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Haitian Amputees Needed Help Before Earthquake

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By Sabri Ben-Achour

The January earthquake that shook Haiti took countless limbs as well as lives. Volunteers continue to care for thousands of amputees there. They've found that many of those being treated have been in need long before the earthquake.

Anna Avakian holds what will become someone's leg against a grinding machine.

"We're grinding the edges and rounding them so they're smooth," Avakian says.

Avakian is with Hanger Prosthetics in Northeast Washington. She just spent three and half months in, Haiti, creating prosthetics like this one for people whose limbs had been crushed in the earthquake, or lost even before that.

"While I was there, I think we saw 200 to 300 patients," Avakian says.

Avakian remembers one woman, 21 years old, who'd lost much of both legs to infection when she was 5.

"Fitting with prostheses she was able to stand up for the first time in 16 years and I just had to hold back - still gets me choked up - and I had to hold back the tears, and she just beamed," she says.

That patient might well represent the be the bigger share of reality in Haiti. Al Ingersoll is Prosthetics and Orthotics Program Director with Healing Hands for Haiti and has worked in the country for years. He says many people who lost limbs in the quake didn't survive.

"A fair number of the injured passed away because of infections or other conditions," Ingersoll says.

He estimates maybe 10,000 people in Haiti currently need new limbs - the vast majority, 80% from before the quake. And he says the quake - and the efforts of volunteers - are actually reducing the stigma previously attached to amputees.

"You know someone who's had an amputation or an injury from the earthquake so you accept them now as they are," Ingersoll says.

Amputees will continue to be a visible presence in Haiti for many years to come. Ingersoll suspects it will be several years before all those who need new limbs receive them.

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