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Pals reunited in struggle to walk again

Friends before the earthquake, Carmene Geurrier, 16, left, and Mike Shelove Julmiste, 25, visit with each other after having their prosthetics adjusted in Cange, Haiti.

By JoNel Aleccia

CANGE, Haiti -- Carmene Geurrier and Mike Shelove Julmiste were childhood friends before the earthquake, girls from Port-au-Prince who grew up knowing the same games and songs.

Now young women, they've forged an even tighter bond under nearly unimaginable circumstances: both are earthquake amputees, learning to walk on new limbs at a remote medical clinic in Haiti.

"When I'm alone, I'm stressing, but when I have a friend like her, I am happy," says Carmene, 16, through a translator. She lost both legs below the knee on Jan. 12, when her house collapsed.

"I feel the same," says her friend, who goes by Shelove, a 25-year-old who lost most of her left leg when her home crumbled around her.

The pair found each other again at Zanmi Lasante, a small hospital in the rugged mountains of Cange, nearly 40 miles from Port-au-Prince. Like hundreds of other earthquake victims, they were brought here by worried family members because of the reputation of its founder, Dr. Paul Farmer, a Boston infection control specialist whose organization Partners in Health champions health care in Haiti and much of the developing world.

Indeed, Shelove says it was "Dr. Paul" who told them to be patient and wait because a medical crew was going to bring them new limbs.

Last week it happened, when a crew from the Hanger Orthopedics Group stationed at the Hopital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles came to fit the girls with prosthetic legs.

"I feel OK now because I got my legs," says Carmene, who now sports clear plastic shoes with bows slipped over her two artificial feet. "But if I didn't get the legs, I would not feel good at all."

Before the quake, Carmene was a high school student and Shelove was studying at a local university. The disaster changed everything. Now Carmene lives with extended family in Mirabalais, a city near Port-au-Prince. Shelove's family went to live with extended family, too, but she doesn't know if there's room for her in the home. Like many Haitians, the young women don't speculate about the future, prefering to concentrate only on today. Right now, that means their new limbs.

Carmene is worried about her residual limbs, which are excruciatingly sensitive to the sockets of her prostheses. The slightest pressure makes her wince in pain. Shelove's limb is tender, too, but not so bad. And both girls are determined to wear them.

"They says they want to go dancing," says Will Millien, the handsome Haitian translator speaking to the girls. "I told them, 'I will take you dancing.'"

Helping amputees feel whole again is the reason these hospitals have partnered in rural Haiti, says Dr. Koji Nakashima, a physician in Cange.

Because Zanmi Lasante, which means Partners in Health in Haitian Creole, didn't already have a prosthetics center set up, they invited Hanger teams from the newly formed prosthetics lab at the Hospital Albert Schweitzer to make and fit limbs for amputees and to provide rehabilitation care afterward.

In Haiti, amputees without limbs are likely to be isolated; some never leave their homes.

"When someone gets a prosthetic, they go from wheelchair-bound to walking and from not working to working," Nakashima says.

Every weekend for a month, Hanger teams have made the arduous 100-mile round-trip drive to Cange through the lush Artibonite Valley and up into the rocky hills. Jay Tew, the prosthetics expert leading the project, sets up shop in a church sanctuary, where dozens of patients on mattresses and blankets have filled the tile floor and spilled out into the courtyard.

On this day, a couple dozen people arrive with the swaddled stumps that signal missing limbs. When Carmene and Shelove walk into the room under their own power, Tews stops and gives them hugs and a round of applause. It's a dramatic improvement from when he first met them to take measurements in early March.

"To have someone coming in walking on their own in a matter of two weeks, it made me cry," said Tew, wiping a few hasty tears. Not many amputees are so mobile so quickly.

The girls laugh and tease, strutting across the floor so Tew can see how well they walk. Amputation changed their lives forever, but getting a new limb will help them move forward with confidence -- and even humor.

Carmene, for instance, says she now has a whole new way to test potential boyfriends.

"If any guy is going to try to talk to me," she says. "I'm going to show him my leg first."