Lessons in Resilience

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11/28/2011

A Haitian amputee soccer team, co-sponsored by the Knights and Project Medishare, embodies a message of overcoming adversity

by David Naglieri and Michèle Nuzzo-Naglieri

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A Team Zaryen player practices in Haiti. (Photo by Omar Vega)

Wilfrid Macena walked proudly down the concourse at Miami International Airport, his prosthetic leg a stark reminder of the devastating January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Each step was a small triumph that a year ago would have seemed next to impossible. In a disaster that claimed an estimated 200,000 lives, Macena was one of thousands of Haitians who lost limbs when buildings caved in, roofs collapsed and much of a country was hurled into chaos. In lockstep behind Macena were nine fellow members of Team Zaryen, the amputee soccer team that he co-founded and now captains.

Team Zaryen derives its name from the Creole word for tarantula, a fearless spider that perseveres after losing an appendage. Every player on the team is missing a limb — most due to the earthquake.

It was Day One of Team Zaryen’s weeklong tour through the northeast United States, spreading a message of hope to wounded American soldiers, as well as to students, political figures, professional athletes and the public at large. For many team members, it was their first time outside the 20-mile radius of their homes in the outskirts of quake-stricken Port-au-Prince.

Halfway to the gate, a familiar voice greeted the group of Haitian athletes in the waiting area: “Can you believe it? Team Zaryen is in the United States!” The voice was that of Dr. Robert Gailey, a pioneer in amputee sports and rehabilitation who serves as a professor of physical therapy at the University of Miami while also overseeing Project Medishare’s efforts in Haiti.

Reaching into one of the bags he was carrying, Gailey pulled out a brand-new black-and-white tracksuit donated by Nike — followed by nine more just like it.

“Whooooaaaaa!” came the chorus, which transitioned instantly into applause. The players wasted no time slipping off their prosthetics and donning the tracksuits. With Gailey’s arrival, the group was complete, and the men and women of Team Zaryen now looked like a real team. In the middle of Miami Airport, amid embraces and camera flashes, the Haitian Inspiration Tour had officially begun.

HEALING HAITI

When the Knights of Columbus began exploring ways to assist Project Medishare in the aftermath of the earthquake, Gailey suggested a plan that would quickly benefit some of the most helpless quake victims. The Knights developed the “Healing Haiti’s Children” initiative and committed $1 million to make prosthetic limbs available to every young person who had lost a limb in the earthquake, including a two-year period of physical therapy and replacement prosthetics for the children as they grow.

The Order also financially contributed to the construction of a complete prosthetics and orthotics facility at Project Medishare’s field hospital in downtown Port-au-Prince, the only such unit in the country. The facility was dedicated Oct. 11 in honor of the late Emilio B. Moure, the Order’s former supreme secretary who was instrumental in the program’s development. Since its opening in March 2011, the Emilio Moure Clinic of Hope has provided prosthetic limbs and orthotics to more than 700 Haitians. In addition, the clinic offers educational and employment opportunities to locals being trained to fabricate prosthetic limbs and provide rehabilitation therapy.

The first person to receive a prosthesis through the “Healing Haiti’s Children” program was Macena, who was welding a cistern when the earthquake struck Port-au-Prince and a wall collapsed on top of him, pinning his leg to the ground. Macena pulled himself from underneath the rubble and, with the help of a friend, got to a hospital, only to learn upon arrival that the facility had been destroyed in the earthquake. He spent that night on the street, his broken leg held together by a makeshift band, unable to contact his wife and newborn son. After 10 days without medical treatment, he was able to secure passage to the Dominican Republic, but the infection in his leg was so far advanced that doctors had little choice but to amputate.

Macena discovered hope after a chance encounter brought him to the attention of Project Medishare and he was informed that the Knights would provide him with a prosthetic leg. “Five minutes after putting on my prosthesis I was walking like I had two legs,” he said. “I’m happy that now my life continues.”

Macena was also the first victim of the earthquake to receive employment as a prosthetic and rehabilitation technician. For weeks before he was offered the job, the Project Medishare staff witnessed Macena’s untiring dedication to teaching young people how to adapt to their new limbs. There was no question that he had found a new calling.

Realizing early on that not all of the injured youth shared his renewed sense of hope, Macena conceived of an amputee soccer team that would instill in them a sense of pride and belonging. With the help of his co-worker, Cedieu Fortilus, and the sponsorship of the Knights of Columbus, a national team was born.

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Matthew del Muro practices with the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team before a game with Team Zaryen. • Team Zaryen sits on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. • Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., kicks a soccer ball to members of the team. • Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson welcomes Team Zaryen to Connecticut Oct. 20.

TROOPS AND TARANTULAS

Team Zaryen derives its name from the Creole word for tarantula, a fearless spider that perseveres after losing an appendage. With every player on the team missing a limb — most due to the earthquake — the group chose for its logo a seven-legged spider weaved into three pentagon-shaped soccer patches. The symbol inspires members of Team Zaryen to strive to overcome their disabilities — the very message they were now sharing as the team began its U.S. tour.

Just two days after arriving in Miami, the group visited the Military Advanced Training Center at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where service members wounded in battle — be it mentally or physically — come to rehabilitate.

