American Volunteers Bring New Life To Amputees South Of The Border

John Reynolds (second from left), a prosthetist from Tennessee, recently returned for a medical mission to Mexico. Here, he is joined by a husband and wife who are both above-the-knee amputees and their daughter. (Photo Courtesy of John Reynolds)

John Reynolds (second from left), a prosthetist from Tennessee, recently returned for a medical mission to Mexico. Here, he is joined by a husband and wife who are both above-the-knee amputees and their daughter. (Photo Courtesy of John Reynolds)

In John Reynolds’ 40 years working with amputees, he has never seen anyone travel as far as one Mexican couple.

The pair, who each lost their left leg above the knee in separate car accidents, made the 900-plus mile trek from their home in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to a small, medical clinic in the industrial outskirts of the city of Querétaro. Hobbling along on crutches and inside cramped buses, the couple arrived in November at the clinic, where Reynolds and four other American prosthetic experts were waiting to fit them for a new leg.

“They were so appreciative of the help,” Reynolds, a 58-year-old certified prosthetist from Tennessee, told Fox News Latino.

The couple’s story is just one of hundreds from over the past 20 years, when Mexican prosthetist Arturo Vásquez began helping the victims who had lost limbs in the devastating Mexico City earthquake. Reynolds, who became involved in the work five years ago after hearing about it through a mutual friend, has taken over much of the work since Vásquez passed away earlier this year.

“He loves to serve and has a huge heart for those people he helps out in Mexico,” said Joe Huntsman, the CEO of Southern Orthocare in Middletown, Tenn., who hired Reynolds back in August. “When he approached me about the trip he was so eager that I couldn’t say no.”

Reynolds' group is part of a growing number of community-based organizations in the United States – many along the southern border – focusing on health issues in Mexico. Groups like Los Quijotes of San Antonio and California's Limbs of Freedom provide everything from free checkups and psychologic help to prosthetic limbs and eyeglasses. 

"I feel so blessed to be able to do this work," David Puckett, the head of Positive Image Prosthetics and Orthotics told the Savannah Morning News of his work in Mexico. "When I got into prosthetics and orthotics, I said to myself, 'This is what I can do to help these people.' I love seeing people crawling in and walking out. There's no greater reward than that." 

Mexico has become a hotspot for amputations as a combination of lax workplace safety standards, violence related to the country’s ongoing drug war and high rates of metabolic diseases like diabetes have all led to a rise in the loss of limbs.

For Reynolds, despite 11.9 million Mexicans being diagnosed with diabetes, the majority of the cases he sees are from traumatic accidents.

“Many of these people do manual labor or work in places that don’t properly look after their workers,” he said, adding that “car accidents are also a major issue.”

Knowing that time is of the essence when they are in Mexico, Reynolds and staff run their operation as part-army triage unit, part-rehabilitation center. Normally arriving on a Sunday, the prosthetists will meet with patients on Monday, prepare about 12 prosthetic limbs on Tuesday, fit them on the patients from Wednesday to Friday and be on a flight back to the U.S. on Saturday.

The process of making a prosthetic limb normally can take up to a few months, but Reynolds and company are able to speed to process up by reviewing each case by email before they arrive in Mexico.

“Time is very tight but we get it all done,” Reynolds said. “The toughest day is Tuesday, when we’re trying to fabricate of the limbs for each patient.”

Besides the difference in the speed in which they make the prosthetic limbs, another difference between what Reynolds does in Mexico and receiving a prosthetic limb in the U.S. is the cost.

Because of the varying degrees of technology and materials used to make the new limbs, a new prosthetic leg in the U.S. can run anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, while a new arm can cost from $3,000 to $30,000. For the group’s work in Querétaro, Reynolds and crew receive as little as $50 and sometimes the patients can’t even afford that.

Many of the prosthetic limbs are donated by patients in the U.S. who have received new ones and have dropped their old arms and legs at Southern Orthocare, where Reynolds and staff make sure they are good to be fit on someone else. Used prosthetic limbs and limb components cannot be reused in the United States.

“As a company, it really is part of our core values to go out and serve people,” Huntsman said. “It’s great to see how we can help people out that need it in other parts of the world.”

The need in Mexico is great, said Reynolds, as many of the patients they see have their prosthetic limbs held together by everything from tape and shoelaces to barbwire. Many of them – either because they don’t have health insurance or don’t have access to facilities that can perform a replacement – simply give up using their old limbs as they become dilapidated to serve any purpose.

The man from the Yucatán who had traveled almost a thousand miles to Querétaro with his wife, lost his left leg eight years ago and had given up his old prosthetic. To his wife, Reynolds’ trip gave her the opportunity to put a prosthetic on her leg for the first time.

“The husband picked up the new leg like he was riding a bike again, it was easy,” Reynolds said. “The wife, however, just watched at first and had more trouble getting used to the new prosthetic leg.”

The couple will receive more rehabilitation once they return to their home in the Yucatán.

While it’s only been a little over a month since he returned from Mexico, Reynolds is already gathering materials for his next trip to visit a country and a group of people who have touched his heart.

“The people are unbelievable,” he said. “They are so happy for what we are doing.”

Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.

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