Stepping through doors
When Juan Romero Zavala stepped out of Honduras in January, he did so with only one foot with crutches to propel himself forward.
When Romero Zavala returns Thursday, he intends to plant two feet down firmly in his homeland for the first time in more than nine months.
The 51-year-old mechanic from La Libertad has spent the past month in the New River Valley being fit for and learning to use a new prosthetic left leg.
Thanks to the efforts of a skilled group of volunteers initiated by Christiansburg’s Loy Burch, when Romero Zavala takes those first steps, he also will be taking steps toward helping many of his fellow countrymen.
Burch, who has taken regular mission trips to Honduras for nearly 25 years, first met Romero Zavala more than seven years ago during one of his visits. Since that time, the two men have stayed connected via email through a mutual friend in the Honduran church (The Church of Christ in La Libertad), Hector Ardila.
When Burch received word in June 2011 saying the father of two had lost his leg as the result of a motorcycle crash, he said he began to fear for his friend’s stability.
Considering the physical nature of Romero Zavala’s job, being on crutches would greatly hinder his ability to provide for his wife and two sons.
According to Burch, that is a great source of pride for many Hondurans and he worried about how his friend would handle it.
“At that time, depression was a major concern,” Burch said.
Knowing that the odds of Romero Zavala getting any type of prosthetic were slim at best, Burch set his mind on helping supply Romero Zavala with a suitable solution.
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The first place that Burch turned was board-certified prosthetist/orthotist Phillip Johnson, whose New River Valley Orthotics & Prosthetics office has been located in a building that Burch owns since 2005.
Burch said that when he asked Johnson how much it would cost to get a prosthetic for Romero Zavala, Johnson’s answer was simply — nothing.
The two men decided it would be best to bring Romero Zavala to the Blacksburg office for the process and began what became a nearly six-month process of getting a passport and proper visa for him. Meanwhile, Blacksburg Church of Christ, where Burch serves as an elder, put together the roughly $2,500 needed to make the journey possible.
All the pieces finally came together, and on Jan. 29, Romero Zavala arrived in the United States.
Once in town, however, the men faced another hurdle. Neither Burch nor Johnson was fluent in Spanish and Romero Zavala spoke no English.
Again, another piece fell in place.
One of Johnson’s other patients heard of the problem facing the group and remembered an article in the Virginia Tech magazine highlighting senior Tech student Aly Hoffmaster’s bilingual abilities.
Johnson said the patient contacted the Spanish major, who jumped at the opportunity to put her studies into practice.
“I’m so happy to do this,” said Hoffmaster. “It’s really the most I’ve spoken Spanish over these four years.”
With the language barrier gone, the process of fitting and teaching Romero Zavala to use his new leg began.
Though he had just met Romero Zavala, one thing was clear to Johnson from the beginning.
“He was determined,” Johnson said.
Johnson said it often takes patients weeks to begin to walk successfully once the prosthetic is attached, but Romero Zavala walked around his office nearly 10 times the very first day.
After seeing how well Romero Zavala was getting around, Johnson decided it would really benefit him to have another more functional leg as well. The second, he said, would allow for greater movement and would be especially beneficial to Romero Zavala when walking up and down the hilly Honduran terrain.
The plan is to get Romero Zavala the second prosthetic at a later date.
Together, Johnson estimated the two legs’ value at between $15,000 and $20,000. It would have been hard for Romero Zavala to have found the resources in his home country to pay for them, all involved agree. His Honduran home has an estimated U.S. value of $10,000.
As Johnson began a condensed and intense version of the typical fitting and rehabilitation process with Romero Zavala, he also began to envision a larger project.
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Having twice taken medical mission trips to Central American countries, Johnson said he has long been aware of the challenges facing amputees in the area.
“People look at you immediately like you are lesser,” Johnson said.
“They think, you lose your leg and you become a beggar,” he said.
Johnson said one challenge is dealing with the logistics of the lengthy casting process required to manufacture an artificial limb with a secure fit.
Without the proper equipment for taking measurements and creating a proper mold present in Honduras, Johnson would be forced to make multiple trips between there and the U.S. in order to properly fit a single patient.
Johnson said he believes the combination of Romero Zavala’s experience with his prosthetic and his mechanical intuition will allow him to bridge the gap between the shop here and the people of Honduras.
“Juan knows the process,” Johnson said, adding that Romero Zavala already is making the proper adjustments on his own prosthetic.
Of course, Romero Zavala will also need to have the proper equipment available in order to complete many of the tasks.
For this, Johnson is prepared to donate equipment and tools to the cause, with the ultimate goal being to create a small lab in Romero Zavala’s village.
Johnson admitted, though, that because of the inconsistencies within the Honduran mail system, getting this equipment to the village would prove to be yet another challenge.
This time it was Burch who had a solution, reaching out to his friend Dean Sutphin, associate vice president for international and Appalachian outreach and professor at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Burch said that a few times a year Sutphin leads between 20 and 25 interning medical students, as well as three to five doctors, to the James Moody Adams Clinic and Baxter Institute in Honduras for medical outreach to villages such as Romero Zavala’s.
Burch said the plan is to have each group member pack the tools and parts to the equipment in his or her bag and assemble them once they arrive. He said the Blacksburg Church of Christ youth group planned to do the same thing during its yearly mission trip to Honduras this summer.
VCOM’s first trip is scheduled for the end of this month and Johnson, along with his office manager, Kim Wade, already are planning a summer trip there to help further Romero Zavala’s education of the process.
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Johnson and Burch said they believe the creation of a Honduran workshop that can provide help in the area of both prosthetics and orthotics is within sight.
Romero Zavala can likely see it as well, as Hoffmaster said Romero Zavala already has begun listing many of the individuals in his village he wants to help down the road.
More immediately though, Romero Zavala said he simply is looking forward to returning to his home, as well as to his normal life.
While Romero Zavala may be hoping for a quiet return, Burch said he felt confident that Romero Zavala would be the talk of the village, which he thinks could be a very good thing.
“Everyone will be asking about where he got his leg and he can say, ‘My church did this,’ ” Burch said.
“That might bring people to God.”
Despite both men’s great individual efforts, it is God who both Burch and Johnson give the credit to for making this possible.
“God opens the doors, we just walk through,” Burch said.
Thanks to their efforts, Romero Zavala can now step through any doors opened for him, too, especially those leading toward helping others.
The Roanoke Times | 381-1643
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