Watch this video to learn more about how we got started, first, as the Haiti Rehab Project. Since then, we have expanded our mission to working locally, nationally and globally!
Finding Riches Amidst the Poverty – How we Began
In February of 2012, our founder, Ginger Oliver, volunteered for a week as a physical therapist at a hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. This was two years after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck just outside the city. She knew that Haiti was a poor country and the earthquake killed over 230,000 people and that before that, there was a long history of poverty and misfortune including political instability, deforestation, hurricanes, other earthquakes and now cholera. What she did not know was how this one week would change her life and spur the creation of the Haiti Rehab Project.
At the hospital, she found an extreme shortness of medical supplies, equipment and medications. Gloves, hand sanitizer, running water and electricity were not consistently available. Even blood was in very limited supply. Family members would often need to go to a blood bank to take their own blood, have it processed and bring it back to the hospital hopefully returning in time. The hospital was unable to provide food for its patients due to lack of resources and their families had to bring it in or the patient would go without. Rehab equipment such as wheelchairs and walkers were also in very limited supply and the availability of rehab services was minimal.
Many people had external fixators or metal rods attached to their limbs to stabilize their fractures. Most fractures had to be stabilized externally or not at all as there was not the same opportunity to have surgical procedures. Similarly, there were many people with amputations due to inability to care for a severely damaged limb or extensive wound effectively. Many wounds that could have been medically managed in the US resulted in necessary amputations in Haiti. Following the earthquake, there were thousands of amputations performed as many people lay under rubble for days before being found or the damage was so severe. Their only option was amputatio
n. The volunteers were asked to assist the Haitian staff as much as possible. Much of their role was to train the Haitian staff so they could completely run the hospital in the future.
One day, she got into a long discussion with an employee at the hospital. He had asked her for a cup for water because he was so thirsty. He told her he had run out of money a few days ago. He said he gets paid once per month and won’t get paid for a few days so he had not eaten or drank. He lives in one room with his girlfriend and her family. They have no water or kitchen. He said there is one bed and he has a bag where he keeps the few articles of clothing that he has. He said his hope was that the government in Haiti will get stronger and make it easier for all Haitians. He told her that after the earthquake that everyone was so sad. They lost so many people. Everyone had lost loved ones. He said many died right away, the lucky ones. Others suffered and died later. He said that now life goes on and we all have hope for a better life. What a lesson this was.
Throughout the week, she learned that there is a severe stigma and much discrimination against people with disabilities in Haiti. Families often disown their disabled family member because they are no longer able to provide or be productive or are too much of a burden on a family already struggling to survive. People with an amputation are called half man or half women. On a positive note, the medical director of the spinal cord injury unit showed some artwork of a person in a wheelchair. She said this was a good sign that the stigma was starting to change since the earthquake.
There were many stories told about the earthquake; awful stories about people losing entire families and heartwarming stories of mothers who nursed their own babies and other babies whose mothers had died in the earthquake. She heard stories of determination and perseverance after long waits to be rescued and needing amputations due to the severe injuries they withstood.
The prosthetics and orthotics lab was on the roof over the pediatric unit. This amazing clinic is where the rehab technicians make the prosthetic legs and braces for the many amputees and disabled in Haiti. This is where she met Cedieu Fortilus and Wilfr
id Macena. These guys are truly Haitian heroes. They have amazing stories themselves. Their mission is truly to help others with amputations be successful and prosper in their life. They started Team Zaryen, an Amputee Soccer Team, to help “the guys”. Zaryen, the Creole word for Tarantula, is a spider known to carry on despite the loss of a limb. They want to be able to provide for the team and teach them skills so they can be successful in Haiti. Wilfrid, an amputee himself from the earthquake, made one of his own prosthetic legs. Amazing!
Team Zaryen includes men, women and children with arm and leg amputations. Witnessing their practice was the most amazing thing she had ever seen. These people were so determined and resilient. They definitely did not let their disability stop them.
At the end of the week, the volunteers got back into the truck that brought them to the hospital at the beginning of the week. She was in the very back and was looking out the back window at the hospital as they pulled out. The guard who she had spoken with often, who also had a son by the same name, saw her in the back as they pulled out. He started waving like crazy and even reached up over the top of the gate to continue waving as the gate closed. She could not hold back the tears. She felt like the week was only a drop in the bucket for what was needed. She was so surprised at how attached she got to these beautiful people who have suffered so much misfortune. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that they had so little and she had so much. It wasn’t fair that she got to leave whenever she wanted and go back to her large house, pantry filled with food, closet full of clothes and stores with all she could ever need.
In seven days, she had fallen in love with the Haitian people. She admired their courage, determination and stamina. She couldn’t understand why one country could sustain such cruel misfortune over and over. She felt guilty for being born into a country where we take everything for granted. Where we know there is always food, shelter and clothing available. The Haitian people were warm, motivated, hopeful people who are trying to improve their situation. As Haiti has moved passed immediate response timeframes, many organizations were pulling out of Haiti. The situation in Haiti was still extremely dire and they desperately needed our help now more than ever. She was determined to try to do something to help those in Haiti to have a better life, especially those with disabilities. From this experience, the Haiti Rehab Project was created.