By JoNel Aleccia
DESCHAPELLES, Haiti -- Even in a community of amputees, John Markinley has seen more than his share of trauma.
The 21-year-old student from Port-au-Prince lost most of his left hand and part of his right leg in his country's disastrous earthquake, which trapped him for three days in the rubble of his school until rescuers could find and free him.
"I just waited," he says. "I knew they would come and get me."
But Markinley refuses to dwell on his disability -- and he doesn't let others stay down, either. As the unofficial ambassador of L'Escale, a housing community set up for prosthetics patients treated at the nearby Hopital Albert Schweitzer, the tall young man with the quick smile believes it's his job to be upbeat.
"I try to give joke, to give comedy," Markinley says in his best English, a language he studied in school and practiced on his own. "The doctor told me that the best thing that's good for stress is to laugh."
And there's actually a lot of laughing going on at L'Escale, where the population has shot up just this week to some five dozen people ranging from young children to grandparents. All around the compound of eight four-room houses, residents are chatting and joking, playing the card game "Casino," listening to Haitian hip-hop on the radio and generally hanging out on this sultry spring evening.
They're all either amputees who spend their days trying out new limbs at the Hanger prosthetics clinic at the hospital or family members and friends who've come to support them.
"It's a built-in community for them," says Mandy McGlynn, a physical therapist from the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute who just finished a two-week stint at the Hanger clinic.
Strangers who arrived traumatized and depressed by the events of the past two months have become companions bonded by empathy and understanding, say patients and hospital organizers alike.
"All the people here is my friend," says Markinley. "We are the same."
That's true for Genneviege Delus, a 38-year-old mother of four who was selling trinkets on the street in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake hit.
"I was running and that's when a building collapsed on me," says Delus through a translator. She lost her right leg above the knee.
Before she arrived in Deschapelles, Delus says she was sad and depressed. She'd never been around another amputee before and hated the stigma of being one.
"When I come down here, I see many people who have no legs and no arms and I feel happier," she says. "There are other people like me here. I thought I was the only one."
From a practical standpoint, L'Escale provides food and shelter for patients who may stay two weeks or more. A local community organization provides meals twice a day, says Ian Rawson, the hospital's managing director.
For Haitians who've lost their homes and possessions, the cinder block houses outfitted with simple twin beds are palatial and the free medical care is an unimagined luxury. It's so nice, in fact, that the complex is nearly full, with little prospect of any rooms emptying soon.
That's a problem, Rawson says. On one hand, some of the patients are almost medically recovered enough to leave. On the other, they have no other access to living arrangements and care.
"What do you do with all these people who have nowhere to go?" he says, acknowledging that organizers are working to come up with a plan.
While hospital leaders grapple with that question, newly arrived amputees Emmanuelle Lundy and Wilfrid Macena, both 26 and from Port-au-Prince, adjust to their temporary home.
The two met each other after the earthquake, which claimed Lundy's left leg and Macena's right. Seeing so many other amputees coping with the same condition has made them stronger, says Macena, who stops strangers who approach him with pity.
"It's OK," he says, gesturing around the grounds of L'Escale. "To be living with one leg is living. A lot of people didn't get a chance to."