I would have liked to stay longer because I loved the work and I had grown amazingly fond of the people in such a short time.
The first time I went into the workshop I was astonished by how well equipped it is. The work there almost does itself, which is a great credit to Hanger and medi, who taught the staff there on site. The mood in the workshop is relaxed, and the staff are friendly towards each other, it’s fun to work in such a great atmosphere.
On my very first day I watched Alix Paul, one of the Haitian technicians who is responsible for lower limb prostheses, at his work. He was checking the alignment of an above-knee prosthesis using a plumb line made of a length of string with a weight at the end. I helped him by holding the prosthesis steady so he could check the alignment. When I asked him if everything was OK he said yes, but I could still see the uncertainty in his face. I decided there and then to devote my time in Haiti to my project of making a “plumb line alignment” table because correct plumb line alignment is very important for a prosthesis. This is a table with a horizontal, levelled surface surrounded by a kind of metal cage. Vertical lengths of string are tied to the edges. If you look at the string on one of the sides and look at the one behind it as well you always have the accurate reference line you need for aligning a prosthesis correctly.
That same morning I met my first patient, a tall, slender elderly man who had lost his lower leg in a road traffic accident and was to be fitted with a prosthesis. Every Tuesday and Thursday a bus with hospital patients arrives from Port-au-Prince. If the modifications or repairs can be done the same day the patients travel back again in the afternoon. Otherwise the patients have the option of staying in the hospital grounds until the prosthesis is finished. This was the case with my patient, and I went with Elisee to pick him up. The plaster mould was done quickly, and we arranged an appointment for a trial fitting of the prosthesis.
The next evening after work while I was swimming a couple of refreshing circuits in the pool, I met Jimmy. He and his team of Haitians are responsible for all the maintenance and engineering work on the hospital campus. I told him about my plan for making a plumb line table and he was immediately hooked on the idea because he, just like me, was convinced that this would make the technicians’ work far easier. I asked him to weld the frame I needed for the table and its “cage”. Just a few hours later we met for our evening meal and I sketched a drawing with the dimensions I needed,. Then Jimmy and I discussed all the remaining details with Michael, the current senior master mechanic in the Hanger Lab, and Jimmy and his team started work on it right the next day.
While they were making the frame for the alignment table I started clearing up the shelves in the workshop – as soon as work permitted. One of my predecessors had put the shelves up so he could sort the various prosthesis feet according to size and side. Of course the idea itself was very good because it saved lots of unnecessary searching. However, the feet were stored in cardboard boxes that had gone mouldy with time because of the high air humidity. So I started to take measurements and made up a plaster positive that we can pull plastic over to make boxes in future – and we sure have plenty of plastic. Sadly the routine work meant we couldn’t make more than two, but at least we made a start.
Then it was ready. There it stood. The frame for the new plumb line table and the baseplate we needed. I was delighted at how accurately Jimmy’s team had welded the frame. To make sure that the baseplate is absolutely horizontal there are screw adjusters on each leg of the table, and I fixed spirit levels to 2 sides of the table for accurate adjustment. Once everything was perfectly horizontal I started tying the lengths of string onto the frame. These had to run at exactly 90° to the baseplate. To make sure these always stayed in the same position I filed notches into the frame at the right places and tied the string there.
The appointment for a trial fitting of the prosthesis had almost arrived. After arriving at the Hanger Lab I sat the gentleman down in the fitting room and, after the standard adjustment work, I asked him to risk taking his first few steps with the help of his underarm crutches. He quickly showed his understanding of the prosthesis because after the first 20 metres he put his crutches down and walked without any walking aids. After the elderly gentleman had tested the prosthesis for some time in the lab he declared that everything was fine, and in the afternoon he took the bus back home to his family in Port-au-Prince.
Sadly the next two weeks passed in a flash. I would have liked to stay longer because I loved the work and I had grown amazingly fond of the people in such a short time. Nevertheless, I’m very grateful to medi for help for the time I was able to spend in Haiti because I was able to gain many wonderful – but also many thought-provoking – impressions to bring home with me for the future.