Two Years Later, Haitian Amputees Still Have a Long Way to Go

BY Rebecca Jacobson  January 11, 2012 at 5:30 PM EDT

Amputee children Fymée Diogene, Balnave Ulysee both lost legs in the 2010 earthquake.
Fymée Diogene and Balnave Ulysee both lost legs in the 2010 earthquake. Photo by William Daniels/Handicap International.

Two years ago, a devastating earthquake in Haiti killed more than 200,000 people and caused injuries that required amputations for another 4,000 people. The NewsHour covered the struggle to fit so many with new prosthetic limbs in 2010.

The state of emergency is only now subsiding for Haiti, said Elizabeth MacNairn, executive director of Handicap International. But an ongoing cholera epidemic, widespread poverty, government problems and a hurricane have all held up the recovery process.

Many of those injured by the earthquake are still living in precarious conditions, said MacNairn. Unemployment is still high, and the disabled often live on one meal a day. She said that while Handicap International fitted 1,459 people with orthopedic devices and about 5,600 mobility aids, some disabled Haitians still haven’t received needed prosthetics and rehabilitation therapy.

“The emergency is winding down, but it’s not over,” she said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

But Kevin Carroll, vice president of prosthetics and orthotics with Hanger Ivan R. Sabel Foundation, says his clinic is performing more maintenance of the prosthetics and orthotics for amputees, rather than seeing busloads of new patients needing aid.

“Six months after the earthquake, we were absolutely packed, inside and outside the facility,” he said. “Now we’re maintaining new limbs.”

Aid organizations are looking at 2012 as a chance to put better infrastructure in place for the amputees in case of future emergencies. Handicap International has constructed more than 1,000 temporary hurricane and earthquake-resistant shelters that are handicap accessible and is working with the Haitian authorities on building more. In addition, the group has prepared stockpiles of emergency equipment such as tents, blankets, walking aids and radios, said MacNairn.

Handicap International also is working with microfinanciers and employment organizations to encourage hiring disabled Haitians, she said.

“Part of our functional rehabilitation is to make them able to complete daily living tasks — cooking, washing, writing — which increases their self confidence,” she added. And that translates to being able to work outside the home to support their families.

The earthquake left major destruction, but there have been some silver linings, said Carroll. Haitians clinicians and technicians now are better able to treat and serve amputees and the disabled with the help of aid agencies, and those organizations have learned how to better implement training during a crisis, he said. And therapeutic access for all disabled Haitians has improved, he added.

In addition, disability has gained visibility in Haiti, said Carroll. Amputee children have formed soccer teams and George Exantus, who dances with an artificial leg, is getting ready to compete again. He makes a living teaching dance classes.

Carroll said Hanger will stay as long as Haiti, a neighbor to the United States, needs help. “They’re 90 minutes away from where I live. It’s a shame if we can’t help our neighbor,” he said.

View more stories on our Global Health page.