Imagine a world without personal mobility. Riqui did when he contracted Polio at a young age. Mayerlinth did when she was hit by a car. Ana Raquel did when her leg was broken in a motorcycle accident.
Imagine your world if a doctor told you that you would never walk again. How would you feel if he said the problem could be reversed, but he didn't have the equipment to do so? Imagine the worlds of Riqui, Mayerlinth and Ana Raquel when people from another country made it possible for them to cope with their problems or fix them altogether.
The Dominican Republic is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. But the people are resilient, hopeful and thankful for aid that literally gets them back in action.
New wheels for used ones
"I received my first wheelchair when I was 11 years old," said Jose "Riqui" Perez, a young father who lives in an overcrowded corner of Santo Domingo. "Before that, life was very uncomfortable. A person without a wheelchair can't get integrated into society and doesn't feel like they are a part of humanity. I never went out. I never saw the street. I didn't have friends. After I received my first wheelchair, doors opened to me. I began to make friends, got my first job, then formed a family. If I wanted to go to the park with my children or to the store with my wife to buy food, the wheelchair let me do that."
Mr. Perez has put countless miles on his old wheelchair — commuting to work eight kilometers each way. The seat was torn and totally worn out. One front wheel was missing and the main tires were badly worn. But that changed when he received a new wheelchair donated by Humanitarian Services of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Most Church humanitarian efforts exist because of a trusted partner agency in a country. "Part of our mission here is to find reputable partners with whom we can work," said Sister Lorna Francom, a humanitarian missionary from Preston, Idaho, who serves with her husband, Michael, in the Dominican Republic. "We look for a champion within that partnering agency who really wants to help people become self-sufficient and raise their standard of living. Then we know that the program will be self-sustaining after we're out of the picture."
One of those champions is Rosa Lina Nunez, director of the Association of Persons with Physical and Motor Disabilities. "Life for a person with a good wheelchair changes completely," Ms. Nunez said. "It makes it possible to go to school, work, and participate with quality in society. Everybody else can see them for what they are — a person — just like them."
Ms. Nunez knows the plight of people with disabilities first-hand — she was confined to a wheelchair following a botched surgery that left her paralyzed. "The relationship between [the Association of Persons with Physical and Motor Disabilities] and the Church has been very fruitful," she said. "We truly value our association."
"Riqui has improved a lot with the wheelchair," said Rosa Pena, executive director of Riqui's employer, the National Council of Disabilities. "It has really improved his quality of life."
When Mr. Perez started to work at the council, Ms. Pena said he was very morose and was assigned menial tasks. Now he is the receptionist — the first person visitors meet — and he glows with hope and enthusiasm. Coincidentally, the council is the Dominican agency that helps coordinate all handicapped affairs in the country.
"Humanitarian Services has improved the status of many people in this country," Ms. Pena said. "We've solved many problems with the services that are provided. When a person receives a wheelchair, it's like giving them legs."
While perhaps more visible, wheelchairs aren't the only work of mobility pursued by the Church in the Dominican Republic. Two area initiatives have also made a significant difference in the lives of hundreds of people.
The gift of mobility
Eight years ago, Mayerlinth Reyes was holding her infant son at the side of a road when she was struck by a speeding car. Her son was badly brain damaged, and both Ms. Reyes' legs had to be amputated. She then heard about Innovacion Ortopedica, a prosthetic clinic and partner with Humanitarian Services.
"Prosthetic limbs aren't an option for most people because of the cost," said Danny Lopez, co-founder of the clinic. "Most don't have insurance, and even if they do, it only covers the cost of the doctor. But with funding from Humanitarian Services, the gift of mobility is extended to 50 people each year. And now we are working with a new material that will let us nearly double the number of prosthetic limbs next year for the same cost."
Each prosthesis is custom fit to the individual patient through a series of measurements, leg molds, fabrication and adjustments. Ms. Reyes' new prosthetic legs were so light, she was walking with only a cane in less than two months.
"I was anxious to receive my prosthetics so I could reactivate my life and be like I was before," she said. "I can enter places I couldn't have entered with my wheelchair, take my children to school; everything a homemaker does in a house, I can do it. That's changed me a great deal. I've been able to have two more children; my life is completely normal."
"Watching a patient put on their new prosthesis and take those first tentative steps bring tears to your eyes," Sister Francom said. "You see light and hope in their eyes and smiles on their faces."
"This is one of the highlights of our mission: being part of a miracle!" said Elder Michael Francom. "A very important part of the clinic's work is psychological. They know that without hope the prosthesis will mean very little."
The amputation solution
Motorcycles are the main mode of transportation in the Dominican Republic — especially in the crowded cities. There, they compete with buses, trucks, cars and even pedestrians on overloaded roadways. When there is an accident, it's the cyclist or pedestrian who suffers the greatest consequences.
Since amputation is free, it's a frequently-used alternative for critical leg injuries. While some legs could be saved, most people cannot afford the cost of surgically repairing a traumatic leg injury. In some cases, proper equipment is not available. To address this need, Humanitarian Services formed a partnership with Dario Contreras, a Santo Domingo trauma hospital, to provide urgently needed surgical equipment.
"We were very limited in the instruments we had," said Dr. Elizabeth Vidal, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon for the hospital. "We couldn't do things we needed to because the equipment was very expensive."
Dr. Vidal needed a specialized electric drill to prepare the bone for steel pins to stabilize complex fractures. They had been using a hand auger from a hardware store. The humanitarian missionaries who preceded the Francoms had acquired an orthopedic drill along with other surgical equipment. Dr. Vidal was ecstatic.
"The government helped us get a new pediatric surgical facility," she said, "but getting new equipment was almost impossible. With the help of Humanitarian Services, we were able to get the resources we needed. Now, we can save limbs and provide people with the right treatment."
Ana Raquel Agramonte was one of those accident victims whose leg was saved using the donated equipment. Without it, she likely would be just another amputee statistic. Now, she can complete school like other children and get the education she needs.
"Riqui, Mayerlinth and Ana Raquel are just a few of the beneficiaries we see every month," Elder Francom said. "One of the hardest things we have to do is determine who to help. We so desperately want to help everyone, but we can't. We work with our partner organizations who are trying to help the poorest of the poor. Our efforts are geared to sustainability — helping people help themselves."
The Francoms are two of a small army of 140 humanitarian missionaries who take 18-24 months out of their lives to help bless others. Considering the millions of people in need around the world, many more such missionaries are needed. "It's not an easy job," Sister Francom said, "but it's so rewarding to be able to help those with real needs and make a difference in their lives."
"We hope you can find angels who can support us with their resources," Ms. Pena said, "so you can continue the work that you're doing not only in our country, but in others where poverty is the greatest obstacle for a person with disabilities."