Local BBC Sites

Page last updated at 17:06 GMT, Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Haiti: The man who makes legs dance again
By Helen Burchell
BBC Cambridgeshire

David Young working with victims of the earthquake in Haiti
David Young working with earthquake survivors in makeshift hospital tents

One month after the Haiti earthquake, physiotherapist David Young left the UK to work with victims of the disaster.

BBC Cambridgeshire spoke to him the day after he returned, hearing first-hand about the levels of devastation and personal injury in the country.

He spent three weeks helping people with various injuries to gain mobility and a degree of independence.

David said: "That sense of achievement is so vital for them considering what they have been through."

David's first impression of Haiti was of the incredible amount of devastation he saw during the drive from the airport, the evening he arrived.

"There were fallen buildings and still a lot of people out on the streets, displaced - they had nowhere to go.

David Young working with victims of the earthquake in Haiti
This young woman lost both of her feet in the Haiti earthquake

"I'd prepared for the absolute worst to be honest. I'd seen it on the television, with all the chaos in the streets so I'd totally prepared for that. I'd prepared for eating rationed food, living in a tent but in fact the situation was a lot more stable than that.

"There was food coming in from across the border and people were generally getting what they needed. So, I'd prepared for the worst but in fact it was a lot better than that."

Hospital tents

David had volunteered his services to Cambridge-based disability charity, CBM, as soon as news of the earthquake hit the television screens on 12 January 2010.

It was four weeks before he was able to go, but, as a physiotherapist, David knew that he would be better able to assist after the initial rescue work had taken place.

"Before that, people were still undergoing operations so rehab can't begin until a bit later down the line," he said.

"In the earlier stages, people were being treated on makeshift beds in the open air, probably with non-sterile instruments, so the risk of infection was huge, but by the time I arrived there were 'hospitals' with nurses and doctors who could prescribe medication."

David worked with volunteers from CBM and their partner organisations, together with ex-pat and local Haitian medical staff, across three hospitals and in community clinics.

David Young working with victims of the earthquake in Haiti
Many patients had been immobile for weeks following the quake

"Almost exclusively these wards were set up in tents, provided by the various aid agencies working there," he explained. "They set up the tents with beds and drip stands.

"One hospital I worked in had been completely constructed from tents set up on a tennis court in Port-au-Prince."

During his final week in Haiti, David worked away from the hospitals, in community programmes offering therapy and advice.

"We were also visiting people in their homes - well, what used to be their homes. I did sometimes have to clamber over fallen buildings to get to those people living in makeshift tents or tarpaulin-covered shelters."

Gangrenous toe

David and his medical colleagues saw huge numbers of amputees, patients with fractures and people with spinal cord injuries.

"There were also many people with injuries that hadn't been thought serious enough to warrant hospital treatment at the time, but who now needed rehabilitation and exercises or even things as simple as crutches or walking sticks to help them to get around.

"These were people who had not been moving their limbs, not doing any exercise whatsoever - who could have been.

"This was four or six weeks after the earthquake so these people were at high risk of developing further complications. I was able to get them moving again and of course, that has huge knock-on effects.

"A large part of my job was to check for signs of infection," he continued, "and to educate people about looking for signs of infection in order to prevent sepsis and severe disability.

"I saw one 12-year-old boy who had a severely infected toe. He was in the community and had not been to a hospital for weeks.

I felt that it either was gangrenous or that it was very soon to be - and that can be potentially fatal. I referred him to the hospital where he would either be treated with antibiotics, or possibly amputation."

'Breathtaking' smile

Another patient David worked with was a woman with a broken leg.

"She had become very, very anxious and had refused to get out of bed because she just didn't know how she was going to walk again," said David.

"She had been separated from her husband and her four-month-old child when she had been transferred from a different hospital.

"Just by talking to us, she had a bit of belief and within five minutes she was walking with us, and the smile that she had on her face was just breathtaking.

"And of course that fed through to the other patients on the ward because they thought 'if she can do it, then so can I' and it's a great thing to see."

David has many other heart-warming stories about his work in Haiti. The little girl photographed on this page with David is a five-year-old whose left leg had been partly amputated because it was so severely crushed in the earthquake.

David had been working to help her exercise the limb and walk with the aid of crutches. Through an interpreter, she told David that she could now "feel my leg dancing again".


David's own faith has always played a pivotal role in decisions he has made in his life. But did he ever question that, in the face of such devastation and personal loss?

David Young working with victims of the earthquake in Haiti
This little girl said she could feel her leg 'dancing' again

"My faith has not been shaken at all by this. In fact, it's been strengthened, and I think the more that we can help each other, and move alongside each other, the better we'll be.

"I feel as though God was certainly present there. I think the response of people like myself and all the charities that have gone over there - that compassion, I think, is God, I really do.

"The love that you can give somebody or the care you can give, I believe is a character trait of God."


David, and other volunteers like him have given a great deal to help the people of Haiti. But, what did he get in return, if anything?

"I feel so grateful for my family and my friends," he told us.

"I saw people who had lost everything, literally.

"They'd lost their house, their business, and most importantly, they'd lost their family... you just can't comprehend what it's like for that person.

"Yes, I'm so thankful myself for what I have, but I also feel that the work I can do doesn't stop here.

"I really feel that it's my duty to keep it in the forefront of people's minds and to help them see how they can help the Haitians - either professionally or otherwise."

Now that he has returned to the UK, and to his job as a physiotherapist at Poole Hospital in Dorset, David has pledged to continue raising awareness and funds for those affected by the Haiti quake.

"The three weeks that I spent in the country is just a drop in the ocean compared to the decade or so of help that these people are going to need," he admitted.

I feel so grateful for my family and my friends. I saw people who had lost everything, literally
David Young

His work will be continued by a number of other therapists who will, like David, spend their own time and money travelling to Haiti to help in whatever way they are needed.

On the day that David left Port-au-Prince, four other medical staff were due to arrive, so his work will be continued.

"People can only be there for a limited time and we're hoping it will sustain itself. I'm very confident that there will be enough volunteers to sustain that work. Plus, CBM's work will continue. It's been going on for over 30 years and it's going to continue for a lot longer."


David also spoke to BBC Cambridgeshire before he left for Haiti. You can read more about what inspired him here:

Haiti: Shattered lives and limbs
09 Feb 10 |  People & Places
Haiti: Trafficking the children
03 Feb 10 |  People & Places
Haiti: Cambridge SOS rescue bid
20 Jan 10 |  People & Places
Country profile: Haiti
17 Oct 12 |  Country profiles



Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific