Saturday, February 27, 2010

Young Haitian Lost Leg to Save His Sister's Life

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- It's just after 6 a.m., and Petersen Hilan is waking from a dream where he was rollerblading and playing soccer. The morning sun jolts him back to reality - he no longer has a right leg.

The high school senior looks up at the tangerine light streaming through the canvas tent. Mornings remind him of the feeling just before his leg was amputated three weeks ago.

"The serum went in my arm and all I thought was that death probably feels just as sweet," Hilan says.

He looks under his cot to find the grey rollerblades he used to wear and extra crutches stuck in the mud. There is no running water, so he splashes cologne under his arms. He struggles to lift himself up on the cot to pull on a pair of baggy denim shorts.

In Haiti's apocalyptic landscape of tilted and flattened houses, smiling schoolchildren in smart uniforms and colorful hair bows have been replaced by legions of young amputees. More than 4,000 Haitians have gone through amputations since the quake, hundreds of them without anesthesia. Some lost more of their limbs than necessary because of the lack of equipment and medicine during a crushing influx of broken people.

More amputations are expected. Doctors say some people have been walking around with compound fractures for weeks. Others have never had medical treatment for infections.

One of Haiti's few prosthetics factories, Healing Hands, was severely damaged in the quake, and it could take months to produce enough prosthetics for amputees. The government has said it will develop a plan for the country's newly disabled - Haiti has few elevators, ramps or accessible buildings - but few details have emerged.

In the meantime, amputees like Hilan are struggling to cope in a country where the disabled have long been seen as a drain on their families.

The 21-year-old doesn't want sympathy. But in another country, he believes, he wouldn't have lost the leg. Doctors say he's probably right.

"I think eventually there will be a new Haiti," says Hilan. "Unfortunately, I lost my leg in the old Haiti."


When the earth shook on Jan. 12, Hilan was just a semester away from high school graduation, after several interruptions from hurricanes, floods and political unrest. He was living with his mother and seven family members in a cement house about 10 blocks away from the Champ de Mars, Port-au-Prince's central plaza.

As he stood in the tiny kitchen near his 4-year-old sister, Carmel, cinder blocks came crashing down, one by one.

"I grabbed Carmel and pushed her outside," says Hilan. "But then everything became dark and it felt like something was pulling me into the ground. I looked down and my foot was completely broken. I couldn't move."

A friend extracted Hilan and laid him on the street where other casualties were frozen in a daze, from injuries or shock at the nightmare unfolding around them.

As dusk fell, Hilan lay on the ground for two hours while his friend and a cousin searched for a hospital. Many had tumbled. Others were crowded with patients but no doctors or nurses.

They eventually hurried back to report that a tidal wave was coming. Panicked by what turned out to be a false rumor, they moved Hilan to the higher ground of the Champ de Mars.

Hilan's family tried every day for the next six days to get him medical attention. Constant aftershocks only exacerbated the pain. The gangrene was creeping, the stench of Hilan's wound worsened.

Eventually Hilan went to a hospital near the airport, where an American doctor explained his options.

"He apologized to me but told me that if he didn't amputate, I would be dead in two days."


These days, Hilan wakes up in an outdoor camp where thousands of earthquake survivors live. He shares a cot with two siblings, while six other family members sleep on a splintered pink door and chairs.

Around 9 a.m., Hilan's mother slips outside to buy coffee and bread rolls. She's ashamed to ask him to do such things now. Hilan's new life has meant abandoning favorite pastimes and chores such as watching out for siblings and shopping for groceries.

Hilan instructs a friend in the tent to connect the television donated by neighbors. But first they have to see if the overnight rains have shorted out the mud-caked wires. With the flick of the button, Hilan is relieved.

Before, he would play soccer with friends or dance kompa - slow, rhythmic music - with girlfriends. Now, he plays video games.

An hour passes as he splatters virtual enemies on the old TV screen.

"One of the worst things about this is I can't defend myself," says Hilan.

Haiti is grueling enough for the able-bodied, but it can be torture for the disabled. Many families have put disabled relatives out on the street or sent them to live elsewhere because they can no longer contribute financially.

"We were out on the street and a little boy ran up to us shouting, "Bout Pye!'" Hilan's mother Denise says, using a Creole phrase that means half leg. "I was shocked. It made me feel like I was dying inside, but Hilan just ignored it and kept moving."

By 11 a.m., Hilan is bored. He sets out for the hospital.

He slowly makes his way through a maze of white tents. A woman is roasting corn on the cob over an open charcoal fire. A rooster pecks at the dirt. A man holds a baby whose leg has been amputated below the hip. The passage between the tents is almost impenetrable because of the mud. Hilan's crutches get caught on neighbors' tent lines.

