CARACAS (AFP) — “I used to repair car tires. Now I repair humans,” boasts Jose Bastidas, an amputee who left his auto repair job to make artificial limbs in Venezuela, where the health system has all but collapsed.
“Getting someone to walk is priceless,” the 41-year-old told AFP at the Zona Bionica workshop in Caracas.
Bastidas joined the company as a trainee prosthetics manufacturer seven years ago after losing his right leg in a road accident.
“I don’t earn much,” he said, “but it is thrilling to see people stand up.”
There are no statistics on the number of amputees in Venezuela, a country of 30 million people, where three out of four live in extreme poverty, according to a recent study.
The latest data, from 2008, showed that 130,000 people in Venezuela had a physical disability that affects mobility, including amputees.
Zona Bionica says the majority of its clients lost a limb due to a medical problem, such as diabetes, or traffic accidents.
Besides the physical and emotional shock, survivors also have to contend with the cost.
Except for a lucky few beneficiaries of philanthropy, most have to pay all or most of the $1,800 price for the cheapest prosthesis, which needs to be replaced every two years.
The average salary in Venezuela, battered by recession and hyperinflation, is about $50 per month.
‘We lost a body part, not our lives’
Heidy Garcia, 30, works in the back office of Zona Bionica, which also runs sponsorship campaigns for amputees in need.
Garcia lost her right leg due to a blood circulation problem four years ago, and proudly displays a personalized turquoise replacement limb under short pants.
“It is very hard at first,” said Garcia, referring to phantom pain, cramps and having to get used to attaching the prosthesis, which she managed to acquire through a crowd-funding campaign.
“But you have to keep going and to accept. The mind is very strong.”
Garcia said the fact that most of Zona Bionica’s workers are amputees brings comfort to new patients.
“I encourage them. They get depressed, they have low morale, but we remind them that we lost a body part, not our lives,” Bastidas said.
Cristhian Sequera Quintana, who had both legs amputated after a motorcycle accident in 2015, said that at first, “I did not really want to live.”
“I needed help to bathe, to answer the call of nature,” the 34-year-old told AFP.
But with the prosthesis, “things changed,” said Quintana.
“Now I want to work and live. I want to continue fighting for myself, my son and my family.”