Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Haiti survivors stand strong with new prosthetic limbs

By Trenton Daniel, Miami Herald

Haiti quake amputees fitted with prosthetic limbs now begin the next phase of their lives.

PORT-AU-PRINCE — Almost three months after doctors amputated Emmanuelle Lundy’s left leg just below the knee, she is making birthday plans, posting upbeat status updates on Facebook, and looking forward to dancing at a big concert later this month.

Another thing she’s doing: ignoring the stares of others as she learns to walk again with a prosthetic limb.

“If people look at me in a strange way, well, I feel normal, and people are going to have to look at me in a normal way,” said Lundy, leaning on crutches. “It’s my leg, even if I have to take it off to shower.”

Lundy, 27, is among 14 amputees who were made somewhat physically whole last week — and now moving ahead — after the University of Miami’s Project Medishare fitted them with prosthetic limbs at its camp near the Port-au-Prince international airport. Only hours after doctors attached the plastic legs, the amputees began to walk, jog, even kick a soccer ball again. Two days later, they headed home to begin new lives.

“These folks can’t believe they were walking in a market and 45 seconds later a building fell on them and they were screaming for help,” and they’ve since lost a limb, said UM’s Robert Gailey, rehabilitation coordinator of Project Medishare. “Now, they’re able to walk again,” said Gailey, who lives in Pinecrest.

The UM program aims to provide prosthetic forms — limbs, sleeves and sockets — to 1,800 quake survivors over the next year to 18 months.

The artificial legs are in great demand after an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 Haitians lost limbs in the avalanche of debris in the Jan. 12 earthquake and later acquired gangrene-related infections. The 7.0-magnitude quake has been called the worst natural disaster to hit Haiti in modern times, with a death toll exceeding 200,000 and some 1.3 million people displaced. Doctors expect to discover more amputee cases, as well.

LEARNING TO WALK

Hailing from different backgrounds and neighborhoods, three survivors fitted last week could symbolize Haiti — knocked to its knees but learning how to walk again.

In the tremor’s immediate aftermath, the survivors and their relatives spoke about teeth-clenching agony, flies that hewed to their infected legs and a stench that needed to be staunched — even if that meant amputation. Now, as they sometimes trip, stumble and fall, they speak about a new life that’s fortified by faith and family.

“The leg doesn’t own me,” said Wilfrid Macena, 25, a welder who had his right leg cut above the knee and now sports a robotic-like limb.

“I own the leg.”

Macena, Lundy and others seem to ignore a long-standing stigma in Haiti associated with people with disabilities. Before the quake, few resources existed to accommodate Haiti’s disabled, and many viewed them as outcasts.

The quake wiped out what facilities did exist, including Port-au-Prince’s only full-time prosthetic limb manufacturer and rehabilitation clinic.

Since then, more than a dozen international relief agencies, foundations and private companies have stepped in to take on long-term prosthetic care. That so many nongovernmental organizations have flooded Haiti the past three months underscores the government’s inability to offer medical care for the thousands of amputees, much less basic healthcare for the rest of the population.

For its part, Project Medishare is moving its medical facilities to a more centrally located part of the capital to accommodate amputees in need of checkups. Doctors plan to train Haitian workers to become prosthetic technicians.

When Lundy stepped into a tent at the UM camp with her new left leg and crutches recently, she scanned the room.

“What’s up, Styles?” said Adam Finnieston, a South Florida prosthetist and orthotist who is volunteering for Medishare.

Bonjou,” she said, with an air of nonchalance.

Lundy showed up to learn how to use her new leg, which had been custom-fitted for her with a portable scanner at the hospital.

As she rested on a cot in the hospital’s adult ward that afternoon, Lundy thought over the meaning of her leg, unattached and held aloft. The pain used to be overwhelming; now it’s something of an afterthought, and she has come to embrace her new limb with a sense of humor.

“I know for a fact that men are looking for one-legged women — they are supposedly `faithful,’ ” joked Lundy, who has taken a leave from her employer, a cellphone company, and also from her university studies in computer science. “I’m in demand. I’m making choices.”

It’s this sense of humor that helps propel Lundy forward. There’s no time for pity parties.

“I don’t cry because I’m handicapped,” she said. “I’m living a normal life.”

Lundy looks forward to celebrating her 28th birthday Tuesday. She also looks forward to dancing at the first post-quake concert April 30. Her Facebook page — which has more than 250 friends — indicates her status: “New life.”

Doctors say the ability for amputees such as Lundy to begin walking again depends largely on the nature of the injury and the patient’s preexisting health and strength. Macena, the soccer player, started walking a mere hours after he was fitted, which doctors attributed to his fit lifestyle. He coached soccer and played goalkeeper before the quake. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Macena kicked around a soccer ball with his good foot. He wobbled a few times but regained his balance.

“He’s beginning to trust the leg,” said Eric Baum, 22, of Miami Beach, who handles cargo and transport for Medishare.

ROLE MODEL

UM has hired Macena to work as a role model for other newly fitted amputees.

The homecomings for Macena, Lundy and a little girl brought applause from relatives and curiosity from neighbors.

Five-year-old Charlonie Veillard lost her left leg as she followed her older cousin, Sanaille, to buy salt and the supermarket ceiling fell. Sanaille dug through the rubble to rescue Charlonie.

When Charlonie’s uncle brought her home Wednesday, the neighborhood stopped what it was doing: Kids huddled around the front porch to peek at Charlonie. They knew doctors had amputated her leg.

“How’s Charlonie?” inquired a neighbor, standing next to the tent where Charlonie and her family sleep.

Dinaus Joseph beamed as the little girl used a walker to waddle into the house: “She’s walking!” he said.

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