For African refugee Petie Amisi, his time in Concord turned into a family affair

  • Petie Amisi knew he’d need money, a job, a home, a life. But a liver? Through the help of many people, including Zib Corell, the Congolese refugee has a future. Amisi now lives with Corell. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Petie Amisi knew he’d need money, a job, a home, a life. But a liver? Through the help of many people, including Zib Corell, Amisi has a future. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Petie Amisi found help in Concord when he found out he needed a liver transplant but worried about logistics. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Petie Amisi knew he’d need money, a job, a home, a life.

But a liver? Definitely not.

Without a new organ to replace his diseased one, however, Amisi would likely be dead. He’d be a statistic logged in paperwork, someone who had a tough life running from war in Africa before moving here, into anonymity for all time.

Instead, his family here joined hands and saved his life, caring for him, driving him to medical appointments, administering medication, propping him up emotionally and physically after liver transplant surgery four months ago.

And by family, I don’t mean a mother and father, a brother and sister, an aunt and uncle. These were refugee workers, medical people, faith-based individuals and good old-fashioned volunteers.

These were strangers.

They heard about a sick refugee, alone, afraid, confused, so they formed a team with the camaraderie and focus of the New England Patriots. That’s how Amisi learned that this wasn’t the racist society he’d heard about, fueled by media reports of cops shooting unarmed black men, plus a nasty political landscape.

Before being resettled, Amisi was told about the racism in America that would make it difficult to live here.

“The government can take you there, but the social life, that’s what I was told. For me, I said as long as anyone doesn’t hit me,” said Amisi, who’s 27 and taking classes at NHTI.

What he discovered was beyond his expectation. “I’m saying it’s very amazing. I didn’t expect someone to take care of you and they don’t really know you,” he said.

They know him now. The list of contributors is too long to mention here, but more than a dozen local individuals chipped in, adding a shine to this community as beautiful as the foliage.

“It was amazing to see this team come together,” said freelance photographer Becky Field of Concord. “One thing that really impressed me was we all brought something to the table.”

Field is the eye of this altruistic storm. Or at least one of them. She’s a retired wildlife research ecologist who did media relations for the Red Cross. She pushed the story. Amisi lives across the street from her, at Zib Corell’s house in Concord.

Field documents the lives of immigrants and refugees through photography, which is why the Rev. Jed Rardin of the South Congregational Church included her in an email six months ago. The reverend knew Amisi needed help.

By then, Amisi had already taken an emotional beating, living most of his life as a refugee, bouncing from the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, to Tanzania, to Kenya. Along the way, he slept in leaky tents, stood in line for food and water at distribution centers, and endured the killing of one of his brothers, who was “not even shot; slaughtered like a goat.”

“Not easy, extremely horrible,” Amisi said. “We had no choice. We had to accept.”

His English, while relatively strong, can be difficult to understand because of a thick accent. But his illness shouted something loud and clear: Without a new liver, he’d die.

He arrived in Concord late in 2014. His eyes had turned yellow and he threw up a lot. He lived in an apartment on The Heights with two refugees, also from the Congo.

“Going to hospital very difficult for me because I didn’t have anyone to support me,” Amisi said. “My roommates getting along, but they own responsibilities. Everyone is confused. I could not get a job because of my condition.”

Amisi was diagnosed with a disease, primary sclerosing cholangitis, that caused scarring of the liver’s bile ducts, which led to cirrhosis. He couldn’t get a new liver because he had no one here to provide post-surgery care. How would he get to doctor appointments? How could he get his medication? How would he get groceries? Who would he on call for round-the-clock care? How would he survive?

The Domino effect moved quickly. Rev. Rardin had heard about Amisi from Laura McGlashan, the refugee health coordinator for the state. The news was dire: A refugee living in Concord, with no blood relatives here, could not join the list to receive a liver because no one could care for him after the surgery.

Dr. Amir Qamar is the medical director for the liver transplant program at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Mass. He was part of another team there, the medical team, but before he could help, he had to wait for the team here to set its plan in motion.

“The success of a liver transplant recipient or any other transplant recipient is not just the successful transplant,” Qamar said. “It’s tolerating the medication, family support, social support, people who can help when there is an emergency and monitor you through complications. Without that, success of any transplant is very difficult.”

About 10 local people met to plan strategy, open their hearts, get involved. The teamwork came together quickly. First, while Corell, a retired employee from Community Action Program, was on a two-week vacation, Amisi was moved into the home of married family physicians Betsy Clardy and Richard Nelson.

Their backgrounds came in handy when, because of a mix-up at Lahey, Amisi arrived there without his medication.

“Within a few hours, he was hallucinating,” Clardy said. “If we hadn’t been physicians, he would have gone back to the hospital that night. At one point he thought he was back in the camp and not speaking English. It was a rough start.”

During countless visits to Lahey, before and after the surgery, Amisi’s “family” took turns driving down to visit, people from his new neighborhood, people from local resettlement agencies, people from church, people from the Congolese community.

“You could see that the nurse was wondering,” Clardy said. “She was being nice and trying to ask all of us, ‘Who are you?’ ”

Field and Arnold Mikolo from the Congolese community picked up Amisi from Lahey on May 5 and brought him back to Concord. “Pitie was a small, quiet bundle of blankets in the back seat as we drove back,” Field wrote in an email.

With the proper people serving as shock absorbers now in place, the wait began. The wait for a life-saving liver, during which time lapsing into a coma became common for Amisi.

He eventually moved into a ground-floor bedroom at Corell’s house, where the smell of ndagala, a small African fish, sometimes filled the kitchen. It smelled awful.

On June 7 the call came from Lahey. The one about a liver. The one that created this reaction from Corell, who took the call: “WOOOO-HOOOO!”

Team Concord told me Amisi almost died and would have without the transplant. I asked the good doctor for confirmation.

“I would completely agree with them,” Qamar said. “When I was taking care of Petie, he had progressed considerably in his disease to the point where he was extremely ill. His chances of survival without a transplant would have been poor.”

He’s been at Corell’s home since the summer. She drives him to NHTI for his classes. He wants to study national relations and diplomacy so he can focus on refugee affairs, saying “I know how it feels.”

For now, he’s working his way back to full strength, his family by his side.

“I just came from the hospital and they told me I’d be living somewhere and come to the house,” Amisi said. “I was a burden to them, but I didn’t see that. They have been so caring.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)