Young Haitian lost leg to save his sister's life

Published March 1, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – It's just after 6 a.m., and Petersen Hilan is waking from a dream where he was rollerblading and playing soccer. The morning sun jolts him back to reality — he no longer has a right leg.

The high school senior looks up at the tangerine light streaming through the canvas tent. Mornings remind him of the feeling just before his leg was amputated three weeks ago.

"The serum went in my arm and all I thought was that death probably feels just as sweet," Hilan says.

He looks under his cot to find the grey rollerblades he used to wear and extra crutches stuck in the mud. There is no running water, so he splashes cologne under his arms. He struggles to lift himself up on the cot to pull on a pair of baggy denim shorts.

In Haiti's apocalyptic landscape of tilted and flattened houses, smiling schoolchildren in smart uniforms and colorful hair bows have been replaced by legions of young amputees. More than 4,000 Haitians have gone through amputations since the quake, hundreds of them without anesthesia. Some lost more of their limbs than necessary because of the lack of equipment and medicine during a crushing influx of broken people.

More amputations are expected. Doctors say some people have been walking around with compound fractures for weeks. Others have never had medical treatment for infections.

One of Haiti's few prosthetics factories, Healing Hands, was severely damaged in the quake, and it could take months to produce enough prosthetics for amputees. The government has said it will develop a plan for the country's newly disabled — Haiti has few elevators, ramps or accessible buildings — but few details have emerged.

In the meantime, amputees like Hilan are struggling to cope in a country where the disabled have long been seen as a drain on their families.

The 21-year-old doesn't want sympathy. But in another country, he believes, he wouldn't have lost the leg. Doctors say he's probably right.

"I think eventually there will be a new Haiti," says Hilan. "Unfortunately, I lost my leg in the old Haiti."

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When the earth shook on Jan. 12, Hilan was just a semester away from high school graduation, after several interruptions from hurricanes, floods and political unrest. He was living with his mother and seven family members in a cement house about 10 blocks away from the Champ de Mars, Port-au-Prince's central plaza.

As he stood in the tiny kitchen near his 4-year-old sister, Carmel, cinder blocks came crashing down, one by one.

"I grabbed Carmel and pushed her outside," says Hilan. "But then everything became dark and it felt like something was pulling me into the ground. I looked down and my foot was completely broken. I couldn't move."

A friend extracted Hilan and laid him on the street where other casualties were frozen in a daze, from injuries or shock at the nightmare unfolding around them.

As dusk fell, Hilan lay on the ground for two hours while his friend and a cousin searched for a hospital. Many had tumbled. Others were crowded with patients but no doctors or nurses.

They eventually hurried back to report that a tidal wave was coming. Panicked by what turned out to be a false rumor, they moved Hilan to the higher ground of the Champ de Mars.

Hilan's family tried every day for the next six days to get him medical attention. Constant aftershocks only exacerbated the pain. The gangrene was creeping, the stench of Hilan's wound worsened.

Eventually Hilan went to a hospital near the airport, where an American doctor explained his options.

"He apologized to me but told me that if he didn't amputate, I would be dead in two days."

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These days, Hilan wakes up in an outdoor camp where thousands of earthquake survivors live. He shares a cot with two siblings, while six other family members sleep on a splintered pink door and chairs.

Around 9 a.m., Hilan's mother slips outside to buy coffee and bread rolls. She's ashamed to ask him to do such things now. Hilan's new life has meant abandoning favorite pastimes and chores such as watching out for siblings and shopping for groceries.

Hilan instructs a friend in the tent to connect the television donated by neighbors. But first they have to see if the overnight rains have shorted out the mud-caked wires. With the flick of the button, Hilan is relieved.

Before, he would play soccer with friends or dance kompa — slow, rhythmic music — with girlfriends. Now, he plays video games.

An hour passes as he splatters virtual enemies on the old TV screen.

"One of the worst things about this is I can't defend myself," says Hilan.

Haiti is grueling enough for the able-bodied, but it can be torture for the disabled. Many families have put disabled relatives out on the street or sent them to live elsewhere because they can no longer contribute financially.

"We were out on the street and a little boy ran up to us shouting, "Bout Pye!'" Hilan's mother Denise says, using a Creole phrase that means half leg. "I was shocked. It made me feel like I was dying inside, but Hilan just ignored it and kept moving."

By 11 a.m., Hilan is bored. He sets out for the hospital.

He slowly makes his way through a maze of white tents. A woman is roast

Written by PAISLEY DODDS, Associated Press Writer

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