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Helping Haiti's Amputees
By Dwayne Campbell

The Miller School’s Department of Physical Therapy is providing comprehensive services to help survivors who lost limbs move forward with their lives.

Gailey helps a Haitian man take his first steps with a newly fitted prosthetic.

For years, Robert Gailey, Ph.D., PT, associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy, has helped soldiers who lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan resume their lives with dignity and mobility. The countless hours Gailey spent helping them learn to walk with prosthetic legs and to see their lives as normal turned out to be ideal preparation for aiding thousands of Haitians who escaped the earthquake as new amputees. In a nation that relies heavily on the physical labor of its workforce and where the loss of a limb carries a social stigma, Gailey and his team knew making amputees physically and—just as important—culturally whole again would be a daunting task.

“Providing prosthetic limbs for the people who need them to work and live is essential,” Gailey says. “However, the greater goal is to reeducate the general population in Haiti in how they perceive people who have lost limbs. They are the same person; they just have a slightly different body.”

With the estimated number of new amputees as high as 5,000, Haiti may be redefining its concept of disability with the Miller School’s help.

Since the quake, a continuous stream of clinical faculty, staff, alumni, and colleagues organized by the school’s Department of Physical Therapy has flowed to the UM/Project Medishare field hospital in Port-au-Prince, which recently moved to a pre-existing hospital now dedicated to critical care and rehabilitation. There, therapists evaluate the mobility needs of hundreds of patients with the goal of promoting normal movement, strength, and function to the fullest extent possible.

“The physical therapy needs will go on for years,” says Teresa Glynn, M.S.P.T., associate chair of clinical services. “Our work is really dedicated to helping people overcome their physical challenges and to live fulfilling lives.”

Since Project Medishare assumed leadership of the long-term medical relief effort, establishing a rehabilitation hospital has become a priority. On his fourth trip to Haiti in June, Gailey helped set up a rehabilitation clinic at the new hospital. The clinic’s prosthetic and orthotic laboratory has state-of-the-art fabrication capabilities, including a laser scanner used to create a computer image of an amputee’s residual limb. The image is sent to a fabrication facility in Miami, where the socket is made and then sent back to Haiti to be fitted to the amputee. “We can do the scan and have a new limb fitted in 48 hours,” says Gailey, who helped hire a permanent staff in Haiti dedicated to training locals as rehabilitation technicians to work alongside UM volunteers.

Though Haiti’s road to recovery is long, UM’s physical therapy volunteers are buoyed by daily successes. New amputees fitted with prosthetic legs often learn to walk again in two days. This, Gailey says, bodes well for ancillary programs, such as job training and peer support.

“These people had very little and came out of the earthquake with even less,” Gailey says. “But whatever we are able to give, they maximize their abilities in hopes of returning to a normal life. Their resilience is incredible.”