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Clinical specialist Ryan Spill treats Haitian earthquake victims, seeks donated prosthetics

Posted at 7:00 AM, Sep 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-24 14:41:22-04

CINCINNATI -- Ryan Spill woke up early, got out of bed and made his way to the balcony of the two-story Haitian house. He thought he was prepared for what would come.

As he looked outside, he realized he had no idea.

People lined the street, waiting for professional care. Some of them had walked for miles, taking as long as 12 hours, even though they were missing limbs. 

“It was chaos,” said Spill, a 41-year-old clinical specialist and prosthetist based in Cincinnati. “We saw maybe 100 people that day, just in and out.”

Ryan Spill stands with one of the patients he helped during a trip to Haiti in 2014. Photo provided by Ryan Spill

It was October 2014, four years after Haiti had suffered through a massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and left nearly 150,000 others displaced. Medical resources were scarce. There were no physical therapists, no experts of any kind. 

The population still needed help, even four years later, and while other organizations focused on giving basic necessities like food, water and shelter, Spill and a dozen others helped in a way some may not have thought of: They provided prosthetic limbs for those in need.

Turns out there were many in need. More than 500 patients were seen in five days.

It has now been six years since the Haiti earthquake. Many are still in need.

Ryan Spill has headed back to Haiti -- and he could use some help.

‘Never seen anything like this’

Spill, a native of Pennsylvania, trained at Cincinnati’s R.J. Rosenberg Orthopedic Lab in 2001 as a resident for one year. After his residency, Spill returned to the East Coast, where he worked at institutions like MossRehab-Philadelphia and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. After his 2014 trip to Haiti, he vowed to go back.

In 2015, he returned to Cincinnati and the Rosenberg Lab. Realizing he could make an annual trip to help the Haitians, he garnered the support of the lab and will travel with an organization called Stand Up 4 Haiti. Now, the lab has redirected their fundraising efforts and will start donating directly to the nonprofit organization.

“(Stand Up 4 Haiti’s) objective is to create a sustainable clinic in rural Haiti to provide physical therapy and prosthetic services by training local Haitians to provide care and run this clinic,” Spill said. “My goal is to make this a part of my career once a year, around October, from now on.”

Spill and a group of about 15 (which will include prosthetists and physical therapists) left Sept. 23 to travel to the northern coastal town of Port de Paix, where the team will set up camp at a clinic. People will come from miles around, hours away, to see one of the specialists.

Ryan Spill treats patients in Haiti in 2014. Though it had been four years since the massive earthquake ravaged the country, there were still plenty of people in need of medical assistance. Photo provided by Ryan Spill

“These people are tough,” Spill said. “You’ll see people in their 60s and 70s, on crutches, walking for miles. They are very appreciative of the care. I get as much from them as they get from me.”

And what do they get? Physical therapy, massages, acupuncture, cupping and, yes, prosthetics -- donated from Cincinnatians -- that have been refurbished and fit specially for them. Or, in some cases, they get their own poorly fitting prosthetics repaired.

Spill will teach much of the craft to a local specialist, someone who will continue the work when he’s gone.

“It’s necessary,” he said. “I’ve traveled some internationally before and I’d seen poor places, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”

‘It changed my life’

Depending on the age, growth and activities of the wearer, prosthetics can last anywhere from several months to several years, according to experts. But it leaves patients with a problem: What to do with the old prosthetics?

Sydney Carson is a 17-year-old from Middletown who was born with a congenital defect that requires prosthetics between her knee and ankle, and between her hip and knee.

Of course, that doesn’t keep her down. She plays softball. She runs. And when she heard Ryan Spill was taking up donations of old prosthetics, she and her mom donated four sets of legs.

“It’s nice to know that people who wouldn’t be able to get these can get them and use them,” Sydney said.

Her mom, Nicole Carson, agreed.

“They’re such a specialized item,” she said. “And you kind of have to know where to donate them. But you don’t want to just throw them away. You wonder what to do with them.”

Spill has an idea for everyone: Donate your old prosthetics to him for his trip. He’ll make them useful again. 

And he’ll get a little something out of the experience, too, he said.

“It changed my life,” Spill said of his first trip. “I didn’t know what to expect. We’re all used to 55-inch, flat-screen televisions and air-conditioned vehicles. You forget about everything and really just do what you were trained to do to help.”

Want to make a donation to Stand Up 4 Haiti or to Ryan Spill? Click here to find out how.