April 4, 2014

Local resident seeks crutches, walkers, et al for Belize

By Sharon Rice, Editor, The Friday Flyer

Michelle Whitehead, a Certified Prosthetist Orthotist, second from left, recently traveled with her family to Belize for a mission to make prosthetic legs for mobility-challenged Belizeans. She is pictured at Project Hope Belize with her sons Trevor and Ryan, husband Chuck, and mother Margaret McCoy.

Here Michelle makes a cast from the patient's leg. She became interested in the field of prosthetics while still in high school when family friend and fellow Canyon Laker Rod O’Conner introduced her to the specialty.

Here, Michelle modifies the prosthetic leg in a "lab" located in the back of a house.

Michelle laminates the prosthetic leg.

Michelle fits the prosthetic leg snugly on the patient's stump.

Michelle says she doesn't normally visit patients at their homes, but she decided to bring a videographer on this trip who could record the difficult circumstances in which her patients live. Here they visit the home of a young girl with cerebral palsy for whom Michelle made braces. In spite of the extreme poverty they witnessed, Michelle said one of her sons commented that the Belizeans seemed "happy."

Adrian Camara, center, was born without legs. One of the first persons to be helped by prosthetists from America (he has prosthetic legs), Camara now runs Project Hope Belize and assists patients when volunteer prosthetists/orthotists like Rob Kistenberg, at left, and Michelle Whitehead, at right aren't there.


Most Americans who travel to the Central American country of Belize do so for the lovely coastline and barrier reef ideal for all manner of water sports, and for rainforest adventures into ancient Mayan ruins. But Michelle Whitehead has had a different purpose in mind the two times she visited the tiny, third-world nation.

Accompanying Michelle on her most recent trip March 15 to 23 were here husband Chuck, sons Trevor, 14, and Ryan, 12, and Michelle's mom Margaret McCoy. The family paid their own expenses, plus Michelle contributed a $300 “mission fee” to help pay for the electricity and materials she would need for building prosthetic legs at an orthopedic and orthotic clinic in Orange Walk Town.

Orange Walk Town, nicknamed “Shuga City” for its large sugar cane industry, is inland from the coast and not far from well known Maya ruins.

The permanent clinic, Project Hope Belize, is located in a donated house and supported by the non-profit organization, Prosthetic Hope International. It is where Michelle and her family spent the week; she meeting with patients and building prosthetic legs in a “lab” at the back of the house that was was neither air conditioned nor ventilated; her sons helping to keep the shop area clean, interacting with the patients and helping the clinic's manager, Adrian Camara, transport the patients back and forth to their homes.

Rob Kistenberg, co-director and prosthetics coordinator for the Georgia Tech Center for Prosthetic and Orthotic Research and Education was in Belize to help with the mission at the same time Michelle was there.

Prosthetics involves the use of artificial limbs (prostheses) to enhance the function and lifestyle of persons with limb loss. The prosthesis must be a unique combination of appropriate materials, alignment, design and construction to match the functional needs of the individual.

Although Michelle's time and resources were limited, she was able to make six prosthetic legs and at least one set of braces (orthotics) ? the latter to help a young girl with cerebral palsy so that she could stand and walk.

Michelle says she met with each patient to make a cast of the remaining part of their leg so that she could create a brand new, custom fit socket to fit snugly on the stump. Added to each socket were a “shin and foot” fashioned from used parts donated to the mission.

The mission to make prosthetics is held just once or twice a year, when practitioners like Michelle and Kistenberg are able to volunteer their time. The rest of the time, Project Belize is managed by Adrian Camara, who provides continuing maintenance and follow-up care to patients when there are no practitioners.

After providing prosthetic services at Project Hope Belize twice now, Michelle and her family members are convinced there is more that can be done to help the mobility-challenged citizens of Belize. To that end, they are seeking donations of crutches, canes, walkers and wheel chairs to ship to the clinic.

On this recent trip, they took along a videographer to film their efforts. They would like to make this video available to clubs and organizations so their members can help collect the above-mentioned items.

Donations of crutches, canes, walkers and wheelchairs can be dropped off at any of the three Coldwell Banker locations in Canyon Lake, Menifee and Murrieta, or residents can contact the offices to ask that the items be picked up.

Coldwell Banker Canyon Lake (951-244-1867) is located at 31620 Railroad Canyon Rd. in the Towne Center. Coldwell Banker Menifee (951-679-8844) is located at 28120 Bradley Rd. Coldwell Banker Murrieta (951-698-2323) is located at 40355 Murrieta Hot Springs Rd., Unit E.

Michelle and Margaret say they are very appreciative of the support received from agents at the three Coldwell Banker offices.

To learn more about Prosthetic Hope International, or make a monetary donation, visit prosthetic hope.org.