BY KIM NORTH SHINE
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
The mission to the Caribbean nation by a group of local prosthetics experts, two of them amputees, originated with Warren-based M-STAR (Michigan Society to Advance Rehabilitation).
M-STAR founder Dr. Saul Morris is a retired physician assistant and psychiatrist from Warren who uses a prosthetic leg. St. Clair Shores resident Bob Maniere, also an amputee who walks with an artificial leg, is president and co-owner of Comfort Prosthetics and Orthotics in Clinton Township. They are two of the five doctors and prosthetics experts making the trip as volunteers providing a free service to people in need.
They plan to depart March 1 and return March 11.
"With me being an amputee myself and Saul being an amputee we feel strongly about getting people on their feet," said Maniere, who lost his leg jumping on a train as a teenager. Morris' leg was amputated in 2000 due to a condition called peripheral vascular disease.
"We don't know what kind of situation you can run into there," Maniere said last week from his Clinton Township office.
On Feb. 16, he; Morris; Jim Williamson, a registered prosthetics and orthotics assistant from Clinton Township, and David Ballantyne, a certified prosthetist from Harper Woods, were planning for their upcoming trip. Comfort Prosthetics and Orthotics is funding the trip with a donation of between $10,000 and $15,000. That price, however, does not include shipping, which the group didn't count on.
"We come in early. We work on Saturdays," Williamson said.
That is not a complaint, because the outcome could be so profound.
"A father can work again, a husband can help around the house again," Williamson said. "It's the whole family that's affected, not just the patient."
"It's going to be a lot of hard work, but it's worth it," Maniere said. "We'll be moving fast. It would normally take us a couple of months to do 30 patients; we'll do that many in five-six days."
To prepare for the trip, over the last few weeks they have taken parts from donated, unwanted prosthetics and pieced them together to form whole new legs. "Basically, we're taking stuff that would have been thrown away and making good use of it," Morris said.
The legs have come from donations made to M-STAR, as well as from Maniere's patients who have either found their legs ill-fitting or tired of them. Doctors, by law, may not reuse or resell the legs in the United States, in part to protect patients from being sold second-hand prosthetics instead of new ones.
"We might as well get someone walking with them," Maniere said.
It took between two and three weeks to turn the donated, disassembled pieces into new complete legs. Legs of all kinds -- pneumatic, hydraulic, starter legs, waterproof legs, light-skinned legs and dark-skinned ones.
In the Dominican Republic, the legs that were rebuilt here will be matched with patients. The doctors will work in the prosthetics facility at a rehabilitation hospital in Santo Domingo that includes an oven for baking casts and tools for shaping and cutting them.
If necessary, Dr. John Sealey, vice chief of staff and a vascular surgeon at St. John Riverview Hospital in Detroit, where Comfort Prosthetics and Orthotics also has an office, will operate to correct problems common in amputees.
The group will also teach the hospital's prosthetics technicians "30 years worth of experience so that they can go forward into the future and do more for their patients," Maniere said.
"In the Dominican Republic you probably have somewhere around 4,000 amputees waiting for limbs," Maniere said. "They can't get the parts first of all, and they've usually cost too much. A lot of what they do have comes from the black market."
The legs coming from Michigan range in price from nearly $2,000 each to as much as $8,000 each, for a total worth of about $250,000, Maniere said.
What Morris has dubbed "Operation Compassion" began when a Dominican-born New Jersey woman called him at M-STAR to say she wanted to get artificial legs there "to help her people," Morris said. She is making the trip as well.
That led to a call by Morris to Maniere and company, just the latest in a long line of requests for favors. "He comes to us a lot," Maniere says. Everyone laughs.
The stories of those for whom Morris asks favors, however, are far from comical.
There was the girl from Gambia who was wearing a wooden leg that fell apart. She was brought to Clinton Township from Wisconsin and given a specially built leg and "finally wore a dress for the first time," Morris said.
They helped a Bolivian farmer who up until four months ago had rigged up a pipe to use as a leg.
Morris became a philanthropic prosthetics provider after he was asked to speak to an advocacy group for the disabled.
"They asked me to speak about my experience not long after I lost my leg," Morris said. "I said 'Go to hell. I don't want to talk about this.' I finally started reading up and I just realized I'm trained in medicine and I'm not understanding this and feeling bad about myself. I decided to dedicate myself to helping amputees then."
Besides providing prosthetics, Morris, at no cost, visits hospitals to counsel and advise new, often confused, angry or depressed, amputees. He goes to their homes. He hears from people who want to use an arm or a leg again but don't have the means. He's hearing more from families of soldiers in Iraq or from the soldiers themselves.
"It's pretty hard when you can't say yes to whatever they need," said Morris, who is provided a small monthly stipend by Comfort Prosthetics and Orthotics in order to work on his low-budget M-STAR project.
Said Maniere, "Without Dr. Morris finding the people who need help and getting hold of us, none of this would be happening."
They all are looking forward to changing some lives for the better.
"When you see the people walking, all the work you put in, all the dollars that were spent won't matter," Maniere said. "Plus, it's fun. . . . We hope we can make this a yearly thing."