'Haiti changed me': Scarborough man treats amputees in ravaged nation

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SCARBOROUGH — While in Haiti in May prosthetic limb designer Ian Engelman helped treat more than 20 car accident victims in an open-air emergency room, figured out the best way to set up a mosquito net, met with patients living in tent cities and had his underwear stolen off a clothes line.

He also provided prosthetic limbs to six above-the-knee amputees.

Earlier this year, Engelman, who owns Insightful Products, a prosthetics and geriatric medical product design company in Scarborough, answered a call from a group asking volunteers to come to the Mission of Hope north of Port au Prince to spend a week designing and fitting amputees who lost limbs in last January’s devastating earthquake.

The decision was simple.

“I looked at my schedule and said, ‘I can go,'” Engelman said.

But the group could not pay for Engelman’s plane ticket and accommodations while he was there. So he sent out e-mails to friends and family, who donated generously, and he also received help from an anonymous donor.

So he purchased a plane ticket and made arrangements. He also packed three bags, two weighing more than 70 pounds each, all stuffed with prosthetics donated by Maine prosthesists, and headed south.

“Port au Prince airport is like a warehouse,” he said, adding that he made the mistake of tipping someone who helped him with his bag. “After that, everyone wanted to help us. We were swarmed by people.”

Eventually, Engelman made his way in a packed, hot bus to the mission, where he would stay while working with the amputees.

Driving through the area, Engelman said he was amazed by the enormous tent cities, held up by twigs slashed from what was left of the rainforest.

“Anything that grows more than 10 feet, they cut,” he said. “The hills are bare.”

After arriving at the mission, he and some of the other medical professionals who arrived at the same time decided to check out the hospital. Just as they began exploring what many call the best hospital in Haiti, two trucks full of accident victims arrived.

“The truck they were riding in lost its brakes on the way down (a hill). The driver wrestled it to the side, but the truck tipped and spilled everyone onto the road,” he said.

While Engelman is not a doctor, he has spent years around them and said he helped out as best he could, triaging people and trying to calm or distract those in pain.

“I held one woman’s head and it felt like I had her brain in my hand,” he said.

After things began to calm down a bit, he realized he wasn’t wearing gloves and was covered in blood. He washed up and then got right back to work.

At the end of the day, four people had traumatic brain injuries and there were several amputees.

“We served them all. They all lived, but some of them will never be the same,” he said.

Despite the traumatic start to his time in Haiti, Engelman got to work as quickly as possible. He traveled to the tent cities to pick up his patients, who spent the week at the mission with him.

“It was great because I had my tools right there in the room with the patients,” he said. “Here, everything’s far away, so if you want to make adjustments, you have to come back later. But there, it’s so quick. It’s really efficient.”

The patients sometimes helped when he made adjustments, sewing up the padding and doing other simple tasks.

He said one of his patients, an 8-year-old girl, really broke his heart.

“Her mother came by every day and she kept saying, ‘please take my daughter. I want to leave her here,'” he said.

Engelman said he was surprised by the level of poverty, even though he had prepared himself for it as best he could. He saw dead horses and mules along the side the road, people paying a nickle to pile onto open trucks — the only form of public transportation – and thousands of tents where people live in filth with no belongings and no education.

“Dropping (the patients) off was the hardest part for me. I thought, ‘I’m leaving you here with nothing.’ It really was hard,” he said.

When he returned the U.S., Engelman immediately got tested for blood-borne pathogens because of his exposure while helping the accident victims. His initial test showed he was positive for HIV, however a second test came back negative and he was cleared.

Despite the physical and emotional challenges of the journey, Engelman said he wants to go back. He’s hoping to find a group or a donor willing to sponsor him so he can return to Mission of Hope to help some of the other amputees he met while he was there. And he hopes that in the near future, organization and management will help bring the country back to its feet.

“They need people to go back and I’m willing to go,” he said. “Haiti changed me.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net

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Prosthetist Ian Engelman stands with one of his patients, an 8-year-old Haitian girl, whom he treated while volunteering at the Mission of Hope hospital north of Port au Prince, Haiti, last May. Engelman will give a presentation about his experience as a part of the Scarborough Public Library’s Armchair Travelers series on Feb. 6, 2011, at 2 p.m.

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