The story of NYDG Foundation
by Terry Reed
In Haiti, when hope comes to the hopeless and transformation arises from tragedy, they call it magic. Here we think of it as a good idea. That’s what brought a small group of Americans together to deliver something Haiti desperately needs: replacement limbs for the roughly 5,000 people who lost arms and legs in the earthquake.
On January 13th, 2010, the day after the earthquake, Harold Anderson, a full-time Atlanta book publisher and part-time charming Southern philanthropist, picked up the phone.
He wanted to talk to Ivan Sabel, CEO of Hanger Inc, the largest maker of prosthetics and orthotics in the world. Hanger was established in 1860 by an injured Civil War veteran who dreamed of giving his fellow war wounded something more than a peg leg. He created the first artificial moveable joint. Today, Hanger makes the kind of limbs that allow Para Olympic athletes to run twenty-four mile marathons.
Anderson didn’t know Sabel, but he knew about Hanger. A few years before, after a calamitous skiing accident, a knee surgery gone horribly wrong, and thirty-nine operations, Anderson lost his leg. The only good thing to come out of the trauma was the friendship he formed with Hanger’s Kevin Carroll, who built Anderson’s new leg. Carroll, who had once designed a new dorsal fin for an injured dolphin, was the guy to call if you wanted a great leg and money was no object. Carroll made Anderson a C-leg. The C stands for computer. With this ingenious prosthetic, when Anderson wanted to walk, he didn’t have to think about it. The leg got the impulse from the brain, and would begin the process of doing its thing ‘automatically.’
When Anderson reached Sabel the day after the earthquake, he didn’t have time for war stories. He introduced himself by saying: “What are we going do about Haiti?”
Sabel was intrigued, but he was also in Las Vegas. He said he’d finish up business and they could meet in a week or two back on the east coast.
Anderson didn’t feel the situation could wait that long. “How about I fly out and buy you some breakfast tomorrow?”
In Vegas the next morning, the two men struck a deal. Whatever Hanger would give in goods and services, Anderson would match in dollars. They discussed a few logistics, called in some experts—including Carroll and Anderson’s longtime friend Dr. Don Leslie of Atlanta –loaded up a private plane with arms and legs, and flew down to Port-au-Prince.
Walking the streets and the makeshift hospitals, the group found countless candidates for free prosthetics. If a frightened patient needed reassurance, Anderson rolled up the leg of his khaki pants and tried to dispel some of the mystery about artificial limbs.
Meanwhile, in New York City, Dr. David Colbert, a dermatologist with both cosmetics skills and humanitarian instincts, also wanted to help. He knew the terrain in Haiti, and, educated in Paris, he spoke fluent French. When he got a letter from the Dominican Republic -based Esperanza Foundation calling for American doctors, he filled two large duffle bags with medical supplies and antibiotics, enlisted his medical assistant Paul, and headed to Port-au-Prince.
Colbert assisted in several emergency amputations in Haiti. One of these was performed on Wilifred, a young man who insisted that he’d rather lose his life than his leg. It was Colbert’s job to convince him to agree to the operation, and Colbert found himself promising he’d get Wilifred a prosthetic. It was enough to give the boy some hope of a life to come, and he was wheeled into surgery.
Back in New York, Colbert remembered his promise and called Hanger. He was kicked up the ladder several times, and eventually was put in touch with Ivan Sabel, and the two got to talking. The cost and logistics of getting prosthetics to Haiti were staggering, but Colbert figured that if he could tap some of his celebrity contacts in New York, maybe he could throw a benefit, raise some awareness, and deliver some cash for Hangar. He called his friend, L’Wren Scott, and she asked her boyfriend Mick Jagger. One by one, influential people eager to help climbed on board: Michelle Williams, Catherine Zeta Jones, Jude Law, Sienna Miller, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts and Edie Falco among them. Artists and designers began donating covetable pieces for the night’s charity auction: things like Rauschenbergs, Zac Posen dresses, guitars signed by Dylan and Bono, The Boss and The Rolling Stones.
Recently I flew to Haiti with some of these good people. The plane was so full that Anderson, who was paying for the trip, sat in the bathroom. On board were Dr. Lesliie, Kevin Carroll, of dorsal fin fame, and Dr. Arthur Simon, an Atlanta plastic and reconstructive surgeon. In Simon’s baggage was a new eye for an eight-year-old boy who had been pulled from the rubble after a week. Also stashed below were several pair of shiny new sneakers, because the way Anderson sees it, if you have to lose your leg, at least you deserve a good pair of shoes.
We flew by helicopter from Port-au-Prince to Albert Schweitzer Hospital, in Deschapelles. The Mellon family established the hospital over sixty years ago and still run it. During the earthquake, hundreds had been transported here over rough roads from Port-au-Prince and lay waiting in the courtyard for medical attention. In the front of the clinic, the technicians fit limbs for the hundreds of amputees who arrive on crutches, in wheelbarrows, and on the backs of mopeds. There’s a wing where the therapists teach the newly fitted to walk. In back in the factory, they make the prosthetics. The knee joints, elbows and other mechanical parts are flown in by Anderson’s fleet, and fitted on site. A fiberglass mold is made by hands that understand the mysteries of weight bearing, tibia bones and patellas. The day I was there, the head Hangar technician made sixty legs. Young amputees in their new sneakers tried the limbs out, wobbly at first, then confident. A teenage boy did a break dance. It was magic. And a really good idea.