On Easter Sunday, Jo Ann Roberts, a physical therapist from University City, and her colleagues Judy Labarbera and Donna Hutchinson, boarded a plane bound for Port-au-Prince intent on doing something to help the thousands of Haitians injured in the January 12 earthquake.
Three days earlier, they had received a call from the hospital where they'd originally planned to volunteer. A group of German doctors had just arrived for a yearlong stay. The therapists' services would no longer be needed.
That didn't stop them. "Donna, Judy and I are the kind to say, 'We're going, and that's all there is to it,'" says Roberts. "There were close to 4,000 new amputees in Port-au-Prince alone. There were only a handful of physical therapists in Haiti before the quake, and the only prosthesis lab in Port-au-Prince had been destroyed. We were sure that, since they had nothing, nobody was going to turn us away."
On the drive from the airport to their guesthouse in the suburb of Pétionville, the three women noticed a sign for L'Hôpital de la Communauté Haïtienne (known as HCH). They immediately marched inside and volunteered their services. By the following morning, they were seeing patients.
A week later, the Global Therapy Group, as they had decided to call themselves, was in the development business. Along with members of an American organization called Rainmaker Fundraising who they had met by chance at HCH, they decided to build a physical rehab clinic and prosthetics lab at HCH. Rainmaker would handle the construction. Global Therapy would train Haitians to become technicians and staff the clinic once the Americans left.
The three therapists encountered a Haitian medical system in shambles. "You just can't fathom how primitive medical care there is," Roberts reports. "It's like the Middle Ages, only everyone has cell phones."
Many of the Global Therapy Group's patients hadn't seen a doctor since their initial surgeries. "There were a huge number of casts that had obviously been on for a long time," says Roberts. "They had fixators — the pins you stick through the bones to hold them together — sticking out. There were people who looked like they had claws because they'd had no physical therapy. Some of the surgeries had been done on the street not in a clean environment.
"We would do things we would never consider doing in the U.S.," she continues. "In Haiti, everyone carries their X-rays around. We'd look at the X-ray date and say, 'Well, you got to be healed by now,' and find a cast-cutter. Donna asked a doctor to look at a wound that might be infected, and he said, 'Just do the best you can, darlin', because no one else can.'"
Fortunately, HCH had a supply closet stocked with equipment donated from all over the world. "One day in the clinic I saw a father carry in a fifteen-year-old boy with his legs amputated below the knee," Roberts recalls. "He had no wheelchair, he'd had no rehab. I ran upstairs to the supply closet and found a chair I thought would fit. We showed him the brakes and the wheels and whoosh, that kid was gone. I thought, If that's what I came to Haiti to do, it's all worth it."
Upon their return to the United States, Roberts and Hutchinson set up an office in Hutchinson's home in Overland Park, Kansas, and began to raise money to cover travel expenses for the therapists that they promised to send weekly to HCH over the next two years.
"We're emotionally wiped out," Roberts says. "It took us almost a week to realize that in Haiti, 'therapy' means 'massage.' We're out of our minds, I think. None of us had any inkling this was going to happen."
To donate to the Global Therapy Group, send a check payable to "Hope for the Children of Haiti" with "Therapy Travel Fund" on the memo line to Donna Hutchinson, 961 West 131st Street, Overland Park, Kansas, 66213.