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Haiti's Tiny Miracles: How Babies Survive for So Many Days Buried in the Ruins

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Amidst so much death and destruction in Haiti, tiny Elisabeth Joassaint has been hailed as the greatest miracle.

Just 23 days old, Elisabeth was asleep in her crib when the earth shook in Jacmel, a town on Haiti's southern coast. After the ceiling collapsed, Elisabeth was lost in the rubble for eight long days.

Then, her mother says, a miracle happened: French and Colombian rescuers managed to reach the baby girl who was scrunched up in a five-inch void in the rubble. She was unscathed but dehydrated.

"Her survival is down to the mercy of God," her mother said.

Perhaps as many as two hundred thousand people have lost their lives in Haiti and yet each story of survival brings a flicker of hope. So far, rescue teams have pulled at least 132 people from toppled buildings, with babies and toddlers commanding the greatest attention. Every time, we wonder: How can the most vulnerable and defenseless survive?

In disasters and other traumas, experts say, infants and youngsters are remarkably hardy and resilient, arriving in the world with built-in mini-survival kits. Indeed, most of us probably underestimate what one pediatrician has called the "margin of safety that Mother Nature gives to newborns."

Consider some of their survival advantages:

Nutrition Onboard: Perhaps 15 percent of a brand new baby's weight is made up of extra body fat intended to nourish the little one as it waits for its mother's milk to come in. By some estimates, newborns can survive weeks without food.

Ready for Stress: Experts say newborns are built to handle the stress of childbirth and adapt to sudden arrival in a new, strange and often inhospitable world. Under pressure, for instance, they can lie still, slowing their metabolic rates, saving energy and water.

Unafraid of the Dark: Newborns are intimately familiar with cramped, quiet darkness. Unlike adults, they don't exactly realize they've been buried alive. Of course, fear is a primal emotion, but experts say that newborns don't have to struggle with the same feelings of helplessness and hopelessness when a roof caves in.

Of course, babies have their own critical needs, especially warmth. In this case, Haiti's warm climate may have helped significantly, protecting the core body temperatures of little survivors buried in the ruins.

In addition, the humidity in Haiti may have reduced the pace of dehydration among survivors. "At 90 degrees, you would die of dehydration in seven days and at 120 degrees, you would die in two days," according to Dr. Kent Holtorf in The Daily News. "But if you add in the extra humidity, like in Haiti, you're not losing water through your skin as quickly, and you can survive for an extra three to five days."

Naturally, there's a limit to how long anyone can survive without any food and water. Perhaps that's the grim reason that some search-and-rescue teams are packing up and pulling out. Rapid UK, a British rescue team, along with 60 British firefighters, are going back to the United Kingdom, saying it's almost impossible for anyone to still be alive in the ruins.

And yet today, a 69-year-old Haitian woman was found alive in a collapsed building in Port-au-Prince. She's in bad shape and may not survive, but in Haiti and around the world, everyone is praying for more miracles.

UPDATE:

As of Saturday (Jan. 23), the Haitian government declared an end to searches for living people buried in the rubble. At the same time, another survivor was saved after 11 days in the ruins of a hotel grocery story. Wismond Exantus was rescued when searchers dug a narrow tunnel into the wreckage.

Dehydrated and exhausted, Exantus was carried out on a stretcher as onlookers cheered. The 20-something survivor later told the Associated Press that he stayed alive by diving under a desk during the quake and drinking cola, beer and eating cookies.

"I was hungry, but every night I thought about the revelation that I would survive," Exantus said from his hospital bed.