Local clinician reflects on trip to Haiti

Adrienne Saia Isaac | Boulder Weekly

Stephanie Porter gave mobility to earthquake-ravaged nation

Stephanie Porter felt the rush of air conditioning when she stepped off the plane at Miami International Airport last month. She found herself surrounded once again by Starbucks, restaurants and the buzz common to the average American traveler.

But she wasn’t the average traveler. Sure, she spent two weeks on a tropical Caribbean island. But the island was Haiti. Stephanie wasn’t there to take in the sights; she was there to give people back their mobility.

Porter, a prosthetist with Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics in Lafayette, spent 14 days in Haiti fitting and constructing prosthetics for people affected by the January 2010 earthquake. The magnitude 7.0 quake rocked the small, poverty-stricken island, leaving an estimated 230,000 people dead and 300,000 injured. The Hanger Orthopedic Group, through its philanthropic wing, the Ivan R. Sabel Foundation, committed to sending two to three clinicians every two weeks to fit people with prosthetics for at least one calendar year.

But in Haiti the need for medical aid in terms of prosthetics ran deeper than what was left by the quake. Hanger and its clinicians weren’t going to limit the scope of their care.

“Even though we were there as a result of the earthquake, we weren’t going to turn anyone away,” Porter says. “We’re seeing people who are congenital amputees who maybe hadn’t gotten a prosthesis in the past.”

“We weren’t turning anyone anyway,” she says, “because we felt that wouldn’t be the right thing to do.”

Hanger partnered with Hôpital Albert Schweitzer, a privately run medical center founded by the Mellon family in Deschapelles, a town two and a half hours from Port-au-Prince. The hospital dedicated one of its buildings to housing the Hanger teams so they could be on site with their patients. The hospital also provided a group of houses, called L’escale, for their amputees. The patients could stay through their prosthesis fitting and the subsequent physical therapy. Having the patients live together and support one another was just one of the things Porter recalled that made the experience so unique.

“They were able to create this community,” she says of the L’escale residents. “It was like a support group, and that part of it was really special.”

The strength of community among the amputees in Deschappelles was out-shined only by the strength of their desire to walk again.

“Their will to get up and start walking is pretty powerful,” says Porter.

She saw her patients in Haiti progress rapidly once outfitted, even more so than some people she had seen in the United States.

“It’s the little things,” Porter says, referring to the source of this physical strength and rapid progress.

“They walk in the mountains or through the streets on any given day carrying things on their heads — a bushel or basket of bananas, a bunch of long twigs or stems or trunks of small trees or gigantic bags of who knows what,” Porter says.

“When you have two limbs, [it] requires a lot of balance and core stability to be able to traverse uneven surfaces. A prosthesis isn’t as much of a challenge because they’re already challenging their bodies to balance in that way,” she says.

Porter was also free from what she calls the “extraneous stuff ” of prosthetic work. She didn’t have to deal with insurance companies or paperwork; she focused solely on the fabrication and fitting of her patients’ protheses. She estimates that the Hanger team was able to help upwards of 40 to 50 people in the two weeks before another team came to replace them.

“We have all of the fabrication supplies we need on site, and each of us traveled with boxes of supplies as well,” says Porter. She credits lead prosthetist Jay Tew for setting up a system that allowed the clinic to run efficiently. “It’s a testament to all of the hard work he’s done that it’s pretty streamlined,” she says. “It looks a lot like what we’d be doing in the States.”

Since all the pieces of the prosthetic puzzle were on site, the actual time from casting to delivering the prosthesis was a matter of days. Porter arrived in the middle of treatment for some patients, and was also able to see patients through the entire process. She’ll be able to count on those who relieved her to see the unfinished processes through.

“It’s very easy just to walk in and to know where someone left off and to go from there,” she says.

She’s getting updates on her patients via e-mail and is interested in their progress, how they’re living with their new limbs.

Porter says she wished she could have connected more with her patients, but that the language barrier was difficult to overcome in such a short period of time. The Hanger team worked through interpreters, but that didn’t stop them from being inspired by their patients’ stories — and by their sheer will to walk again.

When asked about the patients who inspired her, Porter pulls up a video of a woman in a white T-shirt and pink Nikes. Her name is Mitha. She’s standing on what could only loosely be called a road, leaning on two walking sticks. Extending from her thigh to her pink sneakers are prosthetic legs, metal rods hinged at the knee, the medical fix for a devastating injury resulting from the quake.

“She lost both legs above the knee,” says Porter.

“She lost one leg, and they were trying to save the other. They fought it and fought it, but she ended up being a bilateral above-the-knee amputee.”

In the video, Mitha looks into the camera and takes a tentative step. And then another. She moves deftly for someone who’s only been an amputee for a few months. More importantly, Mitha smiles the entire time.

Porter marvels at the video, at the progress Mitha had shown in such a short period of time.

“We always start people with very simplistic technology and see how they’ll do,” says Porter. Within a matter of months, Mitha was walking half a mile at a time on her new legs.

“You can never anticipate how someone’s going to respond,” says Porter. “Are they going to lower their activity level, or are they going to continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible?” “I would say in the case of Mitha, she just continued to push boundaries, and it was just so powerful, her spirit and her will.”

Porter hopes that, eventually, Mitha can come to the United States to be outfitted with even more advanced prostheses to enable her patient to further push the limits of her injury, to have the will to work against the impossible.

It takes a special patient to work against seemingly impossible odds. And it takes a dedicated clinician to bring them the gift of mobility. For Stephanie Porter, it’s part of the job.

For the people she helps, it’s a chance to rebuild more than their bodies, but their lives.

To help Haiti’s amputees, visit www.hashaiti.org to donate. More information about Hanger’s involvement in Haiti can be found at www.hanger.com.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com