One Doctor’s Mission to Empower Haitians With Mobility Disabilities

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Dr. Sophia Laine  and  a patient smiling during therapy
Dr. Sophia Laine with a patient during therapy
Marc Lee Steed for USAID
Physical therapy, material support put patients on the road to autonomy
“It was the best decision.”

September 2018 — FOND-DES-BLANCS, Haiti — The sun had just risen as Rosette Lubin arrived at the small yet busy St. Boniface Hospital. Dr. Sophia Laine, the head physical therapist at the hospital’s Spinal Cord Injury Center, welcomed the octogenarian and helped her into a wheelchair.

Six days a week, Laine provides routine care to inpatients and outpatients just like Lubin. The patients receive care twice each day, in the morning and afternoon. In addition, once a week, together with a social worker, nurse and biomedical equipment technician, she visits patients in their homes to provide additional medical, psychosocial and material support. Laine ensures patients have the basics necessary to live as normal a life as possible and provides them literature, tips and exercises. Sometimes she even helps to arrange adjustments to the home such as a wider door or a ramp for a wheelchair (see related story).

St. Boniface Hospital is the largest full-service, fully accessible hospital in southern Haiti. Located in rural Fond-des-Blancs, the facility’s high-quality medical care serves 300,000 patients annually. In response to an increase in post-2010 earthquake injuries, USAID supported the establishment of the Spinal Cord Injury Center at St. Boniface, which provides inpatient rehabilitation and an outpatient support system for over 100 persons with paralysis and other mobility disabilities.

Laine’s passion for working with people with disabilities started when she was 11 and met a girl in her school with a handicap.

“Nobody wanted to play with her, and she never wanted to join us at recess either,” said Laine. “I told my mom I wanted to be a doctor for kokobe, the Haitian term for people with disabilities.” Her mother responded that no such doctors existed.

Years later, Laine enrolled in college to become a dentist — until she learned about physical therapy. The role is considered so mentally taxing, she was even referred to the head of the physical therapy department to ensure she was emotionally prepared for this career path.

Once Laine started the program, she faced opposition from her father, who feared there would be few job opportunities for her in Haiti. However, the need for physical therapists in Haiti has grown due to the many severe injuries suffered during natural disasters such as the catastrophic January 2010 earthquake and recent hurricanes. 

Like so many developing countries, Haiti suffers from brain drain. Yet, this young doctor made the choice to return home after studying for six years in the Dominican Republic. She was one of the few certified physical therapists in the country. With only 25 specialists at the time and a growing need following the earthquake, she heard from a friend about a job opportunity in a small town she had never heard of — Fond-des-Blancs, in southern Haiti.

“It was the best decision,” says Laine.

Sophia Laine provides more than physical support to people with spinal cord injuries on the road to autonomy. For most of the patients, she is a granddaughter, sister and hero.

St. Boniface Hospital

USAID has a longstanding partnership with St. Boniface Hospital. In addition to providing comprehensive clinical and rehabilitative care for persons with spinal cord injuries, USAID support has included the construction and equipment of a new surgical center as well as activities under the Maternal and Child Survival Program and a training program for Haitian biomedical engineering technicians to fix and maintain life-saving equipment.

USAID's Office of American Hospitals and Schools Abroad

Since 1979, USAID’s Office of American Hospitals and Schools Abroad has provided over $21 million to support projects in Haiti. Recipients have included the St. Luke Foundation; Catholic Relief Services, for equipment at Hospital St. Francois de Sales; Albert Schweitzer Hospital; and International Child Care’s training center and inpatient child care unit.


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