Volunteer Claude Hillel Recounts Mitha's Story

On January 12, 2010, life changed forever for a young woman named Mitha. When a 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, the 29-year-old mother of four had her legs crushed by a collapsing wall. Although Mitha was one of the survivors of the devastating earthquake, in an instant everything about the life she once knew had changed. Mitha had first one, and then a second leg amputated as a result of injuries sustained by the collapsing wall.

On January 24th, Claude Hillel, a physical therapist from New York volunteered with Project HOPE to help the victims of the Haitian earthquake aboard the USNS Comfort, a naval ship being used to provide medical assistance in the aftermath of the earthquake. At just about the same time as he arrived, Mitha arrived on the same ship, having just lost her second leg to amputation. Her magnetic smile and upbeat personality, despite all that she had been through during the last two weeks, immediately made an impact on Hillel and the two formed an instant connection. Here is her inspiring story as told by Claude Hillel.

Mitha remained on the ship until mid-February. I headed back to New York, but soon returned to Haiti in March with Project HOPE to continue to help the Haitian earthquake victims. We worked in conjunction with Hanger, Inc., the world's leading manufacturer of prosthetic devices, and the Hospital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles, Haiti to organize the country's first amputee program. I knew where Mitha was staying, so I borrowed a car one day and made the three hour drive to pick her up and bring her back to the hospital to be fitted for prosthetics so she could begin the road to her new life.

Mitha was always so pleasant and upbeat and her magnetic smile rarely left her face. That is what attracted me to her in the first place and it was a testament to the amazing resiliency and robustness of the Haitian people, and especially of Mitha. These people didn't sit around thinking "poor me", they were grateful for the help that was offered and just wanted to move forward as quickly as possible so they could begin living their lives again. I figured if we could give her prosthetics for her lost legs and show her how to use them, she could get back to living her life.

During Mitha's rehab, her prosthetics began short and were built up as she progressed until she reached her regular height. Rehab didn't only take place indoors on a nice, smooth surface. Since that wouldn't have helped Mitha navigate the unforgiving and bumpy terrain of her homeland, we needed to think outside the box and had to adapt the conditions of therapy to the local environment. Therefore, Mitha performed some of her rehab over rocky soil and bumpy and hilly ground, gravel, grass and sand, the types of surfaces she would have to walk over on a regular basis.

By the end of the seven week period, prior to my return to my job as a physical therapist at New York Sports Med and Physical Therapy, Mitha and I went shopping and she was able to carry things on her own, even while walking. She could even get up from the floor on her own without assistance, a huge accomplishment for someone with prosthetics on both legs. The speed of her rehab and the progress she made in such a short time is astounding.

At home, we are always so concerned with liability issues and how things "should be done", but when we got to Haiti, we knew we needed to address the functional and lifestyle needs of our patients, as well as their environment, and adapt what we would "usually do" to what "they needed to do". That adaptation, and the incredible robustness and resiliency of the Haitian people, are the reason we can teach a person who just lost both of her legs to be able to walk and carry on most daily activities in less than two months' time.

This experience in Haiti has given me a new perspective as I re-adapt to my role as a physical therapist here in New York. I now realize how important it is to look at each individual's unique functional and lifestyle needs and to adapt your mindset to their needs, rather than your own. Sometimes you need to let go a bit of how you always do things or think they should be done and focus more on what the demands of each person's lifestyle and needs are in order to develop the most effective treatments to help them get to where they want and need to be.

As for Mitha, she recently moved into a new home with her four children, who are headed back to school. She continues to receive therapy once a week and is steadily progressing at a rapid pace. And through it all, she continues to smile.

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