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Sept. 16, 2003

Haitian burn victim gets aid
- and a new family

Ernst Sajous, center, was brought to Randolph from Haiti by Fred and Nannette Canniff for medical treatment in 1990. He remained with them during and after several surgeries for severe burns, and is now a construction worker on the South Shore.


rnst Sajous’ step-mother kept nagging him, annoyed that the family’s refrigerator, powered by kerosene, wasn’t getting cold.

For maybe the sixth time that day, the 13-year-old went to re-ignite the pilot light.

He was warning his brothers and sisters to stand back when the flames burst onto his chest.

“Smoke starts coming out of my mouth. I feel my heart hurting me,” he now recalls.

Doctors said he’d be dead in an hour.

Four months passed and Sajous was still alive, lying in a hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, exposed tissue oozing fluids in places his skin used to cover. Bandages stick to his wounds.

A woman approaches and asks a simple question: “Ernst, how are you doing today?”

“I’m suffering with Jesus on the cross,” he tells her.

Three days later, Ernst is on a plane, his limbs and chest wrapped in bandages. He is heading to a country he doesn’t know with a woman he just met, not sure if he’ll survive.

Sajous is 27 now and looks out on a different world.

He opens the screen door to a Pond Lane house in Randolph, leans down and kisses the woman he met 13 years ago in that Port-au-Prince hospital. Today, he calls her mom.

Nannette Canniff smiles and kisses him back.

“I prayed every day when I was in the hospital and God answered my prayers,” Sajous says. “God sent mom to help out.”

Canniff is the executive director of the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation.

It took 22 surgeries and more than a decade for doctors at Shriners Hospital in Boston to reconstruct Sajous’ skin. Without the operations, he likely would not have been able to move his arms.

Through it all, he has lived with Canniff, her husband, Fred, and whichever of their 10 children happen to be staying at home. He went to Randolph High School, playing soccer between surgeries, and graduated in 1994.

“Never for one moment did I feel uncomfortable,” he says on a recent evening as he sat in the Canniffs’ living room. “I take them as my mother and father and sisters and brothers. It was the same love that any family could have given me. It was nothing different.”

Sajous has built a life here. He and his girlfriend have a 4-year-old daughter, Erncia, who started kindergarten last week. Mother and daughter live in Brockton.

Sajous awakens at 6 most mornings and spends long days working in construction, laying ceramic bathroom tiles, replacing drop ceilings, repairing basements damaged by floods.

He has permanent residency and plans to stay in America. He wants to become a citizen.

Still, Sajous says he thinks about Haiti every day.

He remembers every detail of those days in the Port-au-Prince hospital: kneeling in a steel tub as his birth mother pours a pitcher filled with water and alcohol over his open wounds.

“I’m suffering and she is telling me, ‘Just hold there, everything’s going to be all right.’ She’s removing the bandage. She’s trying to hold me so I don’t cry. She’s being very caring when removing the bandage from me. When any other people touch me, I would scream, ‘No, no, no.’”

The nurses had many other patients and often would rush taking the bandages on and off, he said, making the process painful. But his mother would spend the whole day working on him.

He has seen his mother twice in 13 years.

While he was gone, sometime in the ’90s, men broke into his mother’s home and beat her, saying the family supported Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the president then in exile. They dragged his uncle away and shoved him into a car. The uncle has not been seen since.

Sajous sends his mother money now and helped move her to a new house in Port-au-Prince. He’d like to bring her here one day, have his two mothers close, his two worlds together.

“Home for me is both places,” he says.

Karen Eschbacher may be reached at

Stories by
Karen Eschbacher
Photos by
Gary Higgins

The Patriot Ledger

A Daily Struggle to Survive: Volunteers help fight starvation in Haiti:

Haitian Burn Victim gets Aid - and a New Family

Faces of Haiti: The LaFontaine family

Links to the South Shore of Massachusetts: Milton dentist gives Haitians the simple gift of a smile

Haiti's History: Political instability chases away hopes of achieving better life

Personal Journal

Numbers That Count: Food & Nutrition

Small map of Haiti (90KB)

Large map of Haiti (100KB)

Photos from Haiti (462KB)

View printed pages from the series


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