After my first stay in Haiti last year, I set off for my second relief mission at the end of August, after weeks of eager anticipation. As the year before, Ralf the workshop manager, greeted me warmly at the airport.
Nicole, the home help I already knew from last time, put on a delicious meal to suit the occasion of my arrival at the guesthouse in Port-au-Prince. I spent the next few days with two Americans at the guesthouse. According to my timetable, I worked in the orthopaedic workshop at St. Vincent Hospital in Port-au-Prince for the first of the three weeks. I spent the rest of the time at the workshop at the Albert-Schweitzer-Hospital in Deschapelles.
My reception at the workshop was warm-hearted. I was particularly pleased to see Alexis again. Alexis has been working as a prosthetist/orthotist in Haiti for the last five years. He comes from El Salvador, and we became firm friends last year.
During the week’s work in Port-au-Prince I had the honour of holding a training session on the subject of above-knee prostheses and CAD/CAM technology. This reminded me once again of what “Haitian joie de vivre” means, because we still didn’t have any patients for the seminar, and it was still unclear who was going to take part at all. Once a patient had been organised, we tackled the theoretical part of the seminar in the afternoon. For instance, we looked at axial and transverse oval socket design, prosthesis alignment taking into account the length of the residual limb, flexion contractures and the condition of the residual limb.
The next day we cared for a 35-year-old man who had a transfemoral amputation after a motorbike accident in his youth. This type of accident is very common in day-to-day life in Haiti because it is unfortunately not rare for up to five people to be riding on a motorbike carelessly at high speeds.
After demonstrating the measuring and casting techniques on the patient, the colleagues paired off to take measurements and make plaster casts. The next day we discussed modelling techniques for the CAD/CAM socket and made up the test sockets. The next job was the static trial fitting and aligning the prosthesis one after another, although the lack of materials and tools presented me with a great challenge. On my last working day at St. Vincent we fitted the socket and made some fine adjustments. Our objective was to provide the patient, who was previously wearing a transverse oval socket held in place by a bandage, with an anteroposterior oval vacuum socket.
During the lunch breaks we walked a couple of streets away to eat at a school for mentally and physically handicapped children and teenagers run by St. Vincent. This was also a very interesting experience. I spent my free time during the first week with the nice American Robin, and Alexis. For example, we had pizza or spent a day at the pool at the Marriott Hotel, and Nicole cooked delicious meals the whole time.
Now it was time to set off for Deschapelles. After the three-hour car journey, I moved into my room at Ralf’s house on the campus of the Albert-Schweitzer Hospital. We spent many pleasant evenings there, for example watching DVDs and munching on banana crisps. My welcome at the workshop with Alix, Cho, Cira and Joel was accompanied by big hugs and shouts of joy. Despite my relatively short stays, I still bonded strongly with the country and its people.
Over the coming two weeks, we worked on all sorts of prosthetic and orthotic devices. I can only join the volunteers before me in appealing to those who come after me: take any and all sorts of orthotic/prosthetic hinges with you. There simply aren’t any there. For instance, I provided an 8-year-old lad who had one bow leg and a three centimetre shorter leg with an orthosis in a talipes position. This corrected the varum deformity and compensated for the leg length difference, but unfortunately the boy could no longer use his joint. With other devices, for instance, I joined Alix in preparing a cast for a young man with a bilateral deformity that reminded me of an above-knee residual limb. This was the first time he had ever been provided with a medical device. During my time there, I was unfortunately only able to prepare the sockets for the first trial fitting. Three weeks are just too short.
One of the touching cases that has stayed in my mind was an old woman whose face was distorted with pain when she walked into the workshop. Due to her foot deformity, one of her metatarsal heads was causing her severe pain. After I had made up an insole from three layers of soft bedding material, this now grateful lady went home with a smile on her face.
More devices were needed during our mobile clinic sessions. We drove around to the neighbouring hospitals to make plaster casts and try on arm and leg orthoses, lower limb prostheses, sitting sockets and corsets. The journey to the mobile clinic session in Mirebalais was very adventurous because most of the road is unmetalled. So you really get shaken up, despite the 4×4 vehicle, and you need two hours for the 60 kilometres. Since the next appointment for making a cast for an above-knee prosthesis that I had made with Joel wasn’t until two weeks later during a mobile clinic session, we organised transport to Deschapelles two days later. My plan was to fit the prosthesis myself but, despite all my efforts, the patient didn’t turn up. Here it was again – the “Haitian joie de vivre”.
I also had great fun during my free time. Among some of the things we did at the weekend, we drove to the coast to enjoy a lovely day in the sunshine and the turquoise water, we went hiking and enjoyed the tremendous views there, we drove to the market in Verrett, which is very exotic by our standards, or we simply went somewhere to eat and drink.
I would like to thank everyone with whom I had closest contact because they went to a lot of effort to actively and warmly help me out and made sure I had a pleasant stay. I was very impressed to see all these people smiling and enjoying life to the full, despite the generally poverty-stricken living conditions. This is why I hope for Haiti that the path to a stable society will be smoothed out so all of its people can benefit from it. I resolved to take back some of the calm and laid back lifestyle on Haiti back home with me.
I am grateful for being given the opportunity to be part of this fantastic project. I immediately saw how much the Haitian colleagues have learned since last year, and how fruitful this project has been. Carry on!
On the return journey I combined business with pleasure and spent three days looking round Miami Beach (a stark contrast after three weeks in Haiti), but if you’re in that part of the world anyway ….
Three weeks without my wife and my 5-year-old son was a long time, but I’m determined to go back to Haiti if my personal circumstances permit.