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A child's hope for a new limb, new life

Four-year-old Schneily Similien's left leg was crushed in Haiti's earthquake.

By JoNel Aleccia, msnbc.com

Schneily Similien still needs a new leg.

The 4-year-old Haitian boy's left calf and foot were crushed when the Jan. 12 earthquake rocked his country and destroyed his house, sending pieces of concrete ceiling crashing down on the child and his family.

For five days, no medical care could be found in the wrecked capital city, Port-au-Prince, and by the time Schneily's parents, Ducarmel, 40, and Darline, 37, got him to a hospital, amputation was the only option.

Msnbc.com first introduced readers to Schneily Similien (also spelled Cimilien) soon after the quake, as prosthetics groups began assessing the staggering need in Haiti and Ducarmel vowed to do anything to get a limb for his boy.

"People tend not to take into account the needs of disabled people and it changes your life," Schneily's father said through a translator. "They don't consider you a whole person."

Two months after the horrible disaster that claimed at least 230,000 lives and left a million people homeless, Schneily remains among an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 amputees left to struggle in a rugged, impoverished land where if you don't work, you don't eat and there's little regard for the disabled.

His greatest hope for a new limb -- and a new life -- may lie at the Hopital Albert Schweitzer, an 80-bed oasis in the rural heart of Haiti, where the American prosthetic firm Hanger Orthopedic Group has set up an amputee rehabilitation center.

The Hanger crew, led by Jay Tew, 38, a volunteer prosthetics expert from Baton Rouge, La., has already fabricated and fit more than 60 limbs for Haitian amputees in the last month.

First though, Schneily has to get there.

The 60-mile trip from Port-au-Prince to the hospital in Deschapelles can take nearly four hours, even on relatively good roads. Schneily and his parents were left homeless by the quake and are now living in a tent in Leogane, a town 20 miles from the capital, aid workers say.

His father is a carpenter, but no one has bought furniture since the quake. His mother is a kindergarten teacher, but her school was destroyed in the disaster.  With little money and scarce aid, they've battled hunger along with their fears for Schneily's future.

Deschapelles, Haiti, is located about 60 miles north of Port-au-Prince.

Msnbc.com is heading to Haiti to track the story of Schneily and other amputees as they work to build new lives. Our crew will arrive in Port-au-Prince today and travel to Deschapelles, where we'll file daily dispatches about the urgent effort.

Along the way, we'll explore the issue of amputation, a growing problem sparked by violence, disaster and disease not just in Haiti, but around the world.

We'll talk to amputee veterans of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan about what it means to live without a limb, and share their advice for amputees in Haiti. We'll reach out to our readers as well, publishing your thoughts on what it takes to recover from tragedy and build a new life worth living.