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Weiss physical therapist brings hope to Haiti: Part 2

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Heidi Behnke, director of Rehabilitation Services at Weiss, arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, months after January’s devastating earthquake. She found a city in great need of trained medical workers and aide workers. Read Part 1 here.

Now almost two months after her return from Haiti, Heidi Behnke remembers one patient in particular. Even now, she wonders what will happen to the young woman.

The 24-year-old woman came into the hospital after a violent car crash. “She was broken,” Behnke said. A gash divided the girl’s head and required extensive stitches. The bones in her legs and arms were shattered.

Haiti medical help

Had the accident happened in the United States, surgeons would have operated on her in a completely sterile room, inserting pins and needles in the interior of her leg. In Haiti, however, the surgeon had to use external fixtures to stabilize the girl’s legs. He attached rods up and down the outside of her thighs by screwing them through the skin.

Physicians typically remove the fixtures after six to eight weeks, depending on the patient’s access to follow-up care. At the hospital, though, Behnke saw people whose external fixtures had been in for months simply because they had no one to remove them.

And because the fixtures can’t hold any weight, Behnke had to assist the girl by lifting her from bed to her wheelchair. The girl screamed, hysterical. This went on daily, until Behnke’s last day at the hospital. “These girls are really going to help me,” the girl told her family as Behnke and another volunteer lifted her into her chair.

“I’m so thankful that we helped her get through that experience,” Behnke said. She had built leg rests for the girl’s wheel chair and educated the family on how to work with her once they left the hospital.

Yet despite her best intentions, Behnke could not imagine how the girl would fair once she left the hospital. So much in Haiti was uncertain. Within hours of being in Port-au-Prince, Behnke learned that much of the financial and physical aid promised to Haiti from around the world hadn’t come through in any tangible ways.

“Nothing was being done. Literally nothing,” she said. She saw bulldozers and construction equipment sitting untouched in a large lot, and only one group of people attempting to clear rubble. “It was absolutely filthy with no sanitation at all,” Behnke said, adding that other than the United Nations maintaining the peace, the city lacked any true form of governing body.

Heidi with a patient in Haiti

Behnke added that she hopes the people she treated got as much out of the experience as she did. “I realized being down there that this country needs so much. The people are so strong. They just need to be educated on where to turn for jobs,” she said.

During one of Behnke’s last afternoons at the hospital, she brought a ball for the patients to toss to each other from their beds—a small distraction from the ugliness they faced day in and out.

“It was really a personally rewarding day for me,” Behnke said, “not something you could do in the U.S.”

The patients appreciated the game, too. An 81-year-old woman with a hip fracture sat at the end of her bed to play, and a mute woman who had lost her children smiled as she tossed the ball to a 7-year-old boy with a colostomy, who ran around the circle of beds dancing.

“I wouldn’t ever turn my back on Haiti because it’s part of me now,” Behnke said, reflecting on the experience. “I hope they got as much out of it as I did.”

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