Friday, August 17, 2007

CL woman builds prosthetics and hope for amputees

By Shannon Weatherford


Belize is a tiny country once known as the British Honduras. Bordered by Guatemala to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east, it is a major tourist destination thanks to lush tropical forests and the longest living barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, as well as its rich Mayan history. As beautiful and breathtaking as those parts of the country are, Belize is, in reality, still a third-world country with the ugly truth hidden from most tourists.

Travel away from the luxurious coastal resorts catering to upscale American and European tastes, inland over its unpaved roads, past field upon field of sugar cane and one ramshackle house after another, and the real Belize is revealed – abject poverty of a large majority of the country’s 294,385 residents and an overwhelming lack of modern conveniences and services, including basic medical care.

The country’s economy is fed by two industries, tourism and agriculture, in that order. Sugar is the chief agricultural crop as well as a main staple in many Belizean diets because of its accessibility. As a result, the incidence of diabetes is high, as is the loss of limbs from the disease. Those lucky enough to have employment often toil on the sugarcane farms. The downside is the number of workers who lose limbs while operating unsafe, outdated agricultural machinery. Lack of medical care also means that many seemingly minor cuts, scrapes and broken bones frequently lead to gangrene and the necessary removal of a diseased limb.

Canyon Lake resident Michelle Whitehead was struck by what she learned about Belize. Having just sold her business of five years, Temecula Valley Orthotics and Prosthetics in Murrieta, Michelle was online researching new opportunities in which she could help others when she came across the Sonrie Ministries program, Project Hope: Belize. What she discovered is that, among all else it lacks, Belize is also the only Central American country without any form of prosthetic services.

Michelle 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. She has been working in the field since 1996.

“He offered me my first opportunity and taught me what prosthetics was all about, including teaching me how to fit, cast and fabricate prosthetic devices,” says Michelle. She went on to study at California State University, Dominguez Hills, where she earned a specialized bachelor’s degree in health science with an emphasis on prosthetics and orthotics after making it through a highly selective process to be named as only one of 12 students accepted to the two-year program.

The specific goal of Project Hope: Belize, founded in 2000, is to provide prosthetic services to those most in need; it has given new hope to more than 120 patients to date. Services are offered free of charge, with all materials donated and practitioners volunteering their time as well as paying their own costs.

In addition, local Belizeans now train with the team to become technicians so that maintenance and follow-up care can be provided even when a Project Hope team is not in town. Its first permanent facility in Belize is located in the community of Orange Walk Town, also known in the local dialect – a mix of English and a type of Creole - as “Shuga Town” for its role as top sugar producer in the country.

Michelle made her first trip with Project Hope in May, and the effects of the trip were immediate and lasting. Accompanied by her husband, Chuck Whitehead, their two children Trevor and Ryan, and her mom, Margaret McCoy, this would be Michelle’s first foray to a country like Belize.
As with many countries, Belize has beautiful places to visit – the cays, the resorts, etc. We went to the ‘real’ Belize and saw how the people really live,” she recalled of her impressions. “The country is very rundown and very poor. We were told the average weekly salary was around $7 to $8 per week.”
While in Belize, Michelle spent her time building legs for a number of patients – people with diabetes, cancer patients, a teen who was electrocuted and car accident victims. The group of practitioners she traveled with included the head of Georgia Tech’s prosthetics department. She worked closely with Adrian, a local man born with no legs who helps coordinate patient services when they are in town.
“He believes he was given his disability to help inspire amputees and to teach them that through courage and faith they can do anything and their lives can still have meaning,” explains Michelle, adding that she was absolutely taken by his joy for life despite his obvious handicap.
Over the years, Michelle says she has made many different types of prosthetics for a wide variety of patients, from infants to seniors – even a horse leg – and has always felt a certain joy at having the ability to give someone an opportunity at a better life; but never more so since her return from Belize.
“I am hoping to help build more legs for as many other less fortunate people around the world as possible,” she says. “It makes you realize how lucky we are to live in such a great place and how much of an impact we, as Americans, can directly make on the lives of others. It also makes me proud that I am in a profession that can so directly change peoples’ lives.”
To find out more about Project Hope: Belize,
visit the Sonrie Ministries website at

No comments: