Helping In Haiti: Caring For The Newly Disabled

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Frank Shirley works in the
Frank Shirley works in the "brace shop" at Milton Hospital, which makes prosthetic limbs and orthotic braces for people with amputations and other injuries. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

Amputated limbs. Paralyzed spines. Traumatic brain damage. These are the kinds of injuries that some Haiti earthquake victims are now dealing with — perhaps for the rest of their lives. So a local non-profit group is heading to Haiti on Saturday to help victims adjust to what could be life-long disabilities.


Frank Shirley runs what is called the “brace shop” at Milton Hospital. It’s a small basement workshop that makes orthotic braces and prosthetic limbs for people with amputations and other injuries. He says the equipment here is very similar to the equipment found at the orthotic and prosthetic lab where he volunteers in Haiti.

“Same machinery. Drill press. Work benches. Grinder in order to sand the socket or the braces to the right size,” he points out as he gives a visitor a tour of the shop.

Each year for several years, Shirley has been going to Haiti for a week at a time to help Haitians with missing arms and legs, injured limbs and other disabilities. He travels there with Boston Healing Hands, a local chapter of a national non-profit group called Healing Hands for Haiti.

Saturday, Shirley and 17 other people from the local chapter — which he started — are flying to Haiti on their own dime to make free prosthetics and orthotics for anyone who needs them. They’ll also do free rehabilitation therapy.

The Injured And Their Injuries

“A lot of the crush injuries — they’ll have limbs that don’t function well,” Shirley explains. “They’ll have a drop foot, which is a generic term for the ankle not being able to rise up. They’ll have weakness in the whole left side or upper extremity.”

It’s hard to get an accurate count of how many people were injured in the earthquake. But Shirley says even before that disaster, the need for artificial limbs and physical and occupational therapy was huge every time he went down to volunteer.

“The people would line up outside at seven, eight o’clock in the morning and we’d still be working at ten o’clock at night,” he recalls.

The clinic in Haiti where volunteers from Boston Healing Hands usually work was destroyed in the quake. Most of the equipment was saved, though, and it’s now in an 18-by-50 foot tent. There, some volunteers will fit people for new limbs and braces, hand out donated canes, crutches and wheelchairs, and help people learn to walk again.

Amputations Are Only One Of Many Handicaps

Amputations are just one type of disability that Boston Healing Hands will encounter.

Gail Buck, a rehabilitation nurse from Portland, Ore., coordinates volunteer teams for Healing Hands in Haiti, which provide care for numerous types of earthquake-related handicaps. She said those include traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries and “peripheral nerve damage from being caught in the rubble and not being able to move for days and days until rescued.”

Some of those earthquake victims are now almost totally helpless, she says.

“A spinal cord injury patient may have pressure sores or injuries all over their body,” Buck explains, “but they’re not going to feel them to know that there’s a potentially life-threatening infection.”

So therapists from Boston Healing Hands will help injured patients become as functionally independent as possible. They’ll also train Haitian medical workers to do exactly what they do. That way, once the U.S. volunteers leave, the Haitians can keep providing the same care on their own.

Because even though many injured Haitians are finally being helped by doctors and nurses and surgeons, longer-term care — such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, orthotics and prosthetics — can be harder to find.

“That’s what we’re providing: that thin layer of medicine that they are not getting,” says Judy Keith, a retired physical therapist from Quincy Medical Center and president of Boston Healing Hands.

And that type of volunteer work, she says, will be needed for years to come.

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