BREAKING NEWS COVERAGE FROM SOUTHGATE, MICHIGAN The News Herald - The Voice of DownRiver Amputee helps others; mission to Haiti sends emotions reeling by Shannon Rossi
Since 2001, Chris Casteel of Gibraltar has been working with amputees and to improve the way prosthetic limbs are manufactured.
This is a cause close to his heart — he himself uses a prosthetic limb. In 1988, Casteel lost the lower part of his left leg in a motorcycle accident.
Chris Casteel of Gibraltar worked with this earthquake victim in Haiti, who lost part of her leg.
Diana Cherry, Mission of Hope's prosthetics director in Haiti, helps a young amputee learn to walk again.
Chris Casteel of Gibraltar said this Haitian boy he met at an American Red Cross camp in Haiti was fascinated with his prosthetic leg. The boy wanted to know if Casteel could run. So the two went on a couple of jogs together during Casteel's recent visit.
“I was 24 years old and physically fit at the time,” he said. “It was difficult to face my own mortality. And to learn to rely on other people.”
Standing by him from the very beginning was his wife, Kim, to whom he had been married only a year at the time of the accident.
“We were so young at the time,” said Casteel. “The whole family dynamic changed.”
More than 20 years have passed since Casteel began using a prosthetic limb. Since then, the availability and quality of prosthetics has changed for the better.
According to Casteel, lightweight materials, such as titanium, and computerized limbs are now the norm.
“When I got my first prosthetic knee, nothing had really changed about them since the 1970s,” he said.
After receiving his master’s degree in orthotics and prosthetics from Eastern Michigan University in 2007, Casteel moved from working at the Orthotics and Prosthetics Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to Advanced Orthopedic Lab Inc. in Southfield as an orthotics resident.
When he started at the lab at U of M, he worked as a technician.
“I went from being a plant or project manager at a manufacturing job down to the bottom as a technician at the lab,” said Casteel.
From the start, he loved and took pride in his work making orthotic and prosthetic devices, and working with amputee patients.
He was even able to use some of his tool manufacturing experience to help take advantage of new techniques in the field.
Manufacturing was what he knew, but Casteel felt compelled to connect with and help the amputees who came into the lab for fittings and therapy.
He earned certification from the Amputees Coalition of America as a peer counselor.
“You have to be careful with amputees. At the beginning, they’re in a very fragile state,” Casteel said. “You don’t want to say it’s too hard or too easy.
“You have to get them involved in their own rehabilitation.”
For Casteel, part of getting fellow amputees involved included forming support groups, including one at U of M in Ann Arbor.
Since forming that first group, Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak has formed one and Casteel has begun another in his hometown of Gibraltar.
“We’ve got southeast Michigan pretty well covered,” he said. “We have lots of activities for amputees to do to get the people out and using their limbs.”
Casteel feels that losing his leg gave him a new perspective on life and more compassion toward others.
“I had to learn to do things differently,” he said. “And I understand that some of the drama in life just really isn’t important.”
When he learned about the January earthquake that rocked the Caribbean nation of Haiti, he felt compelled to find a way to help.
“I heard about the large number of amputees in Haiti,” he said. “Most of these people had their limbs amputated due to an injury or infection related to the earthquake.”
Though he hadn’t yet finished his prosthetic residency at the time of the earthquake, Casteel began planning to go.
When he first told his wife of his plans, she was a bit surprised.
“She said, ‘What are you talking about? You think you’re taking a week off to go to Haiti?’” said Casteel, with a laugh.
She came around to the idea pretty quickly, though. So once he had his wife’s support, Casteel went about dealing with all of the preparations for an international trip.
“I already had a passport, but I need my graduate school records, my certification as a technician,” he said.
“I also needed to update my shots and get ones specific to the place I was going, like malaria and typhoid.”
Before setting out for Haiti last month, Casteel raised several thousand dollars and collected items to take, including soccer balls from Play it Again Sports in Southgate and tennis shoes donated by the law firm where his wife works as a paralegal.
When he arrived in Haiti and made his way to the Mission of Hope site just north of the capital Port-au-Prince, there was some civil unrest in the country.
“We didn’t go to any of the damaged sites in the capital. We went directly from the airport to the Mission of Hope camp,” he said.
“But even six months after the earthquake, I still saw cracked walls and collapsed buildings.”
Casteel was surprised to see how far the Mission of Hope camp had come along.
“I knew they had some kind of medical establishment there. But there was also an orphanage, a couple of schools, and a church run by the local clergy on site,” he said.
“They also had a warehouse which served as a distribution point for other organizations in Haiti. I was told that 50,000 people were fed each day through that warehouse.”
For a week, from his arrival on July 17 to his departure on July 24, Casteel worked with Diana Cherry, Mission of Hope’s prosthetic director, and other orthotics and prosthetics professionals to help Haitian amputees receive new limbs.
“I worked closely with four patients that week,” said Casteel. “The patients stay at the hospital while their limbs are made and are then discharged at the end of the week.”
Of the four patients he worked with, two children and one young woman had lost their limbs in earthquake-related injuries, while one man had lost a limb in an auto accident a few years before.
Casteel also spent some time in American Red Cross camps to help amputees with physical therapy and learning to walk again.
What amazed him the most about the amputees he worked with, and the other Haitian people he met during his trip, was their spirit and their kindness, he said.
“No matter what, these people want to survive,” he said.
“They would come to the clinic at the Mission of Hope camp at 8 in the morning in their best clothes and wait for their turn all day without complaining once.”
Casteel relied on a translator during most of his trip because he spoke no Creole, the predominant language among Haitians, and his French wasn’t the best.
Still, he couldn’t help but notice the friendliness and hospitality of the Haitian people.
“They are unbelievably awesome, caring and friendly,” he said. “When the people realized why I was there they would invite me into their tents and offer me what little food they had.”
The entire week he spent in Haiti was very emotional for Casteel, who said he was moved to tears every day.
Since being back in Michigan, Casteel has been in contact with World Medical Relief to try to set up a way to get prosthetic materials to those working with amputees in Haiti.
He’d also like to go back for another week.
“I promised my wife that we would take a Caribbean vacation,” said Castel. “We could go to the Dominican Republic, which borders Haiti, for a couple of days. And then Haiti the rest of the time.
“She’s been OK with the idea so far.”
Casteel said he will never forget his time in Haiti, especially the time he spent with the patients at Mission of Hope.
“I would encourage anyone that wants to volunteer to go over and spend the week working with Mission of Hope,” he said. “It’s life-changing.”