Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Amputees Build Community of Support

Early morning in the community of L'Escale is not unlike that in any other rural village. Residents wake to the sound of roosters crowing. Long shadows are cast as lines take shape at the communal well. But in this community, the shadows are of the pie-slice spokes of a wheelchair, the Eiffel Tower lines of a figure on crutches.

Here, the morning routine takes a little longer as residents gingerly navigate the rocky terrain on new metal legs. Double amputees sit on mattresses to bathe from plastic basins set out on smooth concrete porches of the eight brightly painted villas.

L'Escale is a unique community of amputees brought together by the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer (HAS), which has received an overwhelming number of amputees since the January 12 earthquake.

Timing could not have been more fortuitous for the hospital, which in October had shuttered the compound it had been using to isolate contagious TB patients. "We were going to meet Jan. 15 to decide what to do with these empty buildings. Then the earthquake came and solved our problem for us," says Ian Rawson, managing director of HAS in Deschapelles, Haiti.

"In a hospital when you are ready to let someone go you write on their chart, 'discharge home,' relates Rawson. "You might write that very cavalierly, but [since the earthquake] you have to look at it and think, 'wait a minute,' and cross out 'home' because they may not have a home anymore."

In the days after the disaster, patients with the most need and no home to return to were discharged to L'Escale until they could find more permanent lodging. With the opening of the Hanger clinic-- the hospital's new prosthetics and rehabilitation center-- at the end of February, a new need arose. Hanger patients, mostly earthquake victims from Port-au-Prince, needed a place to stay during the two weeks or more of the physical therapy required to be fitted for and learn to use their new limbs. Without L'Escale, the three-hour commute to the capital city would have made these daily visits impossible for most.

The village is now bustling with activity. Vans shuttle patients the half-mile from village to clinic several times a day. After seeing patients at the clinic, Project HOPE physical therapist Claude Hillel and his team make rounds at L'Escale in the late afternoon. The team is eager to reinforce correct exercise techniques in an environment that more closely resembles a patient's home.

Each of these eight-person homes houses four patients and their escorts-- patients are allowed one helper, usually a family member, to stay with them. And each dwelling has taken on its own character.

The porch of the blue villa has become the de-facto gathering place for those who have just received new legs. A woman use its three wide steps to relearn how to climb and descend as a man sits quietly staring at the shoe on his lower leg prosthesis unstrapped next to him. From the yellow villa a passerby might hear the strains of a hymn or a pop song sung by two young women who have become fast friends. Cell phones ring. Kids gather around a table at the white villa for dominoes while men play cards from a nearby bench.

In a country where amputees have not always received the best treatment, L'Escale residents seem comfortable in this environment, where they are surrounded by others facing the same struggles. A small crowd congregates to watch physical therapist Philippe Menard teach breathing techniques to a back injury patient. From their perches on the blue villa porch, women exchange tips on compression wrapping their stumps.

"It's a community," says Rawson. "They've created a community and they take care of each other."

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

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