Eventually, he makes it to the busy street.

A man in a battered Subaru offers him a lift for 50 gourdes ($1.50). The car takes him to a private hospital that has since gone public to accommodate Haiti's countless injured. Tents handling the overflow are filled with amputees like Hilan.


A nurse tells Hilan to take a seat, but all are taken. Eventually a young girl in jeweled flip-flops gets up.

"I hate having to ask people to do things for me now," he says.

In front of him, a toddler in a frilly dress, her leg also amputated, cries for her mother. A French medic leans down and blows up a pink balloon. Her sobs subside.

Hilan fidgets. He is impatient but has grown accustomed to waiting.

Hospital workers say they've rarely seen patients so stoic in the face of horrific loss and adversity.

"We've created the phrase, 'Haitian up,'" says Dr. Justine Crowley, meaning "toughen up or buck up."

Crowley, an amputations specialist from Colorado Springs, Colorado, says they still don't have enough doctors, nurses or plastic surgeons to keep up with some 70 patients they see daily - many needing amputations. A few weeks ago, they were seeing between 150 and 200 patients.

As Hilan waits, one man is still refusing an amputation.

"We just give them antibiotics and hope they don't die," Crowley says.

It's too soon to start fitting new amputees with artificial limbs because their wounds have not healed, she says. Their meager diets hamper recovery.

After some time, Hilan's name is finally called. He hobbles to get his wound cleaned.

"He's doing extraordinarily well," says Dr. Monica Johnson.

At noon, he ambles down a steep pebbly hill to get physical therapy in a tent outside the hospital. He spots a friend - 22-year-old Herby Michel, a rap musician who lost his left arm inside a recording studio when the quake hit.

"There's the crybaby!" Hilan shouts, laughing and smiling. "This guy was in the bed next to me when I had my leg amputated. And all he did was cry for his mother, saying 'Mom-my, Mom-my! I didn't get any sleep because of him!" he says, laughing hysterically.

Hilan says he's never cried since the amputation.

The two young men sit for hours, joking about their recoveries. Both were in their hospital beds Jan. 20 when a powerful 5.9 aftershock hit.

"Things started shaking and a lot of the patients pulled out their IVs and ran out of the hospital like chickens!" Hilan says, laughing. "We just sat there laughing like crazy."

The wait drags on under a blazing sun. A worker comes out with a pamphlet in Creole showing how to keep wounds clean. The pamphlet shows two white hands under a sink with water running out of a tap.

Most Haitians don't have running water.


It's not until 2 p.m. that Hilan is finally seen.

"I'm not a patient person," he says again, moving his stump back and forth like he's kicking a soccer ball.

As he exercises his stump, he winces with each move. Like many new amputees, he suffers from phantom limb pain.

"I'm just happy it hurts less now. Before, even the smallest breeze caused by people walking past was awful," he says.

An hour later, he's done and goes to visit friends in his old neighborhood. Canadian rescue workers with a bulldozer are retrieving two bodies from a collapsed hotel.

"I don't want to see this," he says, turning away from a body bag.

On Grand Rue, all that remains of Hilan's house is the dining room and bedroom.

"Hilan!" people shout. One grabs Hilan's crutches and hoists him on his back over the debris and up to a small flat space shaded by a tree.

The crowd slowly grows and laughter erupts. They say they miss him. They ask how he's coping.

"These are all my friends, my best friends," says Hilan, peering into the wreck that was his house. Clothes and kitchen utensils remain covered in a thick white dust.

He makes his way up a steep hill where a gaggle of girls wait. The street is slippery and Hilan falls - directly at the feet of his 18-year-old girlfriend, Scherly, who stands motionless and looks away.

Another childhood friend, 18-year-old Felice Charles, breaks the awkward moment, helping him up and throwing her arms around him in a playful embrace.

It is the first time all day that Hilan's tough exterior has crumpled. His smile fades and his shoulders slump.

Scherly, meanwhile, admits she hasn't accepted this new reality.

"I'm not sure if I will ever be able to accept it," she says, as an old woman looks at Hilan, wiping tears from her eyes. "It's been a big shock."

The crowd, which has again swollen, rushes out to hug and kiss him. Scherly looks on with a tentative smile.


It's nearly 7 p.m. and darkness is setting in. Hilan, who has only eaten bread, a boiled egg and a banana all day, heads back to his temporary home. Back at the tent, Carmel rushes up to him.

Their mother hopes that someday, Carmel will realize her older brother lost his leg for her.

Source: WashingtonPost and MSNBC

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