Image Courtesy Official U.S. Navy Imagery

ACAJUTLA, El Salvador (July 18, 2011) Lt. Erinn Gelakoska, from St. Louis, fist bumps a Salvadoran child who just received a new wheelchair during a Continuing Promise 2011 community service medical event at the Polideportivo medical site. Continuing Promise is a five-month humanitarian assistance mission to the Caribbean and Central and South America. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jonathen E. Davis/Released)

Image Courtesy Official U.S. Navy Imagery

The Wheelchair Foundation goes aboard the USNS COMFORT on a five-month assistance mission to the Caribbean, Central and South America.

It is only through the charitable giving of our generous donors that the Wheelchair Foundation, as a non-profit and non-governmental organization (NGO), is able to actively participate in such globally-beneficial humanitarian projects as the United States Navy’s Continuing Promise assistance mission. Over the next five months, military and civilian medical personnel aboard the Military Sealift Command’s vessel USNS COMFORT will be providing medical, dental, and veterinary care to nine partner nations in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

We recently received news from Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Stancil, NGO Coordinator for Continuing Promise 2011, regarding the hospital ship’s latest deployment activities, which included the distribution of wheelchairs at their first stop in the country of Jamaica. In his update, he shares the highlights of the journey thus far, with several incredible stories about the lives of our wheelchair recipients.

“Michael is a nine year old Jamaican boy being cared for by his grandmother. He lives with his mother and two younger siblings, but because of slow development, he is considered an outcast and seems to be shunned by his mother. His grandmother was dragging him in by the hand and he was trying to keep up on his tiptoes. Her immediate question to me was, ‘Can I have a wheelchair for my grandson? My boy here, he can’t walk.’ I sat down and talked to Michael and noticed immediately he was different. He was very thin and short for his age. His younger siblings were taller and had healthier appetites. When I asked his name, he put his hands over his ears as if I was talking too loud. The sounds he would make were not words and he couldn’t sit still nor pay attention. As I began to talk to grandma, she told me he was born prematurely and early childhood development was slow. He was blind in his right eye and could not communicate verbally. The mother did not know his diagnosis, but MR or mild CP could have left him mentally and physically challenged. His physical disability, according to his grandmother, was that his long bones were not growing correctly and doctors had performed a surgery to help lengthen them. In the meantime, his Achilles tendons couldn’t keep up and remained shortened, causing him to tip toe permanently. The reason his grandmother was dragging him in was because he couldn’t walk properly. The child had poor gait balance, and would topple over if he had to walk more than a few feet without support. Michael needed a wheelchair. I’m not sure if he really understood the concept, but he did like the color. RED! Once he was in the chair, he would bounce up and down with excitement, wanting someone to push him everywhere.

“A gentleman approached me in a wheelchair, asking for assistance. He reported that he suffered epilepsy, and after going in for a surgical procedure six years ago, he came out paralyzed from the waist down. He was given a wheelchair at the hospital, but it was not fitted correctly. The 60 year old gentleman couldn’t have weighed more than 130 lbs, but he was given a wheelchair for an obese patient. He had been confined to his living room because the wheelchair he was given didn’t fit through any of the doors. Every time he wanted to go to the bathroom, or in and out of the house, someone would have to pick him up, fold up the wheelchair, take him through the doorway, and place him back in the wheelchair after passing through. The long process confined him to his house for many years. I swapped his wheelchair for one that fit, and he is now more mobile than ever! He was so happy for his new chair and you could see the excitement in his eyes.

“A 68 year old man had been robbed and brutally attacked many years ago. He was beaten to the ground, kicked and stomped on, fracturing his ribs and spine in multiple locations. He was never seen by medical personnel, and his bones healed incorrectly, leaving him with permanent back pain and causing great difficulty with ambulation. He used his daughter as a crutch, and even then he could only walk a few feet before needing to rest. Giving him a cane was a viable option, but that would not enable him to travel the long distances needed in order to be active in his community. He did not drive, and everything he needed to get to was a good distance away. When I provided him with a wheelchair, it brought tears to his eyes. He stated that he would never have been able to afford one, but now he hopes he will be able to live a happier life.”

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from the USNS COMFORT and Continuing Promise 2011!

Rotarians from District 7670, including 4 generations of District governors, traveled to Leon and Chinandega, Nicaragua in November 2009 to distribute 260 wheelchairs they had sponsored. Frank Dean, who is District Governor elect, and a most enthusiastic supporter, said it all: “I love it when a plan comes together.” It did!