Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

I Was Crippled in Quake but Made It to the Paralympics Thanks to Londoner's Charity

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

I Was Crippled in Quake but Made It to the Paralympics Thanks to Londoner's Charity

Article excerpt

Byline: Martin Bentham in Haiti

HAITIAN earthquake victim Leon Gaisli beams with pride as he recalls the moment he wheeled himself on to the track for his hand cycling race at the London Paralympics.

"People were chanting "Leon, Leon" and I was so happy. I had lost my family in the earthquake, but it was like I'd found a new one because everyone was cheering for me and being so kind. It's something I'll never forget."

As he sits in his wheelchair in a hospital rehabilitation clinic near the town of Cap-Haitien describing more of his Paralympic memories, and how he got there, it soon becomes clear that even taking part was an achievement.

Buried for three days under the rubble of his house in the capital Port-au-Prince when the quake struck in January 2010, he emerged with spinal injury and paralysed legs. As he regained consciousness feeling "dead below the hips", he was told his wife and eight children were among the 200,000-plus fatalities from the devastating tremor.

His prospects appeared bleak in a country where the disabled are commonly referred to by a slang word meaning "worthless" and the provision of medical and other facilities for them is severely limited.

But his life changed after he was transferred to a hospital on the outskirts of Cap-Haitien funded through a charity appeal run by former London drama student Carwyn Hill. It created a specialist rehabilitation unit for spinal injury patients after the quake and began an intensive programme of exercise and treatment for Leon, which ultimately allowed him to gain selection for the Paralympics.

Leon, 45, who now works at the hospital giving sports coaching to other spinal injury patients, warned, however, that life remains difficult for most disabled people in Haiti because of the shortage of similar medical facilities and often hostile cultural attitudes.

"When I came here I felt I had regained life -- at other hospitals they thought I was going to die because I couldn't do anything," he said. …

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