Haiti's biggest loss from quake: Thousands of amputees

By John Lantigua
Associated Press

She is 17 and lovely. It is the time of life when a girl dreams of finding a boyfriend, strolling with him, dancing with him. Instead, Gaelle Eznard lies in a small red tent at a crowded, chaotic refugee camp in the Champs de Mars, a park in this demolished capital. Her family carries her out to get sun for part of the day, then sleeps around her tent protectively at night. On Jan. 12, Gaelle was at a friend’s house when it collapsed during the magnitude 7.0 earthquake. Blocks of concrete smashed her lower body. Rescued from the rubble, she was rushed to the military hospital, where Dominican surgeons removed half of her right leg. She is one of thousands of people who were made amputees when jagged, cascading concrete crushed their bones. Tens of thousands of people died, but it may be the number of catastrophic injuries that survivors are forced to live with that will distinguish the Haiti earthquake from other disasters.

An executive of CNE, the state construction company responsible for disposing of the dead in mass graves, told a reporter that his dump trucks also had carried numerous severed limbs.

”We have confirmed that at least 2,000 amputations have been performed since the earthquake,” said Eric Doubt, executive director of Canada-based Healing Hands for Haiti. For 10 years, that organization has treated the country’s disabled people.

He said that figure comes from Haitian hospitals still standing and various tent hospitals staffed by international surgeons doing emergency triage. At many of those facilities, the vast majority of operations have been amputations. Right after the quake, many were done without anesthetic. Some patients are multiple amputees, though Doubt didn’t say how many.

”But that number of new amputees can go up as wounds turn gangrenous or as repairs that were made fail at a later date and it is necessary to amputate,” Doubt said.

Grim prospects

Amputation can be more cataclysmic to many Haitians than it would be to individuals in more developed societies.

Dr. Colleen O’Connell, a Healing Hands board member who traveled to Haiti to treat quake victims, said at least 80 percent of Haitians rely on their physical abilities to survive. That includes men doing all sorts of labor and women walking long distances to market while balancing baskets of produce on their heads. There are few ramps for disabled people and no hydraulic stairs on overcrowded buses.

”This is a push-pull, survival-of-the-fittest kind of society,” O’Connell said. “The last thing a person wants is to be is a burden on their family.”

Many amputees end up on the street, selling odds and ends, settling near churches where they can beg for alms. They often lead desperate lives.

Adding a large number of amputees to a country so impoverished and underdeveloped is a cruel prospect. But some Haitians and their foreign friends are already responding. They are at least creating the hope that the newest amputees will escape the dismal fates of their predecessors.

Outside the heavily damaged headquarters of Healing Hands, overlooking the ruined capital, Haitians employed there as physical therapists and makers of prosthetic devices said they wanted to work again as soon as possible.

They said the oven for baking the plastic devices appeared to be intact, and the other supplies — including plastic that is specially colored for the Haitian population — also appeared to be undamaged. But the building was unstable and they were not allowed inside.

”There will be many more people who will need these devices,” said Albert St. Thomas, 34, who makes prostheses. “Just in my neighborhood I know of one man and one child who lost arms. They will be able to come to us.”

Physical therapist Jacques Charles, 28, said he is prepared to instruct victims on the exercises they will need and on how to deal with the emotional problems they will face. That includes 17-year-old girls who fear they will never dance again or have boyfriends.

”When they first arrive, often they cry,” he said. “But then they see other people who have suffered the same injury, who are dealing with it, and they feel better. I try to give them good counsel. That life is not over. That it will be all right.”

Lending a hand and hope

Before the earthquake, the workers said, six makers of prostheses and eight physical therapists were employed at the facility, which treats all kinds of disabled people in this nation of 10 million, not just amputees.

”Yes, we’ll need many, many more experts, but we’ve already been contacted by about 1,000 volunteers from all over who want to come help,” Healing Hands’ Doubt said.

The first issue will be establishing a new workplace, if it proves impossible to use any of the current Healing Hands buildings. The University of Miami Medishare Project has offered to make room on the same site as its tent hospital near the main airport. The other key issue will be funding.

At the Medishare site, doctors already house many new amputees, including children. A girl named Christelle, 13, dressed in a baby blue hospital smock, lost her parents and older brother. She also lost her right foot just below the ankle. The doctors and nurses have become her new family.

The experts here say many adults have trouble adjusting to prostheses and often discard them after a time. Children do better. Christelle said she wants a new foot so she can someday be — what else? — a doctor.

At the teeming refugee camp in the center of the city, young Gaelle also said she wants a new plastic leg. Not far away, the big white presidential palace is in ruins, like a collapsed wedding cake, a shattered dream. But she isn’t letting go of her own dream of going back to school.

”I want to be a diplomat,” she said resolutely, astounding visitors to the camp.

Anyone who has been through what she has and maintained that measure of ambition and aplomb will make a magnificent diplomat, she was told.

She nodded once and then smiled.

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