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Schneily's long road leads to a new leg

By JoNel Aleccia

DESCHAPELLES, Haiti -- Darline Similien climbs off the back of a motorcycle in the blazing morning sun and sweeps her youngest son, Schneily, into her arms, mindful of the 4-year-old's missing leg.

She sees visitors with cameras and pauses, shy about her appearance after a 5 1/2-hour road trip by bus and by bike. But Schneily just hugs her tighter.

"You're not ugly mama," the brown-eyed boy with a headful of braids says in lyrical Creole."You look nice, Mama."

It's been only four days since Darline has seen Schneily and his father, Ducarmel, but for the family on a desperate quest for a prosthetic limb to replace the boy's left leg, crushed in the earthquake, everything has changed.

Finally, they've made it to the Hopital Albert Schweitzer, where a group called the Haitian Amputee Coalition has begun providing free prosthetics for victims of the Jan. 12 temblor. It's Schneily's best hope for a better life, but getting the child to Deschapelles was anything but easy.

Msnbc.com first introduced readers to Schneily Similien, also spelled Cimilien, soon after the quake, as Ducarmel vowed to do anything to get his boy a limb.

Less than a week ago, the family got word that Schneily could get help, but only if he made it to the hospital, more than 80 miles from the tent city in Leogane, where the family has been living since the quake destroyed their home.

Transportation there for a single adult usually costs about 250 in gourdes, the Haitian currency. That's about $6 U.S., but far too pricey for a family with no work since the disaster and little money left to survive on.

"If I had to get here on my own, it would have been almost impossible," Ducarmel, a 40-year-old carpenter, said through an interpreter.

Instead, he found help from the Catholic Medical Mission Board, an aid group whose Haiti director lost her leg in an air crash several years ago while delivering medical supplies outside Port-au-Prince. Since the earthquake, Dr. Dianne Jean-Francois has made special effort to find help and comfort for amputees because she said she understands their needs.

"They are children, they are adults, they are men, they are women," she said. "So many. There was no difference. The earthquake hurt them all."

Through CMMB, Ducarmel got a ride for Schneily and himself, but there was a catch. Because the need is so great, aid groups limit transportation to the patient and a single guardian. Darline and their two other boys, Schmeider, 10, and Scarcely, 13, had to stay behind in Leogane, with little water or food.

Still, just after dawn last Thursday, the father and son boarded an SUV with five other amputees and five of their family members for the long trek through the rural countryside.

By Haitian standards, the road to Deschapelles, National No. 1, is a good one, winding past villages of tin-roofed shacks, fruit stands and ubiquitous lottery shacks where locals take a chance with 5 gourdes. But it's also both dusty and muddy, with deep ruts and potholes and cars racing dangerously fast in both directions, appearing to barely miss passersby -- or each other.

For HAS patients, the trip ends with a hard right turn on Dr. Mellon Road, a rocky, narrow street named for the hospital's founder, William Larimer Mellon, and into the hospital's courtyard.

For Ducarmel, every bump and jolt was worth it for the lively boy who's become a pro on crutches since his amputation less than a week after the quake. Schneily hops easily down concrete steps, across the uneven ground, sometimes roaming so far that his dad has to call him back. He's eager to make friends, rushing out to greet John Spinoza, a 10-year-old who's also missing a leg.

"He's ready to walk," Ducarmel says. "He wants to do it."

Within hours of his arrival at HAS, Schneily's leg was examined, measured and cast by Jay Tew, the prosthetics expert for Hanger Orthopedic Group, the American firm that's spearheading the effort.

Now, a tiny plastic-and-foam limb, just over 9 inches tall, is waiting for Schneily, who's the youngest amputee the crew has seen yet. Next he'll be fitted with the new leg. If all goes well, Schneily will be able to walk for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, Darline couldn't stay away. The 37-year-old kindergarten teacher left the older boys with her mother in Leogane, and then pooled money from family and friends to pay for transportation to Deschapelles. She rode part of the way on the bus, and part on a motorcycle, ending her journey Sunday with a hug from her husband and son -- and new hope for the family's future.

"Every time I spoke to Schneily on the phone, he said, 'Come, mama, come," she said.

Schneily's parents are apprehensive about how he'll adjust to the new leg. Darline is worried he'll have an allergic reaction to the limb. Ducarmel isn't sure he'll actually be able to walk like a regular boy. But both know that this is a necessary step.

"It's very important that he get a foot," Ducarmel said. "We have to restore all of our lives."