Healing mission to Haiti

Help for some of the thousands of Haitian earthquake victims whose limbs were amputated soon will be on the way from a Santa Rosa company that manufactures artificial arms and legs.

“The need begins now,” said Jon Batzdorff, owner of Sierra Orthopedic Laboratory on Montgomery Drive, “and it lasts for 60 years.”

About 4,000 Haitians, young and old, lost limbs in the Jan. 12 earthquake that crumbled homes, churches, hospitals and government buildings on the impoverished Caribbean island.

Bones were shattered by falling debris during the magnitude 7.0 quake, and infections set in as the victims lay trapped in rubble or waited days for medical care. Cutting off irreparably damaged arms and legs was the only way to save lives, doctors said.

Nearly two months later, the amputees, most of whom lost legs, are hobbling on crutches amid the more than 1 million homeless Haitians living in squalid camps, with food, water and shelter in short supply.

The quake also wiped out all the prosthetics facilities in the teeming Port-au-Prince area, spurring Batzdorff's international relief mission.

He is building a $50,000 prosthetics lab inside two shipping containers, and in about two months expects to send them by truck and barge to the Haitian capital. The pair of 8-by-20-foot containers, set up side-by-side next to Port-au-Prince's Adventist Hospital, will arrive with material to make 100 prosthetic legs and order more supplies as needed.

“I dream about this,” said Batzdorff, who will lead a six-member team going to Haiti to set up the facility. He's done nonprofit missions before, taking prosthetics technology to Turkey, Armenia, Lithuania, Russia, Bolivia and Mexico.

Total cost of the Haiti project, including transportation of the containers, is about $150,000 – and Batzdorff already has nearly half the amount in hand, thanks to the generosity of people in Humboldt County.

Asa Stockton, a Eureka orthopedic surgeon, said he is giving about $70,000 in donated funds for a medical relief mission he mounted to Haiti in early February.

“We think it's a smart way to use the money,” he said after seeing the prevalence of Haitian amputees first-hand.

Hundreds of people lined up before daylight every day outside his team's clinic, which treated 800 to 1,000 patients each day, many for conditions — such as diabetes and high blood pressure — caused by years of living in poverty rather than the earthquake.

Stockton expected to raise about $5,000 to cover some expenses before the team left California, but the campaign netted $15,000 on its first day and $150,000 in five days.

The team came home with a $65,000 surplus, and plans to give Batzdorff's project a $70,000 boost. “It fills an unbelievable need,” Stockton said.

Batzdorff, who started his Santa Rosa business 30 years ago, said he's already fitting out the two containers, and counting on local donors to provide the rest of the funding.

In the quake's immediate aftermath, prior to his team's arrival, Stockton said victims, many who had been trapped for hours in the rubble, flocked to emergency clinics with crushed limbs. There's no treatment for tissue that is dead from lack of blood circulation, and with infection and gangrene further compromising the patients' lives, surgeons were forced to cut off thousands of limbs.

“We call it Civil War medicine,” Stockton said, likening the treatment to battlefield surgery during America's 1860s-era war.

Now, most Haitian amputees are bandaged and walking on crutches through the chaos of a devastated city, he said, with nowhere to turn for help.

Batzdorff's lab will fit Haitians with no-frills prostheses, worth $400 to $500 apiece, and his all-volunteer nonprofit organization, called ProsthetiKacq, will also train local technicians to maintain the service for decades to come.

Artificial limbs require frequent adjustment, and replacement about every two years because the amputee either outgrows the device or wears it out, Batzdorff said.

“People need help for a lifetime,” he said.

In Haiti, he'll build all-plastic legs to withstand the humid climate, which would ruin the titanium shafts on the high-tech prostheses built in the U.S. that cost $6,000 to $50,000.

But the fitting process, which starts with making a plaster cast of the remaining limb and molding a socket to fit around it, is the same anywhere, Batzdorff said. He'll work in Haiti with translators, but most limb-making techniques can be taught by “show and tell,” he said.

Judging whether a finished device fits properly is equally easy. A patient's smile means success; “a frown tells you you've got some work to do,” he said.

Donations to the Haiti project may be made online at www.prosthetika.com or by sending a check to ProsthetiKa at 1275 Fourth St., number 609, Santa Rosa, 95404.

Batzdorff said he's become “kind of addicted” to the overseas missions. “I'd have to say it's my favorite way of traveling,” he said.

As an American working among Muslims in Turkey, Batzdorff said he sensed no social or political conflict. He was comfortable, as well, in Bolivia, where socialist president Evo Morales has nationalized industries and befriended Cuba.

“When I'm there doing prosthetics, it's just colleagues from different cultures working together,” he said.

Source: The Press Democrat