Five days after the devastating earthquake shattered the lives and homes of millions of people in Haiti, 10–year–old Laila and her mother Agathe were helped out of Haiti by US Embassy staff and arrived in Atlanta.
Though born in New York, Laila had lived most of her life in Haiti. She was born while her mother was on vacation in the States. There, six months into her pregnancy, she began having complications. Five days later, in a hospital in Queens, Laila arrived, weighing barely 1½ pounds. Nothing seemed to be internally wrong with Laila, and once stabilized, Agathe returned with her to her home in Port-au-Prince. It was only a year later that Agathe noticed Laila was missing key developmental milestones. Laila was diagnosed with spastic quadriplegia.
Growing up in Haiti with cerebral palsy is not easy. In Haiti, clinical knowledge is often trumped by traditional beliefs that view disability as punishment for former bad deeds. As a result, people with disabilities are often isolated from society. Additionally, a herbal cure may be the preferred form of treatment over long-term rehabilitation. Adequate medical care and equipment are hard to access because of the country’s stifling poverty. So the prospects for a Haitian with cerebral palsy are dismal. Laila was fortunate to be born into a loving and understanding home, nurtured by a mother who wanted the best for her daughter.
Laila in her Rifton Prone Stander – standing for the first time!
Laila owned one wheelchair, her primary means of mobility, and a pair of AFOs. The wheelchair stayed in school during the week, so her mother made up the difference by carrying Laila wherever she needed to go in their two–story home. During the week, Laila went to the local school and – being a bright and eager child – did well in her classes.
Since the school did not offer special services, Laila went three times a week to a therapist hired by her family. The therapy sessions were uneventful and primarily involved stretching her tight muscles. This was frustrating for Agathe as she believed her child wanted and was capable of participating in more challenging activities. But then the course of their lives took a very sudden turn.
On January 12 at 5:00pm, Agathe and Laila were on the second story of their house when the ground began to shake violently. Agathe picked up Laila and grabbed a few essential items as they ran outside. Their house collapsed shortly afterwards. They lost many friends and relatives and spent the next days in the streets of Port-au-Prince trying to survive, and sleeping in their car, until they were allowed to leave Haiti for the United States.
Karen Reeves, Laila's PT, assists her with ambulation in the Rifton Pacer.
The heartbreak will never go away for Agathe and Laila. There is nothing left for them in Haiti, and it is painful to be wrenched away so suddenly from everything familiar. They will always mourn the many losses their country suffered, so far removed from most of us. But they bravely go on.
Laila now attends the fourth grade at Avery Elementary in Georgia. Within days of her arrival, Laila’s newly-designated PT, Karen Reeves, had contacted Rifton to tell us about Laila’s situation. The hearts of Rifton’s factory production team went out to Laila and they quickly set about providing her with a Pacer gait trainer and Prone Stander. With the help of this equipment she now has the opportunity to be upright and walk, and work towards independence – a chance she never had before. Karen Reeves describes Laila’s first experience in the walker saying, "she flew!" And Laila, with her big smile continues to warm hearts with her perseverance and hope.
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