Admantha Lizaire is a pretty typical twenty-something. She enjoys watching music videos and has plans to return to school soon to study cosmetology. But on January 12 at 9:53 p.m., she was descending the stairs from the third floor of her home in Port-au-Prince, when her world changed forever.
The 7.0 magnitude quake that struck Haiti’s capital city caused the university adjacent to her home to crumble and fall, crushing her house. The disaster pinned Admantha under debris for a day, until she was discovered by rescuers. When she was pulled from the rubble, Admantha was alive, but had two completely shattered legs.
Doctors in Port-au-Prince amputated both legs, one above the knee and one below. On January 31, a few weeks after her surgeries, a rescue helicopter transported her to Milot, to continue her treatment at Hopital Sacre Coeur.
Last week, Admantha got a piece of her life back – prosthetic legs created by (above, left to right) Lance Suggs, a prosthetic technician, Kim Thomas, an orthotist and prosthetic resident, and Aaron Jacobsen, a prosthetist and orthotist, all of Dynamic Orthotics and Prosthetics in Houston, Texas. Aaron, Kim and Lance arrived in Milot shortly after the “North State for Haiti” volunteer medical relief team I traveled with. The trio from Dynamic was the third wave in an ongoing tide of professional prosthetist and orthotist volunteers at Hopital Sacre Coeur.
Weekly teams from Dynamic will manufacture artificial limbs for each of the 52 amputees who arrived in Milot after the quake in Port-au-Prince. The teams may create limbs for even more earthquake victims who have amputations after treatments for prolonged injuries fail.
Their workshop in Haiti is a Jacksonville, Florida Port Authority container, transformed into a complete, well-functioning prothetics lab (with the best air conditioning in Milot). It came about after Mike Richard, founder of Advanced Prosthetics and Orthotics, and plastic surgeon Dr. John Lovejoy teamed up. They partnered with sponsors and raised funds to outfit the container with tools, machinery and supplies and shipped it to Cap-Haitien, where it traveled by truck to Milot.
Despite the credentials of the team members and their enthusiasm for changing lives with artificial limbs, operating a prosthetics lab in a developing nation isn’t without its challenges. Even in the best conditions, plaster and wet resin — two essential lab supplies — only survive one year in optimal environmental conditions. Temperature is important to ensure success of a prosthetic’s final lamination, and a sealed cargo container in Haiti’s heat and humidity is less than ideal.
In addition, new machinery needs components and the lab always needs supplies, so each group makes a list for the next team, who bring the supplies they need for a week’s work. You know what they say about the best laid plans. Last week, Aaron and team ordered last-minute resin by courier before they left Ft. Lauderdale for Haiti and bought plaster from a local ceramicist to make due until a shipment arrived in Milot.
In addition to creating legs for above-knee (AK) and below-knee (BK) amputees, the team functions as orthotics multi-taskers. A steady stream of walk-in patients arrive at the lab for cast removals, walking boots, splints and lumbar braces. They are also prosthesis educators, guiding patients down the tedious task of fitting new limbs and mentoring them through the long process of learning to walk with mechanical legs.
When I arrived in Haiti, I didn’t expect a crash course in prosthetics, but I got one. I shadowed the team as they created Admantha’s legs, from anatomical measurements to casting, molding, plastic socket, lamination, modifications and final fittings, all in the course of three days.
Those three days of anticipation must have felt like an eternity for Admantha. It sure did for me, the Sacre Coeur volunteers and the “North State for Haiti” team members who treated Admantha in the tents and fell in love with her infectious smile and indominable spirit.
The anticipation turned to celebration three days after Aaron, Kim and Lance made the first cast of Admantha’s residual limbs. Once her new legs’ components were assembled, Aaron and Kim made some final adjustments. Finally, Admantha stood on one leg and then two.
Once on two legs, there was no stopping her. “Marche, marche,” were her first words as she stood tall after almost seven months in a wheelchair. Admantha wanted to walk. She won’t have any trouble in that regard.
“She can control that knee pretty well,” says Aaron, who fit Admantha for her AK prosthesis. She was so eager to use her new legs that she wouldn’t stand still for him to make some preliminary adjustments.
As Admantha’s muscles change and tissue falls where it falls, she can have her artificial limbs adjusted by Dynamic’s parent company in Port-au-Prince. That’s the easy part. Admantha admits to tremendous residual post-traumatic fear from the earthquake and a day under rubble. Every vibrating machine or rumbling of a truck over the speed bump on the street outside the tents sends her into an earthquake memory-induced panic, a reaction she may have for the rest of her life.
But I am confident that she won’t let it stop her. Aaron, Kim and Lance, who normally assist patients for a week or more with balance on new limbs, nervously watched Admantha walk solo down the ramp from the lab until they finally insisted on wheeling her across a patch of unstable gravel. Back at her tent, however, she was adamant about making a grand entrance to show off her new legs.
Admantha Lizaire lost her home and family, both legs, and seven months of her young life. With this single brave act, she proved that a catastrophe that took so much would ultimately not beat her.
The team is accepting donations for CRUDEM. Make checks payable to CRUDEM and send to P.O. Box 633, 215 Lake Blvd, Redding, CA 96003.
For more information about CRUDEM and Hopital Sacre Coeur, visit crudem.org.
Adam Mankoski is a recent North State transplant who feels completely at home here. He enjoys experiencing and writing about the people, places and things that embody the free spirit of the State of Jefferson. He and his partner own HawkMan Studios and are the creators of Redding’s 2nd Saturday ArtHop. Email your NorthState weekend events to firstname.lastname@example.org.