TOPICS > World

In Haiti, Amputees Face Different Kind of Healing

July 14, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
Loading the player...
As part of his latest series of reports from Haiti, Ray Suarez details the road ahead for citizens who lost limbs after the country's devastating earthquake in January.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Now: some of the casualties of the Haiti earthquake whose wounds never will go away.

Ray Suarez continues his reporting from the capital.

RAY SUAREZ: When Port-au-Prince began to fall on its three million people, thousands were crushed by collapsing ceilings and falling walls.

Thousands who didn’t die must now learn to navigate a broken city missing a foot or a leg. These Haitians must make their living in a city that runs on manual labor with just one hand or arm. It is estimated up to 4,000 people underwent emergency amputations after the January earthquake.

And while six months have passed since then, the journey for many of the newly disabled is only just beginning. Adults are learning again how to do what they have known longer than anything else: to walk. And children, who need to keep replacing their prosthetics throughout their growing years, are getting back the futures almost stolen by falling cinder block.

MONICA PAUL, Haiti (through translator): I would like to go back to school, so I can finish education and become a nurse.

RAY SUAREZ: Thirteen-year-old Monica Paul is back for another fitting. She was trapped in the rubble of her home for a day. She had been washing dishes when the quake began, and part of her kitchen fell on her leg.

After an amputation, the remaining limb changes shape and size for months. Repeat visits, examinations, and fittings are necessary. Many amputees in Haiti are getting by with a temporary, until their final model is done.

Anna Avakian is in Haiti with the Hanger Ivan Sabel Foundation, an American charity that provides prosthetics to those who couldn’t otherwise afford them. Navigating broken, rutted streets in a medically under-served city requires a tough replacement knee or ankle.

ANNA AVAKIAN, The Hanger Ivan R. Sabel Foundation: We’re using prosthetic feet with less components, less little pieces to break, so they are — it is a good long-term prosthetic foot for patients here. We’re also making sure that we use a prosthetic foot that is the same color as feet here in Haiti. We’re using African-American-colored feet. It’s better for patient acceptance.

RAY SUAREZ: There is something a little disorienting about seeing piles of legs and feet, some assembled, some still being crafted, sticking up at crazy angles. Seen all together, they remind you of the living flesh they have been made to replace.

But that uncomfortable moment is banished by this: a boy, newly fitted, learning to walk with his new leg; and two young men, moments ago sitting on a bench with an empty sleeve of pants leg draped next to their healthy limb, now able to kick a ball back and forth for practice.

Thomas Calvot is with Handicap International, which runs this new prosthetic workshop, along with Healing Hands for Haiti. He says, as challenging as physical therapy is for patients here, the real challenge begins when they leave the clinic.

THOMAS CALVOT, Handicap International: This is kind of the double negative, in fact. They would be a amputee because their house fell on them. Of course they can receive a prosthesis, but when they get back, they get back to displaced-person camps, you know? Mostly, it’s tents. It’s a difficult condition. It’s difficult ground. So, these people are facing huge challenge ahead.

RAY SUAREZ: And then there are extraordinary patients, like George Exantus. Exantus was a prize-winning competitive dancer before January 12, when he was pinned under rubble for two days. He lost his leg below the knee and suffered nerve damage in his hand.

ANNA AVAKIAN: We replaced the prosthetic foot so it was a little more flexible, and for him to be able to dance.

RAY SUAREZ: So, he still is?

ANNA AVAKIAN: Mm-hmm. Oh, yes, he dances wonderfully. You should put on some music and dance with him.

RAY SUAREZ: If you just happened on the dance studio where he used to teach and train, you can find him practicing again, but you would have to look twice to see his artificial leg.

GEORGE EXANTUS, Haiti (through translator): This is a temporary leg given to me so that I can practice and continue my therapy sessions at home. They have promised me a better leg, and I’m hoping at some point that will come true. But, to dance, you need an extremely expensive leg, but that’s not available in Haiti. I will probably never get that.

RAY SUAREZ: For now, Exantus sees his visits to the dance studio as just as therapeutic as any doctor’s office.

GEORGE EXANTUS (through translator): Since the quake, I haven’t been able to teach here. I come here to clear my mind, enjoy the moment. I enjoy watching the students working on their dance, because what I used to do as a teacher and as a choreographer, I can’t do anymore, and it will be a long time before I can get back to doing that. But here is a much better place to be than sitting at home.

RAY SUAREZ: Exantus plans to do quite the opposite of sitting at home by returning to the dance floor.

GEORGE EXANTUS (through translator): The main thing for me is the idea of competing again, make money, teach, and compete, and compete at a very high level.

RAY SUAREZ: We told him we would come see him next when he is able to compete again.

JIM LEHRER: Ray’s next story is about mental health care for Haitians traumatized by the earthquake.