Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Haitian amputee to fly to Israel for state-of-the-art prosthetics

From the Los Angeles Times:

Reporting from Ganthier, Haiti — Sounlove Zamor (pictured) was scrubbing laundry under an acacia tree when a stranger arrived to ask her about the good news.

The news was this: Foreign benefactors had arranged to fly Zamor, a 19-year-old student who lost both legs in Haiti's earthquake, to a top-notch hospital in Israel to be fitted with prosthetic limbs and get rehabilitation for as long as four months, fully paid.

Zamor and her sister soon would fly to Tel Aviv. On the far side of the ocean, new legs awaited.

But here in the Haitian countryside, at the end of a dirt road that surrenders to a weedy footpath, Zamor was hearing for the first time the details of a journey that would change her life. Beneath a spray of tight braids, her round face betrayed neither surprise nor joy at word that the plan was coming true.

"They told me that when I was in the hospital, but I haven't heard anything since then," she said.

"Thank you."

Across this broken, impoverished land thrums the machine of a vast global relief effort to provide water, tents, latrines, medical care and police protection to the 3 million Haitians affected by the Jan. 12 quake. Those on the receiving end of the largesse are often the last to know what it all means.

In Zamor's case, the wheels of charity began turning after The Times featured her in a report in February about the plight of thousands of quake victims who had undergone amputations. The article generated a number of offers from readers wanting to help.

Among them was Jack Saltzberg, executive director of a Los Angeles-based foundation affiliated with Israel's Sheba Medical Center. He thought the Israeli hospital, with a high-tech rehabilitation center and a long history of treating those gravely wounded in Middle East violence, was just the place to get Zamor walking again.

At the time, Zamor lay in a hospital to the north, where she had been taken after being pulled from the rubble. When the quake struck, Zamor was on the second floor of a house in Port-au-Prince, the capital, where she stayed part time with her father, the caretaker.

The building opened like jaws beneath her feet, she recalled, then closed just as suddenly, chewing off her left leg. They never found it.

Her right leg was mangled, her father was dead.

Doctors amputated the crushed leg, leaving Zamor a double amputee in a country where the disabled face monumental physical and social barriers. Both legs now end a little below the knee.

Before the earthquake, she was a vivacious young woman who liked kicking a soccer ball, dancing and practicing modeling struts with her friends. Now, the thought of dancing seemed a cruel joke.

Saltzberg relayed word to Zamor, through a Times translator, that the Israeli hospital would treat her and house her older sister, Baranatha, during her rehabilitation.

Over the next several months, staying in touch with Zamor from abroad would be a complicated task, conducted through intermediaries across barriers of language, distance and unreliable phone service.

"It's been daunting," Saltzberg said by telephone. "I was hoping to get her out in three weeks and it's taken several months."

There was another hitch: Zamor didn't have a passport. But her birth certificate and other documents survived at the family's ramshackle compound here in Ganthier, a rural stretch of sugar cane fields and papaya trees an hour-and-a-half drive east of Port-au-Prince. Zamor has lived here with relatives in tents since March.

Israeli diplomats in Port-au-Prince and the neighboring Dominican Republic helped speed the passport application. When Zamor and an Israeli official went to Haiti's passport office, she was able to skirt the line in her donated wheelchair.

Zamor was aware that the passport had been issued, but knew nothing about the planned departure until the visitor showed up to ask about the trip, which is scheduled for early August.

If she was weary of waiting, Zamor did not let on. She spoke with a matter-of-factness that was just shy of laconic. A soft smile peeked through now and then.

For four months, Zamor has slept in one of the donated tents next to her family's quake-damaged concrete houses. The group spends lots of time watching the balky television they have set under the trees. The death of Zamor's father meant the loss of the main breadwinner. Without the charity of neighbors, she said, "we would probably starve."

When she needs to go somewhere, Zamor's sisters steer her wheelchair over the bumpy terrain. The other day, she was debating whether to attend an annual party of her church-sponsored youth group. She wasn't sure she could bear it.

"Last time I was around a lot of my friends," she said, "I couldn't stop crying."

The farthest she has traveled before is Gonaives, the city up the coast from Port-au-Prince where she was hospitalized. Zamor can't place Israel on a map but knows it's mentioned a lot in the Bible. "They said it's a godly place," she said.

Zamor thinks about new legs, about snatching back a piece of the life she was supposed to have. She'd like to finish high school, find a career.

She imagines sashaying with her friends again. She worked the idea like a lozenge.

"Yes," she said, as if assuring herself. "I would like that."