By Terrence McCoy
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A nurse comes to clean Jean-Uber. Wilfrid steps away from the truck driver's bed, then leans in again. "I will be back," he says.
As Wilfrid leaves the ICU, Jean-Uber sits up on his elbow and watches him go, one foot after the other.
Thok. Thok. Thok. The hollow plastic thud echoes over the small courtyard of Bernard Mevs on a quiet Sunday morning. Patients in wheelchairs and visiting family members look up to locate the unnatural sound: perhaps the first time it's ever been heard in Haiti.
Thok! Thok! Thok! Something flies by in a blur of white T-shirt, dark skin, and metal joints.
"Into the pits!" yells a fierce-looking white man in a military cap and Ray-Bans. He waves his arms like a NASCAR crewman. "Into the pits!"
The blur comes to a stop and into focus: Wilfrid Macena, once a cripple, has been sprinting — fast. Sweat pours from his closely shaved head and down his face. His powerful thighs peek from beneath black shorts. But where his leg once was, there is a futuristic running apparatus shaped like an upside-down question mark and worth $50,000.
Adam Finnieston, the Ray-Ban-wearing Miami orthotist, examines Wilfrid's new leg. With a wrench, he adjusts the metal knee joint. Then he asks Wilfrid to try again. The young Haitian sprints into the distance, his plastic foot again scraping the pavement. Finnieston still isn't satisfied.
"He's swinging his leg side to side too much," Finnieston scowls. A thunk like that of a mortar being fired sounds when Wilfrid pops the artificial limb off his thigh and hands it to Finnieston, who adjusts it again.
Wilfrid has come a mighty distance since arriving at Project Medishare's field hospital nearly 14 months prior. Finnieston gave him his first artificial leg: a much cruder prosthetic that initially hurt his still-healing stump. Within half an hour, however, Wilfrid began nudging a soccer ball with his prosthetic and smiling. Doctors were stunned.
"It's just not normal," remembers physical therapist Jason Miller, a powerfully built but gentle-voiced Texan. "When most Haitians learn that they are going to lose their leg, they say that their life is over. But Wilfrid didn't even want to cover his [prosthetic] leg."
After watching Wilfrid boldly walk around the hospital on his new prosthetic, Miller had an idea. He asked him to speak with a 9-year-old boy named Magory whose leg had been badly crushed in the earthquake. For four days, doctors had tried to convince the boy to let them amputate, but he refused.
Wilfrid pulled his jeans over his new leg and walked to Magory's bed. "Do you want to live?" he asked Magory. "Because if you do, you must give up your leg."
"But you have both your legs!"
Wilfrid slowly walked away across the hard earth of the field hospital, then doubled back.
"Do you see me walk?" he asked, lifting his pants to reveal the metal underneath. "You said I have both legs, but I don't. Yet I can still walk, and so will you."
The boy decided then and there that he wanted an amputation. Project Medishare hired Wilfrid later that day.
After Medishare moved into Bernard Mevs, a small prosthetics lab was built on top of the pastel orange-and-green hospital. Here, Wilfrid sits after testing out his new sprinting leg, surrounded by the phantom limbs of Haiti's amputee children. He cuts sheets of dense, hard plastic into precise squares, then drills holes in them to create artificial knee joints.
Wilfrid is now a prosthetic technician. "I lost a leg, and I got another one for free," he says with a smile. "That doesn't happen often in Haiti." Indeed, on this island, there are no wheelchair ramps, elevators, or disability benefits. "In Haiti, the handicapped consider themselves unimportant," he says. "I show them that they are still alive."
Wilfrid has become the small hospital's ever-smiling talisman. When President Michel Martelly and hip-hop star Wyclef Jean visited the hospital this past May, Wilfrid met them draped in a Haitian flag and proudly sporting his high-tech sprinting leg. He even started an all-amputee soccer team called the Zaryen, or tarantulas, named for the metal crutches they use during games.
But this is Haiti, where even success stories are endlessly complicated. Eighteen months after the earthquake, Wilfrid, Simone, and Wilflamson still live in an igloo-sized tent under almond and avocado trees. Green AstroTurf lines the floor, and a ceramic elephant sits atop a tiny, ancient television. A single light bulb flickers whenever a neighbor turns on his welding torch.
"I can run. I can play soccer. I can drive. I can do anything," Wilfrid says, climbing into his sky-blue Honda Civic. Simone is pregnant with their second child, and Wilfrid hopes to run in the Paraolympic Games in London next year. "I wouldn't trade my life for what it was before the earthquake," he adds, firing up the engine and donning dark sunglasses. "It's better now."
Just as the earthquake wounded Wilfrid, it also crippled his country. And like Wilfrid, Haiti could ultimately emerge stronger than before the catastrophe. Although the quake destroyed infrastructure, including hospitals, it reminded the world of the Caribbean nation's plight. Foreign countries quickly pledged $11 billion in aid. The French government promised $50 million to renovate General Hospital.