01/17/2011 at 01:00 AM EST
Behind a battered hospital in Port-au-Prince, in a canvas tent housing 14 women sweating in the heat and swarmed by flies, Natasha Marcial faced a decision no mother should have to make. Weakened by cholera, she could stay with her fragile 4-lb. newborn son Michael as doctors cared for him in the city's only prenatal cholera clinic, or she could leave Michael to find her three missing children, one of whom, son Casimir, 2, also had cholera. Just days earlier her husband, Israel Petit-Frere, 36, had left for the countryside to tend to his ailing mother. The fate of the family now lay in Natasha's hands. "If I leave Michael, they will put him in an orphanage, and I will never see him again," Natasha, 27, told PEOPLE. "But I don't know where my other babies are. I don't know what to do."
Natasha's struggle to save her family, a harrowing journey followed by PEOPLE over several days in Haiti, reflects the country's harsh reality. One year after the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed 230,000 people and left 1.3 million homeless, life for many Haitians is still brutal and chaotic. To a land riddled with crumbled buildings and teeming tent cities has come a second catastrophe: an outbreak of cholera that has claimed nearly 3,000 lives since October and sickened 100,000 others. This deadly plague, coupled with Haiti's shortage of nearly every key resource-nurses and doctors, medical supplies, clean water and reliable information-has turned the lives of people like Natasha into a Dante-esque nightmare. "I am dismayed to see there are still a million people on the streets a year after the quake," says Dr. Unni Karunakara, the international president of Doctors Without Borders. "The cholera outbreak, combined with the poverty and all the other problems, makes life in Haiti very, very hard."
Yet the family's odyssey also reveals another story of Haiti: the amazing resilience of a people of profound faith who press on, despite daunting odds. "We were going to be together," Natasha says, "because God had decided that."
Until recently their lives had been slowly improving. The couple lost their home in the earthquake but, after a stay in a tent city, moved into a 10-by-7-ft. room with no electricity or running water in a concrete block building in the Haitian capital's Carrefour section. They worked hard to pay the rent of 3,500 gourdes-or $87-for six months: He found jobs as a bricklayer; she sold vegetables and sugarcane. But in December Israel's mother broke her leg. He left the family-Natasha, Casimir, daughter Odette, 9, and son Jimmy, 4-to care for her. Just days later, on Dec. 5, Natasha, then eight months pregnant, fell sick: "I started vomiting and got diarrhea. I knew something was wrong." Soon, Casimir began throwing up too, and Natasha made her first painful decision: She left her two oldest children alone with a little bit of money and paid 75 cents for a motorbike ride for her and Casimir to a clinic several miles away. "It was very hard leaving," she says. "But if I died, they might die too."
Two days later Israel returned to a shocking sight: His home had been stripped bare, with no sign of his family. "It was empty-the dishes, the bed, everything," he says. "My wife and children were gone. I stood there and cried." He didn't know Natasha and Casimir had cholera, or that neighbors-afraid of the disease, which comes from drinking contaminated water-had chased his other children away.
As Israel frantically searched for his family, Natasha and Casimir were being treated in a Doctors Without Borders clinic. On Dec. 10 Natasha felt her first contraction, then began hemorrhaging. When she woke up, she learned she'd been separated from her sick son and moved to the prenatal clinic. "I don't know what has happened to him," she said. "I am worried he is dead."
She also learned her newborn son was alive and, except for a respiratory rattle, in good shape. Though cholera is not transmitted from mother to child, it can induce premature labor; as a result, out of 45 births at the clinic, only three babies survived. Yet Natasha could not rejoice that her son had made it; she was too fearful for her other children. And she could not yet leave with Michael, who was too weak to be discharged. "If you take him today," a nurse told her, "he will die." But a clinic staffer also made it clear that if she left Michael behind, it would be considered abandonment. "I have sympathy for this lady," nurse Rosie Mallarde said. "But we're a hospital, not an orphanage."
So, on Dec. 13, Natasha made the risky decision to take Michael and leave against doctor's orders. Just then, a round of phone calls made by the clinic psychologist turned up Casimir's whereabouts: He was safe at the first clinic. Natasha agreed to stay put for one more day.
Back in Carrefour, a few days earlier, Israel found his older children Odette and Jimmy, who had been living on the street for two days. He left them with friends and went from clinic to clinic in search of his wife and son. He'd begun to despair when, on Dec. 12, he walked into yet another clinic, and there on a cot in a concrete room was Casimir, who had been rehydrated and treated with antibiotics. "He just kept asking, 'Where is Mommy?'" Israel recalls. But there was no answer: The clinic couldn't tell him where Natasha was. "I thought," Israel says, "she was dead."
He lived with that terrible belief for two days. But even in Haiti, amid the ruin and despair, some prayers do get answered. A staffer at Casimir's clinic called around and learned Natasha and her newborn were fine. Israel and Casimir raced to the prenatal clinic and found them there. Natasha blinked back tears as she scooped up Casimir; when she learned from her husband that Odette and Jimmy were also safe, she raised her hands skyward and said, "Praise the Lord." Then she handed her husband his newborn child. "He is very small," Israel says, "but he is healthy and beautiful. God has shown favor on us."
The next day, Dec. 15, the entire family was reunited at last. Odette and Jimmy ran up and hugged their mother; Odette took Michael in her arms and kissed his face. They have settled back into the one-room home, empty now except for a blanket, a sheet and some diapers. But Natasha and Casimir have recovered from cholera, and the family is ready to start rebuilding their lives once again. "We can pull together," Natasha says. "We are a strong family. I know, because we have come through this."