Local prosthetists provide care for Haitian amputees

Michael Bissell (left) and Paul Morton in the workshop of Advanced Prosthetics and Orthotics in Winston-Salem. Bissell and Morton were part of a team that went to Haiti recently to fabricate and fit artificial limbs for Haitian amputees. (David Rolfe/Journal)

Michael Bissell (left) and Paul Morton in the workshop of Advanced Prosthetics and Orthotics in Winston-Salem. Bissell and Morton were part of a team that went to Haiti recently to fabricate and fit artificial limbs for Haitian amputees. (David Rolfe/Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Michael Bissell wasn’t sure what to expect when he and Paul Morton traveled to Haiti last month.

The trip was Morton’s fourth to the country on a volunteer mission, but Bissell’s first.

“It was a little bit of a culture shock for me,” Bissell said.

The area of Port de Paix where the clinic is had no grocery stores.

“Everything was sold out on the streets,” he said.

Electricity was sporadic — the clinic ran off a generator — and people typically walked to their destinations.

“Women balanced things on their heads,” Bissell said, referring to such items as 5-gallon buckets of water and tubs of bananas. “That was something unusual that you don’t see every day in Winston-Salem.”

They are images that Bissell said he won’t soon forget.

None, however, is more memorable than the amputees he and Morton cared for in Haiti, including a 25-year-old woman who walked three hours on one leg and with one crutch to receive a prosthetic limb.

“I was just totally blown away that she would walk three hours,” Bissell said.

Even when Bissell told her that it would take all day before her prosthetic leg was ready, the woman chose to wait rather than come back for it.

“She waited probably 8 hours or more,” Bissell said.

Bissell and Morton are prosthetists with the Winston-Salem office of Advanced Prosthetics & Orthotics, a practice based in Greensboro. Advanced Prosthetics & Orthotics has a total of nine offices in North Carolina. Bissell and Jeff Smith, who works in the Greensboro office, are the owners of the practice.

From March 29 to April 7, Bissell and Morton were volunteers in Haiti through the Phoenix, Ariz.,-based Phoenix Rising for Haiti. The nonprofit organization provides complete orthopedic care, which is provided free by volunteers, to people in need in rural northwest Haiti.

Twenty volunteers overall, including physical therapists and nurses, worked in the clinic in Port de Paix.

“In the mornings, when we were still sleeping, we’d hear voices talking out on the street, and by the time the sun came up, they had already formed a line going down the street,” Bissell said of Haitian patients who had arrived at the clinic for treatment of various orthopedic conditions, including prosthetics, orthotics and physical therapy.

He said that the entire medical group averaged more than 100 patients a day.

Bissell and Morton were teamed with two prosthetists from Australia: Monique Van den Boom, the prosthetic director for Phoenix Rising, and David Boal, who volunteered for two weeks.

“You’re evaluating, casting and then making and fitting prosthetic devices,” Morton said.

William Abril, the president of Phoenix Rising for Haiti, praised the four prosthetists.

“With their help we treated 24 amputees over the two weeks; making 20 new limbs (both upper and lower), with a total of 46 appointments,” Abril said in a statement. “This is a huge effort to say the least, and to think we did it and had fun at the same time is just incredible.”

Sometimes the prosthetists had to get creative when they didn’t have the resources and tools they are used to. For example, they didn’t have an oven to heat foam used in making prosthetics.

“We made a cardboard box, put a hole in it and used a heat gun to make our own oven,” Bissell said.

All the prosthetics were made from donated materials. Bissell and Morton traveled to Haiti with as many prosthetic devices and fabricating supplies as they could carry: about 300 pounds worth in carry-on baggage. Other parts had been left in Haiti by previous volunteers.

“We would have a pile of just donated parts and none of them really worked, so Paul spent a good portion of the day putting together different pieces to come up with something that worked,” Bissell said.

He said it was so different from working in the United States where they could simply order the right parts.

The trip to Haiti was something Bissell had always wanted to do, going to a developing nation as a volunteer. He admired Morton for all the trips he had taken to Haiti.

“The people there are very poor,” Bissell. “The poverty is extreme, but they have this dignity about them. Even though we were doing this free prosthetic work for them, just a simple thank you and a smile was all we needed when they walked away. We knew we’d changed their lives.”

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world.

More than half of Haiti’s population of 10 million lives on less than $1 a day (U.S.), and about 80 percent live on less than $2 a day, according to the 2001 poverty data from the World Bank, an international organization based in Washington, D.C., and the government of Haiti.

Morton talked about the differences in time frames in building a prosthetic device for patients in Haiti compared with patients in the United States.

“The start and finish there was one day — eight hours for one patient’s leg,” Morton said. “Here, with insurance and with paperwork and proper documentation, it’s three weeks.”

Both men plan to return to Haiti some day.

“It was super rewarding, and I would like to do it again,” Bissell said.