him, said Joseph tapped through the streets with a white cane, and had memorized dozens of symphonies.

In 1985, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to attend the Julliard School, where he earned a master's degree in music. A year later, he went back to Haiti, where he founded the New Victorian School in 1991 to teach music to children who needed a way to escape poverty.

On the day of the earthquake, Joseph was exiting the third floor of the school when it shook. "I remember two steps: holding the door open and the door being gone," he said.

When he regained consciousness, the pain from his injuries was agonizing. He called for help through the mountain of rubble, and voices answered through the holes. "We hear you."

Friends and co-workers pulled Joseph out just before noon on Jan. 14, and he was flown to Jackson Memorial the next day. He wouldn't learn until later that his wife, who was two floors below him when the school collapsed, was dead. Her body still hasn't been recovered. She was seven months pregnant.

Joseph is mourning her and their unborn child even as he tries to heal and rehabilitate his hands.

His doctor is optimistic about his recovery. "I think his chances of playing are very good," Owens said. "X-rays showed his bones are healing straight."

But Joseph isn't sure he'll ever be the same musician. "These guys have no idea what it takes to play the violin," he said. He plays the donated keyboard for exercise and spends five hours a day breathing pure oxygen in a hyperbaric chamber to help his hands mend more quickly.

"Violins require dexterity," Joseph said. "My hand will heal -- that won't be a problem. Will I play with it? That's a whole different story."

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