A few weeks ago, Paul Burnette stepped off a plane into the earthquake-ravaged country of Haiti. Despite 31 years treating people who’ve lost arms and legs, the Fremont prosthetist wasn’t prepared for what he saw.
“You see evidence of the earthquake everywhere and the roads are really, really rough,” said Burnette from his Fremont medical office.
Burnette volunteered to go to Haiti to work in the clinic run by his parent company, Hanger Orthopedic Group. The clinic is located 60 miles from Port-au-Prince in Deschapelles.
He treated around 10 patients a day; most missing limbs as a result of the January 2010 earthquake. He fit patients for prosthetic arms and legs which were cast on-site. Once built, he’d attach and adjust them.
“For their own body image, I found it’s very important for them to feel that they’re whole again,” he said.
But Burnette’s role went beyond treating patients, an occupation he calls his “life’s passion.” During his stay, he was also thrust into the role of teacher, helping to train a team of four Haitian prosthetic technicians. Though he wasn’t prepared for the assignment, he said it ended-up being the most satisfying part of his two-week journey.
“Knowing that the things I taught the technicians while I was there - they’ll retain and be able to use on their own,” said Burnette. “Hopefully in the future they’ll be completely self-sustaining.”
Burnette paused to reflect on how to describe the spirit of the Haitian people. Despite living in impoverished conditions, he said he was moved at how they managed to maintain a sunny veneer. He described fitting a prosthetic on a man who had lost most of his leg.
“This picture was taken 10 minutes after he got his prosthesis for the very first time,” said Burnette inspecting a photo of the Haitian amputee. “After half an hour, this fellow was walking without any crutches.”
In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, volunteers from the Hanger group treated up to 40 patients a day. The work load has dropped since then – but overall, more than a thousand amputees have received new limbs.
When asked if he would go back, Burnette stops to think. The North Carolina transplant instead suggested that perhaps the same services are needed in poor areas within the U.S. He said he’d would consider returning to Haiti for a two-month rotation as a team leader – although he’d have to brush up on his Creole-French.
He said he arrived home with the standard life-changing perspectives of someone who has stepped from a comfortable Bay Area life, into a world of utter poverty and destruction. The most gratifying part of the work for him, was watching a patient’s smile return as the artificial limb was attached.
“It really made me appreciate the human spirit,” said Burnette, “how they can overcome such obstacles that they do.”