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New Limbs for Sri Lanka's Amputees

By Laura Sheahen

It was a wartime romance with a twist: two young people, both injured during a conflict, both living in a camp for displaced people. Louis, 24, had lost both legs. Jesuda, also 24, was a shelling victim and had a broken thighbone. One of Louis' artificial legs was lost during six abrupt moves from place to place to avoid the fighting. Jesuda had a metal plate in her leg and had to be carried.

Louis with center manager

Louis and the center's manager discuss his new leg. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Spending days together in the displacement camp as Sri Lanka's civil war ended, the couple grew closer. "I fell in love with her," Louis says simply. Despite the obstacles facing them, they decided to marry.

Louis and Jesuda are out of the camp now and have returned home. The war ended in mid-2009, leaving many hopeful that a lasting peace is ahead. But the war's legacies remain. Thousands of amputees in Sri Lanka need medical care and prosthetic limbs. As the country struggles to help its wounded, Catholic Relief Services' local partner, Caritas Mannar (also known as Valvuthayam), is serving people who would be confined to wheelchairs—or beds—if not for artificial limbs.

Louis is visiting the Caritas Center for the Disabled to be measured for new legs. He talks about trying on his first ones two years ago. "At first I was worried I would fall. It took getting used to," he says. "After two months, I was steady."

It will take a week to craft the legs to Louis' measurements and fit them. "It will be more stable," says Louis.

Nearby, 29-year-old Dhushanthan talks with staff about replacing his right leg, which Caritas gave him in 2004. For six years prior to that, he was in a wheelchair because his left leg was severely wounded, though not amputated. Artificial limbs are normally changed every two years for adults, but the war disrupted that schedule.

Better Technology for Better Limbs

The center is busy: As more patients arrive for consultations, staff members work with plaster of Paris to make molds. Standing beside a large picture of Mother Teresa, a technician drills a hole in an artificial leg. Nearby, construction workers hammer the walls of the center's new wing, a workshop that will provide polypropylene limbs. "This kind of limb will be more comfortable for patients," says Kugan Sivakugan, a consultant from the prosthetics and orthotics group Motivation. Kugan is helping upgrade the center's technology with support from CRS.

The new workshop will have equipment to determine what kind of device amputees need. It will also have grinding and assembly equipment, and a fitting room with a special vacuum. The suction provides a better fit, which is important so patients don't suffer secondary complications.

Learning to Walk Again

Kugan and the center manager, Peter Sinclair, go over specs for the center's new gait-training course, a kind of obstacle course that teaches amputees how to navigate difficult terrain with their new limbs. There are slopes, muddy spots, a sandy area and even a wobbly hanging bridge. "When they can walk here, they can manage anywhere," says Kugan.

People who lost their limbs during Sri Lanka's civil war

People who lost their limbs during Sri Lanka's long civil war receive prosthetics, gait training and more from Valvuthayam (Caritas Mannar). Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Some of the center's patients are women and children. Kugan says the fitting and gait-training process is difficult with children "because they can't tell us how it hurts. We have to take time to identify the exact place where the problem is."

For adults, overcoming psychological barriers is almost as hard as the gait-training course. "After the amputation, they feel separated from their family and community," says Kugan. "They think they've lost their whole life, but they haven't."

A Future of Independence

The center encourages parents not to keep their amputee children out of school, and links adults to work opportunities. "If I see an amputee with no job, I recommend them to some shops," says Kugan.

Louis now speaks of running a grocery store. He wants to earn money because his wife Jesuda is expecting.

The center, one of very few that provide prosthetics for a remote region, offers a fresh start to hundreds of people in need. "They're independent and happy," says Kugan. "When they come here, they come on crutches. When they go out, they're walking."

Laura Sheahen is CRS' regional information officer for Asia. She is based in Cambodia.

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