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Saturday, September 25, 2010

its all coming full circle now

The day I gave Guerline a new arm was the day I realized that things really do happen for a reason—even things that seem horrible when you’re going through them.  I’m not talking about Guerline losing her arm happening for a reason.  Maybe it did, but that’s her story to tell.   I’m talking about my story… the path that brought me to Guerline. 
I’m not a doctor.  I was going to be once (and maybe one day I still will be).  It was my plan my entire life. But, as fate would have it, life had different plans for me than I had for life.   
After 9 months of studying for the MCAT’s, I needed a day off, so I went horseback riding.   For a few brief passes through a wide-open field I was able to forget about how I “had” to pass this exam so that I could become a doctor-so that I could help people, so that I could make a difference. 
That’s when it happened—in slow motion.  As I took off for one last race across the grassy meadow, I felt the excitement in the air.  And then I felt myself flying through it.  And then the pain came.  There were ligament tears and there were broken bones.  And there were shattered dreams of medical school.  There was no way I would recover in time to take the very last MCAT exam that year.
I went through all the stages of grief.  I was shocked and in denial, and then I was filled with anguish and guilt for doing something so reckless at such an important time. 
But I worked through the pain, both physical and mental.  Eventually I didn’t need the crutches, the braces or the constant visits to physical therapists.   As my physical wounds healed, so did my emotional ones.   
As I sat staring at all of my orthopedic equipment, sitting in my closet after I was finished using it, reminding me of everything I lost, I started laughing.  “It’s ironic.  Immobile mobility devices” I said aloud, even though nobody could hear me.   Suddenly, instead of questioning, “Why did this happen to me?” I was questioning something completely different:  “If the purpose of crutches, braces, walkers and wheelchairs is to provide mobility, then why do so many sit idle- in closets, basements, or worse- in landfills?”
I decided that I would not just let my used equipment go to waste…at the very least somebody else was going to benefit from me having been hurt.  And so began a chain of events that changed everything. Again. 
I went online and looked for a place to donate all of the perfectly usable equipment that I didn’t want to have to see anymore sitting idle in my closet.  All I wanted was to give it all away, because as soon as it was out of my life, I thought I could move on and get back on my path to medical school. 
My goal was to find an organization that would not only take my equipment but one that I could connect with the non-profit health clinic where I was volunteering, with the hope that the clinic could obtain a sustainable supply of equipment for their uninsured/underinsured patients.  But I couldn’t find anybody to take my crutches or my braces.  I couldn’t find a single organization in Atlanta that was willing to take any orthopedic equipment from me (or anybody else) and redistribute it to others in need.    I called the big name organizations that we all donate to when we have things we don’t need.  They told me they throw away medical equipment because of the liability.  They told me to find somewhere else.   The problem was there was nowhere else.
I was shocked.  How could this be?  I had volunteered in a clinic where countless patients came in, uninsured, and couldn’t afford the crutches they needed to walk.  I had seen old ladies who couldn’t get a walker because they didn’t have the money.  I witnessed innocent gunshot victims who couldn’t get a new leg because they cost $10,000 or more. 
Here I was, with items that so many people needed and there was no bridge to connect us.  It made no sense.  A solution was needed.   
I found a group in Canada that collected and distributed orthopedic equipment.  I’m not sure why, but at this point I was obsessed with this problem.  So I flew up to Canada to talk to them, and to see what could be done to fix this problem in America.   I didn’t really think I would be the one to fix it.  I was young, and na├»ve, and thought that I’d find somebody else who would fix it… while I went to medical school. 
On the flight home from Canada I realized I had a decision to make.
Somehow I now had this knowledge that there was this major problem in America.  It was a problem that DID have a solution, but in order to have a solution, it took someone who was willing to create a solution.  This problem was going to require someone with a business background coupled with an unyielding passion for helping others through orthopedic equipment.  I could not think of anyone who fit this description, other than me.    However, the only problem was that I did not want to tackle this; I wanted to go to medical school.  So I asked myself… “If I go to medical school, will I be able to live with the fact that I didn’t try to fix this first?”
I was 24 years old.   I wanted to be a doctor.  I didn’t WANT to find a way to get used orthopedic equipment to underprivileged people.  I didn’t have any idea HOW to give used orthopedic equipment to underprivileged people.  But I knew that ethically, and morally, there was only one choice that I could make.  The right thing to do was to figure out a way to connect those who had this equipment that had no value to them with those who needed it.    One man’s junk is another man’s treasure, right?  If you’re talking about arms and legs, it definitely is. 
Embraced started with absolutely no money, and one bin collecting used equipment at a doctor’s office.  Patients would come in for their appointment and be asked to donate what they didn’t need any longer on the way out. 
I was shocked when, two days later the bin was full.  Beginners luck, right?  I emptied it, took the equipment home and set it back out.  Two more days, another full bin. 
I never thought I’d live in a condo that was filled with prosthetic arms, plastic legs, wheelchairs, and countless other orthopedic devices; but a few months later, my neighbors were giving me really strange looks because I was the freaky neighbor that did.  I won’t even tell you how this impacted my dating life. 
Embraced partnered with the clinic in Atlanta that I used to volunteer at and another organization that distributes medical aides to developing nations.   Together, we are able to distribute the collected items to people who really needed it. 
None of it has been easy, but all of it has been entirely rewarding.  Starting a non-profit with no money is a lot harder than most people would expect.  It turns out that it makes grantors a little nervous to fund  a brand new organization run by a twenty-something year old.  
But two years, 45 collection bins, countless hours and 1500 pieces of equipment redistributed later, there are so many stories of people Embraced has helped.  There is a man in Ecuador who had polio and needed crutches to walk--  Embraced gave him the crutches.  There was the boy in Atlanta who was shot when he was 18 months old, and at 17 years old still needed countless pieces of equipment just so he could live a semi-normal life—Embraced gave him the equipment. 
And there was Guerline, a 33-year-old Haitian woman who spent two days trapped beneath earthquake rubble before she lost her arm.   The type of amputation she needed was so rare that the prosthetic arm she needed cost $51,000.  When she came to Embraced and asked for help, I was, against all odds, able to say “yes, we can help you.  And yes, we will help you.” 
I’m not a doctor.  I wanted to be.  I still want to be.  But sometimes life has other plans. 
I never thought I’d look back at my personal accident and be happy I fell off of a horse, had my body broken, and had my dreams put on hold.   I never thought I’d meet Guerline, let alone be able to give her a second arm.  It turns out that being a doctor isn’t necessarily my only path to helping people, even if I always thought it would be.  I never thought I’d say that.  


http://www.cbsatlanta.com/positively-georgia/index.html