Thursday, February 25, 2010

Personal Loss Drives HOPE Volunteer Claude Hillel

To call Project HOPE volunteer Claude Hillel “driven” would be an understatement.

A physical therapist practicing at NYSportsMed & Physical Therapy, Hillel was born in Montreal, Canada, to a Haitian mother and Turkish/British father. A strapping man with an unexpectedly gentle manner, he is not only fluent in English and French, but Creole, Portuguese and Italian.

During the Haiti quake, he lost three members of his family, including a ten-year-old cousin, who celebrating the birthday of his elderly aunt were in Port-au-Prince—a party he had considered attending himself. Many other guests died. The ice cream manufacturing plant owned by his uncle was destroyed.

“I felt helpless”

So he signed up on the volunteer rosters of a dozen Haiti-relief agencies, bought $1,000 worth of camping gear, persuaded a medical supply company that he often deals with to donate bandages and other supplies, and set off—with 30 suitcases and a one-way ticket to Florida. Once there, he camped out in the executive travel terminal and eventually bummed a ride in a private jet to the Dominican Republic.

It was at this point that he got the call from Project HOPE to volunteer in the physical therapy ward of the USNS Comfort.

“The work I do is with athletes, not amputees,” he says. Anticipating this need before he left New York, Hillel had gotten himself up to speed reading studies about rehabilitation for amputees. According to the Haitian government, 6,000 to 8,000 people have lost limbs or digits due to the quake.

“The research has been invaluable,” he says. Hillel learned the correct way to wrap an amputated limb in order for it to heal in a manner for it to fit into a prosthesis.

He is now teaching others the new techniques he has learned. While visiting Foyer St. Camille-- a hospital in Port-au-Prince run by an Italian religious order-- he fashioned a “limb” from a plastic bag filled with scrubs. Haitian nurse Pierre Gills Marie Will Edwin watched as Hillel slowly wound an Ace bandage in a cris-cross pattern around the lower half. “It’s all about practice,” he emphasized, handing off the roll to Will Edwin to try.

“Wrapping is not difficult, but I’m finding so many cases of it not being done at all here,” says Claude. “I’ve actually talked to health care workers here who say that since the population can’t afford prosthetics, why prepare a patient to use one?”

He is focused on the message that there are no limits to what a person can do. “There is a major stigma here in Haiti for handicapped people— a definite ceiling,” he says. “Today I visited a hospital where there was a boy who had been hit by debris during the quake. He was able to move his legs but he had been told not to try to walk. I put a therapy belt on him and walked him around. His mother thought that I was performing miracles. She was so happy.”

He dreams about a team of American or Canadian amputees visiting Haiti to demonstrate all of the things that they are still able to do. Until that time, Hillel will keep working on the miracles.

Story and photos by photojournalist and HOPE volunteer, Allison Shelley.

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  1. Claude Hillel is a role model of selflessness and love. If only more people were like him...
    Claude, I am so blessed to be your friend. XOXO, MF

  2. Karen Langlois, RN, 1972 volunteerJuly 16, 2010 at 2:59 AM

    Claude Hillel is a tremendous inspiration!! To imagine he went to Haiti BY HIMSELF, catching a ride on a jet w/all his supplies!!And how lucky for HOPE to connect w/him! As a HOPIE, I know he's the type of person that examplifies HOPE'S philosophy. God Bless Claude, Mirtha, who's story appeared, & all those likewise struggling. May all the victims know that so many of us care & want to help in some small way, if only by contributions!

  3. Claude truely is a big man with a huge heart. I had the pleasure of working with him in Deschappelles in April. He really is making a difference.