As government agencies and non-governmental organizations flood Haiti to provide relief support, many are finding a lack of even the most basic medical equipment and supplies. Even before January 12th, Haiti’s healthcare system was unable to fully support the needs of the Haitian population which included 800,000 individuals with disabilities, and life-saving medications were in short supply but high demand. While outbreaks of tuberculosis, HIV, and cholera are the current major public health concerns, insuring the provision of rehabilitation services to the estimated 200,000 (some reports indicate 250,000) individuals who have undergone amputations as a result of the earthquake are especially pressing. This figure includes not only the 2-3,000 individuals who have had amputations of major bones as well as the thousands more who have fingers or toes amputated (per personal correspondence with Al Ingersoll, CP; Healing Hands for Haiti).
Without proper medical equipment and often in unsterile conditions, physicians providing care in Haiti since the earthquake struck have had to amputate the limbs of individuals who otherwise would die. The social stigma attached to individuals with disabilities in Haiti and other developing nations has led some Haitians to leave gangrene infections untreated, as they would rather die that face the prospect of living without an arm or leg. In addition to possible infection at wound sites, individuals who have suffered “crush injuries” or rhabdomyolysis are at risk developing kidney failure when the crushed muscle ruptures. Studies indicate that between four and 33 percent of patients with rhabdomyolysis develop kidney failure, but amputation of the affected limb has the potential to save the patient’s life. In order to perform these amputations, CNN reports that some surgeons have had to use “civil war medicine” – amputating limbs with saws and other instruments, often without anesthesia. Some estimates indicate that as many as 95 percent of Haitians who suffered crushing injuries in the earthquake will undergo amputation.
Haiti’s hospitals sustained considerable damage and what remains of the Haitian healthcare system has been overwhelmed by the demand of those in need of medical services. To fill this gap, clinics run both by local hospital staff and international aid organizations have been setup in tents outside the devastated buildings. Reports indicate that surgeons at University Hospital, Port-au-Prince’s largest hospital, performed approximately 225 amputations within the first few days following the earthquake. Though statistics are not available yet for the number of new amputees, Mirta Roses, director of the Pan American Health Organization, has indicated that some hospitals have reported performing as many as 30 amputation surgeries per day. Limitations of space, medical personnel, and other resources have forced many makeshift Haitian surgical wards to discharge individuals after amputations are completed, overloading what remains intact of Haiti’s fragile hospital system with patients in need of post-operative care. To assist further assist these individuals, organizations like Healing Hands for Haiti, Handicapped International, and Doctors Without Borders are making efforts to provide surgical and post-operative care following amputation. Additionally, Global Relief Technologies has introduced a system that allows for critical information about patients to be collected and uploaded to a PDA so that this information can be shared with other aid organizations to ensure high-quality care for all amputees.
In addition to the importance of post-operative care, individuals who have undergone amputation are in need of prostheses, but the devices commonly used in the developed world may not be best suited for use in Haiti. An average prosthesis can cost between $4,000 to $6,000 and in the United States a new amputee could expect to undergo a minimum of four fittings a year for the life of the prosthesis to ensure that the device is comfortable – in Haiti this is simply outside the realm of possibilities. Low-cost, high-quality devices developed by non-profit organizations, including the Center for International Rehabilitation (CIR) and Legs for All may be applicable for use in Haiti. Developed specifically for use in areas with limited resources, the Center for International Rehabilitation’s CIR Casting System could allow for the rapid fitting of Haitian amputees. Unlike traditional plaster-based prosthetic fabrication methods, the CIR Casting System uses a fabric bag filled with polystyrene beads and allows for the fabrication of prostheses in a fast, simple, and low-cost manner. A final prosthesis can be fabricated in less than two hours during a single clinical visit, compared with at least two clinical visits using traditional plaster-based methods. In addition to the development of this innovative fabrication method, the CIR conducts blended distance learning initiatives that combine online training with hands-on workshops to familiarize local technicians with the fabrication method. Since 2008, following trainings in Thailand and India, over 2,500 individuals have been fitted using the system and it has been widely accepted in these regions. However, as Jeffrey Bigelow, resident neurologist at Yale University who completed a survey of the needs of Haitian amputees for Healing Hands for Haiti in 2004, notes, it is important to recognize that even when using this type of appropriate technology, “devices need to be skillfully made or they’re just too painful to wear.”
Dr. Steven R. Flanagan, medical director of the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, noted that even in the best of circumstances, when an amputation site can be properly cared for, it can take four to six months for a traumatic amputation to heal completely. Even before they can be fitted, many of Haiti’s new amputees will require counseling to come to terms with their new lives as a part of Haiti’s generation of amputees.
Specialty physicians who wish to offer teleconsultation support to disaster-relief workers in Haiti, Health professionals who wish to provide volunteer support on the ground in Haiti, and U.S. healthcare institutions that are willing to provide services to victims of the earthquake who are airlifted to this country for urgent medical or rehabilitation care can register through iCons in Medicine.