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Gurwin, with big Haitian-American workforce, tries to cope

Marie Romulus, left, and Marie Colin, right, both

Marie Romulus, left, and Marie Colin, right, both Haitian Americans, work at the Gurwin Jewish Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Commack. (Jan. 17, 2010) Credit: John Dunn

The day after a massive earthquake hit his native Haiti, Jean Paraison went to work as usual at the Gurwin Jewish Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, only to hear his boss tell him to go home.

"Try to call your family," his boss told Paraison, 46, a housekeeper.

The Commack nonprofit center is one of Long Island's biggest employers of Haitian-Americans, who work as nurses, aides, dietitians and more. An estimated 100 of the 1,400 employees are Haitian-Americans, nursing home officials said.

>> PHOTOS: 7.0 earthquake hits Haiti

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At the front desk, a water cooler bottle is about half full with donations for the Red Cross relief effort. A sign reads: "If everyone gives a little, together we will help a lot." The goal is to raise $10,000.

"We look at ourselves as a Gurwin family," said Diane Mertz-Hart, the nonprofit's administrator. "We believe that we take good care of employees and they take wonderful care of our residents."

Practically every shift and floor has at least two or three Haitian-Americans, and with televisions in residents' rooms, it's not easy to escape the developments.

At medicine time Saturday afternoon, nurse Marie Romulus-Marcelin, 50, of Brentwood, checked a resident's record on a computer, pulled out some pills from a drawer, crushed them and mixed them into a packet of pudding.

The task provided a distraction from concerns for her 85-year-old father, who had called at 6 a.m. Saturday to report he had survived by wrapping his arms around a building column off his balcony. From there, he saw buildings topple.

Her father has diabetes, as does she, Romulus-Marcelin said, and as a nurse she knows the potentially deadly implications when there's no access to water, food and medicine. "All those things go through my mind," she said.

And she's seen on television the corpses taken from the rubble and flung onto piles into mass graves. If her father doesn't survive, she doesn't want him to face such a fate - that, instead, he would get "a decent funeral. I don't want them to toss him."

In a setting with so many people waiting for news from home, residents often inquire whether their caretakers know the fate of their families and friends.

"I say 'Yes, my family is OK,' " said nurse Marie Colin, 34, of Wheatley Heights, who hasn't heard from her family. "You know you're lying to yourself, but you have to protect [patients]. They're so fragile."

As the toll of the disaster grows, the colleagues share their stories of fear and death, and occasional joy, to keep one another going.

"By me talking to him, he gives me strength," Romulus-Marcelin said of Paraison. "We comfort each other."

>> PHOTOS: 7.0 earthquake hits Haiti

>>PHOTOS: Newsday photographer in Haiti

>> MORE: Read more about LIers grieving and efforts to help | Latest news from Haiti

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