Outfitted with new limbs, hope returns for 100s wounded in Pakistan quake

By Coco McCabe

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In the mountains of northern Pakistan, where some slopes are as steep as standing ladders, it's hard enough to get around on two legs. It's almost impossible on one.

For hundreds of people who lost their limbs as a result of injuries suffered in the devastating 2005 earthquake, the future looked grim—until one of Oxfam's partners, the National Rural Support Program, or NRSP, set up shop in a giant tent on the outskirts of Islamabad and offered amputees something almost as precious as life: artificial limbs.

"In a poor country, the loss of a leg can mean the difference between being able to make a living and being a beggar," said Kenny Rae, Oxfam America's humanitarian response specialist who recently returned from a field visit to Pakistan. "The workshop was an inspiring thing to see."

For two weeks in August, technicians worked amid the roar of generators and the buzz of saws to outfit nearly 300 people with new legs. Others received leg supports, known as calipers, some got crutches, and a few got new hands. All told 403 patients, about 20 percent of whom were women, received free prosthetic treatment during the workshop. Amputees made their way to the tent courtesy of NRSP, which had ferried people over the rugged terrain from villages as far as 100 miles away.

The star of the initiative was the Jaipur foot, a world-renowned type of artificial limb developed in India that can be made for a fraction of the cost of western prosthetics ($30 per limb versus $2,000). It uses locally available materials, and allows people to live the kind of life they always have—squatting with ease and sitting cross-legged.

"The limbs were made totally on site, starting off with commercially available plastic pipes," said Rae. "The body of the leg is plastic and the joint is metal and rubber. They're very robust. One of the great things about these limbs is that people who get them can walk on steep and uneven surfaces easily."

To prove just how sturdy the devices can be, and how nimble their owners become, Sudam Ray, an amputee, and one of the 18 Indian technicians running the workshop, climbed up on a table—and leapt. He landed without a hitch, and with a hint of a smile, smack in front of Rae's video camera.

The World Health Organization has estimated that more than 700 people lost their limbs as a consequence of the earthquake. Slightly more than half of them were women. Without mobility in this poor and mountainous region, amputees are looked upon as burdens to their families.

"One man told me his new Jaipur foot would change his life," said Rae. "He said now he will be able to work again and provide for his family."

It's that kind of outcome that Oxfam and NRSP would like to see repeated many times over across the earthquake-ravaged region and beyond—toward the borders of Pakistan where landmines have ruined many lives. To that end, Oxfam has given NRSP a $25,000 grant toward the establishment of a permanent prosthetic center. Oxfam's contribution will fund training for seven new technicians who will travel to Jaipur, India, for a three-month course on limb construction. On their return, they'll train others in Pakistan. The funds will also assist the center in buying a multi-purpose ambulance.

"We're taking this world-renowned Indian technology and using it to benefit Pakistanis," said Rae. "It's so encouraging to see this wonderful collaboration between people of two countries which historically have been at odds with each other."