One by one, members of Team Zaryen met with soldiers who had lost limbs. Many of the wounded warriors naturally gravitated to Macena, who was eager to tell his personal story of loss and renewal. Leading his team by example, Macena shared with the soldiers how he was able to overcome his fears that he would never again live a normal life: “I thought: How am I going to make a living because I have kids, a wife, a family? How could I live with one leg?”

Harvey Naranjo, who is in charge of adaptive sports and community reintegration programs at Walter Reed, welcomed the team’s openness. “Usually when we have visitors at our center, they’re visibly uncomfortable and remain withdrawn,” he said. “The Haitians were the opposite. They were so full of life and approached our guys like they had been long friends. … You couldn’t help but want to hang out with them.”

Whether it was the Haitians’ infectious enthusiasm or simple curiosity about the world’s fastest one-legged sport, almost 20 soldiers emerged onto the front lawn of the medical center moments later to watch Team Zaryen perform a demonstration.

One of the soldiers present was Matthew Castillo del Muro, who attended the event hoping that it would rekindle his lifelong love for soccer. Del Muro was on patrol with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division when he lost his lower right leg to a roadside bomb in June 2010. An avid athlete who had played soccer since the age of 5, del Muro rediscovered his natural talent under the tutelage of Team Zaryen.

For the clinic, the team set up drills with cones and nets, teaching the soldiers how to move with speed on crutches, maintain control of the ball using only one leg, and build balance and strength when shooting to score. Del Muro navigated between the cones, weaving his way towards the goal as his fellow soldiers — and his new Haitian friends — cheered him on. At first, his movements were slow and measured, but his footwork soon improved, and he was firing shots with impressive accuracy.

“Once I got used to it, my natural ability to play soccer just kicked right in,” said del Muro. “It’s always been my dream to be a soccer player, and I’m really excited to get back on the field and play again.”

Col. Paul Pasquina, chief of orthopedics and rehabilitation at Walter Reed, looked on with pride as his patients participated in the drills.

“What’s more inspirational than overcoming adversity, and what’s better at bringing people together than a sport and teamwork?” Pasquina said. “We got Team Zaryen in here, and they showed us what they could do. Obviously, that was a challenge put down to our service members, who are used to accepting challenges and thriving off of them.”

The following day, more soldiers participated in another clinic, this time off base at RFK Stadium. There, they were personally greeted by players of the Major League Soccer team D.C. United. Before long, a series of soccer balls were flying between players, and several circles of “keep away” had taken on a life of their own.

So filled with respect and admiration were the D.C. United players that every one of them stuck around after the clinic to watch the day’s premier event: a game pitting Team Zaryen against the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team. The players on the national team flew in from across the country to participate in the match and to assist the soldiers at Walter Reed in developing a team of their own.

A unique crowd made up of professional players, schoolchildren and media from across the country witnessed an exciting game in which the U.S. National Amputee Team emerged with a 3-1 victory. For del Muro, who had been invited to play alongside the U.S. team, the experience trumped the score.

“I really missed that feeling of somebody wanting me to play for them because I have the skills, so it’s really touching and it’s amazing,” del Muro said

GIVING BACK

The thrill of being invited to the D.C. United locker room following a game against the Chicago Fire helped to ease the discomfort of Team Zaryen’s overnight bus trip from Washington D.C. to Hartford, Conn. On Oct. 20, the team met with Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson before traveling to Stamford for a scrimmage against Trinity Catholic High School’s varsity soccer team.

Throngs of students, many bearing signs of welcome, crowded the tour bus, cheering as the vehicle approached the entrance. Without wasting time, the students accompanied Team Zaryen to the playing field. Among those gathered was Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport. After greeting the team, he couldn’t resist joining the fun as well, soon kicking around a soccer ball during warm up — despite wearing his cassock.

Once again, Team Zaryen worked its magic, playing with heart against their well-seasoned, two-legged opponents. Sandy Jean Louis Louiseme, the team’s youngest and most talented player, mesmerized the crowd with his speed and agility on crutches. After a teammate stole a misdirected pass and sent the ball his way, Louiseme managed to rocket a shot past the goalie’s outstretched hands. The game generated enough buzz that the football team and cheerleading squads interrupted their practices to come and watch.

The following day, the tour concluded with its grand finale in New York City, which included a demonstration before a New York Red Bulls pro soccer game and a visit to Times Square.

On the team bus back to the hotel, Fortilus, who also serves as the team’s president, gazed at the New York City skyline. Exhausted from the week’s busy schedule, he reflected on what it all meant.

“We are so thankful for everything that has been done for us,” he said. “We had nothing to give in return except for teaching amputee soccer and showing everyone what one can accomplish despite their disability.”

In the end, Team Zaryen offered far more than instruction in the rudiments of amputee soccer. The players gave the example of their unconquerable spirit through a sport that is judged not by wins, losses or ticket sales — but by the courage of its participants.

DAVID NAGLIERI and MICHÈLE NUZZO-NAGLIERI, communications staff with the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council, accompanied Team Zaryen on the Haitian Inspiration Tour.