Parallels
3:50 pm
Thu December 26, 2013

Syria's War Creates A Demand For Artificial Legs

Originally published on Fri December 27, 2013 7:53 am

In a clinic in southern Turkey, Mohammed Ibrahim helps 23-year-old Syrian Mustapha Abu Bakr take his first steps since he lost his legs, holding on to a set of bars for balance.

"He can't express his feelings," Ibrahim says. "It's a new thing completely for him."

Ibrahim explains that patients who have lost a leg below the knee can walk out of the clinic without crutches after a day of practice. For double amputees like Abu Bakr, who was injured in Syria's civil war, the adjustment takes more time.

Ibrahim, a Jordanian with hospital experience in working with amputees, recently joined the staff of this workshop, which fits wounded Syrians with new prosthetic legs.

The death toll in the Syrian conflict is generally estimated at something over 100,000. Now the International Committee of the Red Cross estimates half a million have been wounded, with many victims lacking access to basic health care and treatment. The war has also left many Syrians physically handicapped, and some have crossed into Turkey for treatment.

This clinic in Reyhanli, near the Syrian border, has fitted more than 300 patients with artificial limbs. There are more than 600 Syrians on the waiting list, with thousands more still inside Syria who have been handicapped during the war. The staff here say they can produce 50 artificial limbs a month, more when they can raise the funds.

Patients Of All Ages

The youngest patient is 12-year-old Mayssa, her leg sheared off by a shell that killed her sister. Two young men are also here for fittings: one a former cook turned rebel fighter, the other a farmer who lost his legs after he stepped on a land mine. The fitting can take up to three weeks.

When the clinic opened in February, Syrian doctors from a U.K.-based charity ordered a mass-produced prosthetic leg known as the Jaipur leg, which was developed in India and gave patients only limited mobility. Raed Al-Masri, who runs the clinic, wanted something better.

"No one has experience or expertise with artificial limbs," Masri says. "There was no big demand in Syria for this type of technology."

Over the months, the workshop team learned quickly — making improvements on the Jaipur leg, and adding a knee joint and a flexible ankle. But the artificial foot is still ordered in bulk.

There is also a cabinet full of feet that come in a range of sizes, including tiny ones for kids. Masri says many children with war wounds have been treated here, with their youngest patient just 15 months old.

For double amputee Abu Bakr, the adjustment takes time, but he's off to a good start, according to Ibrahim.

Abu Bakr gains confidence with each step. He walks until he tires. He will have to come back for more fittings as his body adjusts. He says his first walk felt weird, but he smiles at the accomplishment.

"For the past three months, I thought I would never walk again," Abu Bakr says. "Now, for the first time, I feel like I will be able to walk."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

While we're on the subject of numbers, the International Committee of the Red Cross has released a number that sheds new light on the scale of the tragedy unfolding in Syria. It estimates that half a million people have been wounded in the fighting there. And the Red Cross says many victims lack access to basic healthcare.

We have the story now of one path for Syrians who find themselves seriously injured. As NPR's Deborah Amos reports, some cross into Turkey for treatment and to be fitted for artificial limbs.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The first step to recovery begins in this clinic in Reyhanli, near the Syrian border, where more than 300 patients have been fitted for artificial limbs. There's 12-year-old Mayssa, her leg sheered off by a shell that killed her sister. Two young men are also here for fittings, one a former cook turned rebel fighter, the other a farmer who lost his legs after he stepped on a land mine. The fittings can take up to three weeks.

We are in the workshop and there are three people working at this table. They're measuring legs. They're fitting them to size.

When the clinic opened in February, Syrian doctors, from a British based charity, ordered a mass produced model known as the Jaipur leg developed in India, which gave patients only limited mobility. Raed al-Masri, who runs the clinic, wanted something better, but he says that every Syrian who worked here was learning on the job.

RAED AL-MASRI: (Through Translator) No one has an experience or expertise with artificial limbs. There was no big demand in Syria for this type of technology.

AMOS: Over the months, the workshop team did learned quickly, making improvements on the Jaipur leg - adding a knee joint, a flexible ankle. But the artificial foot is still ordered in bulk.

This is a cabinet and it has feet. These are different sizes for people who've lost their feet. There's even little tiny ones for kids. Many children, with war wounds, have been treated here, says Masri.

AL-MASRI: (Through Translator) The youngest patient was a year and three months old.

AMOS: On this day, the youngest patient is 12. There's also the cook turned rebel and the farmer. The two young men have finished the fittings. They're ready to learn to walk on their new legs. Mohammed Ibrahim, a Jordanian with hospital experience in working with amputees, recently joined the staff to train the Syrian team.

MOHAMMED IBRAHIM: And they already know, but just to improve their knowledge in the prosthesis and just to help them.

AMOS: He also helps the patients. He guides 23-year-old Mustapha Abu Bakr as he takes his first steps, holding on to a set of bars for balance.

MUSTAPHA ABU BAKR: (Foreign language spoken)

IBRAHIM: He can't express his feelings. It's a new thing. It's completely, completely new thing for himself. But I just asked him to walk. Lift. (Foreign language spoken).

AMOS: He explains that patients who have lost a leg below the knee can walk out of the clinic without crutches after the a day of practice. For double amputees, like Abu Bakr, the adjustment often takes more time.

He looks like he's doing OK.

IBRAHIM: Till now, yes. Maybe there will be some problems. But for the first look, it's very good.

AMOS: Abu Bakr gains confidence with each step. He walks until he tires. He'll have to come back for more fittings as his body adjusts. It is a weird feeling he says about his first walk in months. But he smiles at the accomplishment.

BAKR: (Through Translator) For the past three months, I thought I will never walk again. And now, for the first time, I feel like I will be able to walk.

AMOS: There are more than 600 Syrians on the waiting list for this clinic in Reyhanli, thousands more still inside Syria who have been handicapped during the war. The staff here says they can produce 50 artificial limbs a month, more when they can raise the funds.

Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.