• This Is Why

    Life and Limb

    In Haiti, rebuilding takes many forms.

    • By Mary Anne Kramer-Urner, PT, MPT
    • May 2011

    Podcast: Listen to 'This Is Why'

    Amabelle had been under rubble for 3 days after the 7.0 earthquake. She finally pulled herself free, only to find that the raging infection in her leg required amputation.

    Her mother borrowed enough money to put the 24-year-old on a bus to our clinic, so she could get a new leg, a new life. She arrived with nothing but hope and the clothes on her back. When I met her, she had a shy but radiant smile. She held out her arm and looked at the forearm. Then she pointed to her ankle. I spoke no Haitian Creole and she spoke no English, but I understood right away: Everything hurt. Her forearm had a visible muscle tear and her ankle had a nerve injury—leaving one good, strong arm to carry her through this tragedy.

    I met Amabelle 7 weeks after the amputation, when she arrived at the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer/Haiti Amputee Coalition amputee clinic in Deschapelles to receive a prosthesis. She was the first person I evaluated on my first day at the clinic, March 21, 2010. I still was a bit dazed from the many flights I'd taken over 2 days to finally land in Port-au-Prince from my starting point in California.

    I showed Amabelle how to mobilize her scar, gently at first, to desensitize her limb. This helped make using the prosthesis more comfortable. She was determined to be able to stand up and walk, just like everyone else, although she had only 1 uninjured limb.

    For every challenge, we found an answer. She started smiling spontaneously, and even laughed out loud after a few days. My last day at the clinic, 2 weeks later, was Amabelle's, as well. She had mastered use of her new prosthetic leg, using crutches. Once her prosthesis was covered, she stood and beckoned me toward her. She looked me straight in the eyes, smiled, and hugged me fiercely. We understood that we'd likely never see each other again. But we knew, too, that we'd developed a special relationship, never to be duplicated.

    Those weeks in Haiti changed my life forever. They would not have been possible had I not been a physical therapist.

    I was lucky enough to have been flown thousands of miles by an organization called Physicians for Peace. Its motto is "Send One. Train Many. Heal the World." My role was staff PT. I was to help people who'd lost so much, and to develop sustainable systems that PTs coming after me could use. The clinic had begun taking patients just 3 weeks before my arrival, yet it already had issued nearly 90 new limbs.

    My first days were a blur, with names, faces, and stories difficult to track. But soon I knew everyone by heart. I was honored to be there, helping these brave people who were relearning how to move in the world—who, together, witnessed each others' challenges and triumphs. The word "community" was defined in that room, day after day.

    One of my colleagues cited an old Haitian Creole proverb: Piti piti zwazo fè nich. "Little by little, the bird builds its nest." The well of need was enormous, but I knew—I saw—that what I did mattered to each and every person with whom I worked. That proverb played over and over in my head, helping me maintain perspective. It still does.

    My husband, Dave, also a PT, volunteered at the clinic last June. He and I will return together this summer to continue our work—contributing our twigs to the communal nest, fully embracing the gift our profession affords to transform the lives of those we serve.

    Mary Anne Kramer-Urner, PT, MPT, is the outpatient neuro therapy supervisor at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, California.  

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