Surgeon offers hope to Afghan amputees
Eight-year-old Mohammed Rafiq was walking through a farmer's field when an explosive detonated beneath his feet, taking both of his legs.
American military physicians at a nearby U.S. Army post took care of his wounds so he would live and were not expected to do more.
Aid organizations for the disabled did not go to Zharai district because the traditional Taliban stronghold was mined heavily with improvised explosive devices. The boy was now disabled, and in his remote village, it likely meant a lifetime of confinement at home or begging on the streets.
That didn't seem right to Maj. Brian Egloff, an Army surgeon who had read about prosthetic legs in Africa made from available materials.
"Since we couldn't get a supply of commercially made legs, we decided that maybe we could make them ourselves," Egloff says.
Using scrap tubing and some ingenuity, Egloff fitted Rafiq with small prosthetic legs. Rafiq was now able to get around the village, and Afghans say his story provides hope to thousands of amputees who were victims of some of the more than 10 million improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that the Afghan Interior Ministry estimates have been buried by the Taliban all over the country.
"It's particularly difficult for Afghans. Society and the government think that they can't work. They have no confidence in the disabled," says Haji Bashir Ahmed, who was made a paraplegic from a bomb blast five years ago and now heads the Afghan Disabled Rehabilitation Association in Kandahar.
Egloff did not end his work with Rafiq. He knew there must be other amputees living in the area around Forward Operating Pasab in Kandahar province.
Soldiers on patrol had noticed "a lot of guys with amputations that had no prosthetic legs and were reduced to crawling around on the ground and relying on the charity of strangers just to get by," he says.
Afghans heard about what was done for Rafiq and asked for help for others. Egloff made the legs from material readily available in any welding shop, he says, mostly scrap aluminum tubing for the legs and aluminum plates for the prosthetic feet. A spring-loaded hinge served as the ankle joint.
"It's a very simple design, nothing complicated," he says.
His devices were designed to act as a temporary leg until a person could get a professionally fitted prosthetic, but getting to a provincial capital, where most hospitals are located, is not easy for many Afghans and the routes are dangerous, full of IEDs and Taliban.
"The minefields keep the people captive here," Egloff says. "They might want to seek help in Kandahar city, but when they do, in a way they are risking their lives to get that help."
An estimated 9,000 people who are missing one or both legs live in this rural Zharai district, where the vast majority of people rely on farming and other physically demanding labor to survive, Ahmed says.
Mohammed Ibrahim, 29, lost his right leg five years ago when he stepped on an IED and was waiting for an Egloff artificial replacement.
"The Taliban bombs took my leg," he says matter-of-factly, maintaining he "can do anything a man with two legs can."
Ahmed praised the military's program but said it would be a challenge to help everyone in need considering the number of buried explosives in Kandahar alone. Land mines dating back decades to the Soviet invasion are still being discovered, and new IEDs are planted every day by the Taliban.
Egloff and the rest of the 10th Mountain, 3rd Brigade, planned to turn their workshop over to local Afghan welders to make the next generation of artificial limbs.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brian Terry, a welder who conceived the first design of the military-made prosthetic, was pleased with the first trainee.
"We didn't know how well this (Afghan) welder would work," says Terry from a shop that repairs armored vehicles and does other projects. "But he surprised us by coming back the next day with an exact replica."
In addition to the training, the military financed the creation of a small storefront in a nearby bazaar where the legs will be distributed. On opening day, several Afghans with disabilities lined up to see the new prosthetics.
"We hope the shop will raise awareness to this area," Egloff says.
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