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Haiti day 4: Life after the quake

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On a workbench in the backroom at the new rehabilitation facility is a brown plastic foot, about a woman’s size 6, with a carefully carved notch between the big toe and its neighbor.

It’s about 7 p.m. on March 1. Ania Antoine, a pretty 15-year-old in a short denim skirt, who is waiting for her turn with the physical therapist, likes to wear flip-flops. Right now, she’s only wearing one.

She smiles when she hears the new foot will fit nicely into a flip-flop. And has toenails to paint as well.

Ania (pictured above) lost her right leg – and most of her family – in the Jan. 12 earthquake that nearly leveled the capital city of Port-au-Prince and killed more than 200,000 people. She and her father alone survived.

Sitting along the walls of the rehab room in white plastic chairs are five young adult amputees, all healthy enough to leave the hospital but housed near the Hospital Albert Schweitzer at L’Escale, a former tuberculosis village, a short walk from the rehab facility. They are among the first of Haiti’s estimated 4,000 amputees to get prosthetic legs and begin the difficult process of learning to walk all over again.

They need a week or two of practice before they go off on their own, navigating the difficult Haitian terrain. Most are from Port-au-Prince and have lost their homes or schools and don’t know where they’ll go from here.

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“Two people were dead next to me in the rubble,” Ania (shown again, right) explained earlier in the afternoon, speaking through a Creole interpreter. She was walking around on crutches in L’Escale, a desolate place of scattered cinderblock homes housing about eight amputees. The grounds are dirt, the residents wash laundry in a pump at the center of the village. The smell of burning piles of garbage drift through the air. A Haitian community group, led by Luquece Belizire along with the help of the hospital, provides bottled water, and members come by to cook meals at an outdoor barbecue. Belizire’s mother and sister often cook the meals. Belizire drives the amputees back and forth to the hospital for rehab where the physical therapists work long days that continue late into the night.

Despite the desolate surroundings, the young people find comfort with each other. They flirt and answer cell phones and laugh and joke.

Denise Jacques, 16, said it’s not very difficult learning to walk on the new leg. She described the horrible pain of suffering with a crushed leg for four days before a team of foreign doctors set up a tent at a nearby town where she finally had it amputated. She lives in one of the cinderblock homes with her brother. Jean McKinley, 19, lost his leg and four fingers in the earthquake. He also lost his school where he was learning to be a mechanic.

“He’s really good,” said Cynthia Racine, MD, a Haitian-born physiatrist from the United States who came to Hospital Albert Schweitzer to volunteer after the earthquake. She points out that McKinley can’t use one of his hands because of the amputated fingers where skin grafts are healing. “He’s trained as a mechanic and understands when we talk about center of gravity and vectors.”

At the end of the day about 10 p.m., the young amputees finish their 40-minute rehab by kicking a soccer ball with their new legs, and even attempt to dance with each other.

It’s just one small room in one small town way out in the Haitian countryside, but it’s an amazing sight and a sign of hope for the future of Haiti.

On March 2, I headed back to the airport in Port-au-Prince from the hospital in Deschapelles, driving 80 miles through some of the poorest communities in the Western Hemisphere. Trucks overloaded with Haitian passengers and piled high with mattresses rumble past, heading away from the tent cities and destruction of the capital, looking for new homes in the country.

My traveling companion, an American hydrologist who has worked and lived at the hospital for more than a decade, describes how the Haitian people have organized themselves to survive this earthquake. In the tent cities they provide community patrols to keep the women safe. They share whatever food they can find.

She says there are rumblings among the Haitians about how the much-stronger 8.0 earthquake in Chile on Feb. 27 caused fewer deaths and less destruction than the 7.0 earthquake here. And she talks about a fierce determination to rebuild the country better than before.

“It’s not, ‘We have to rebuild Haiti,’” said Ian Rawson, the heart and soul behind this hospital, whose mother and stepfather, Larimer and Gwen Mellon of Pittsburgh, founded it more than 50 years ago. “We have to build Haiti. Together, with the Haitian people.”

Tracie White is a Scope contributor and writer in the medical school’s communication office. She just returned from Haiti, where she wrote about the situation there. You can see all of her updates in our Global Health category. More details on Stanford’s Haiti relief effort are available here.

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