He had spent all day asking questions in Creole and turning the answers into English. They were mostly the same questions: How did you lose your leg? Is your house still standing? What will you do now? But there came a moment when our translator stopped mid-sentence and refused to continue.
He was a French teacher from a secondary school in Port-au-Prince: he had a quiet, vaguely paternal, manner and his ability to remain calm in fraught situations had proved invaluable again and again.
Our short interview with Fabienne Jean, a dancer from the Haitian national theatre, was the only time I saw him lose his temper.
Jean, 31, is quite famous in Haiti: he had seen her in some big shows and in television commercials for the mobile-phone company Voila. We found her stretched out on a mattress on the concrete floor of a primary school classroom that was serving as an overflow ward for the city hospitals.
The doctors who amputated her right leg below the knee said that she had borne the pain with great dignity and expressed a determination to dance again. She was trying to remain upbeat when we found her, but she had lost her leg, her home had fallen down, her parents had lost their house too, she had nowhere to go and no way to get there.
As we spoke, a nurse came to change the dressing on her stump and she lent back on the mattress and breathed in sharply, her eyelids fluttering. Did she still hope to dance again? “Yes,” she said. “If it’s possible. But I don’t know if it is.”
How difficult would it be to live with this kind of disability in a country such as Haiti?
This was the question our translator could not stand.
“Don’t talk to her about these things!” he shouted, shaking his head at me. “Don’t talk to her about Haiti. They can do nothing for her here. Talk about something else. Please!” There was an awkward silence, in which I tried to think of something else to say. Then Jean started talking. “She says she wants to know if there is anything you can say or do to help her situation,” said our translator, resuming normal service once more.
The interview was proceeding like a three-person polka: it was no longer clear who was leading or where we were going. But there was something I could say.
I know dancers who have suffered crippling injuries and resumed their careers and I know dancers who were born with physical or learning disabilities who have become professional dancers, breaking various preconceptions along the way.
My brother was born with Down’s syndrome. He began dancing at an early age, choreographing routines culled from Take That videos and performing them on the living-room rug with all the solemnity of Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. He now plays to packed theatres, touring the world with a company of able-bodied and disabled dancers called StopGap.
Among them is Laura Jones, who was starting out as a dancer when she suffered a spinal bleed. She learnt to dance again: she was the first person in a wheelchair to gain a dance A level.
I told Jean about David Toole, one of StopGap’s directors, a performer who continues to astonish audiences all over the world. Toole has no legs: he springs out of his wheelchair and dances on the palms of his hands. His career began with Candoco, a company founded by Celeste Dandeker in 1991. Dandeker, a leading light in contemporary dance, had broken her spine while performing a flip on stage. Her company blazed a trail for disabled dancers from the niche “haven’t they done well?” sphere of community projects into the mainstream of professional dance.
This was what Haiti needed, I said, crouching beside Jean’s mattress. If someone such as her could return to the stage, she could show people what was possible. There is a new generation of amputees, some 3,000 of them. She could help to prevent them from being stigmatised — she could be the face of Haiti’s recovery.
I was getting carried away, of course. Dandeker took years to return to dance, Jones needed a year of physiotherapy, both spoke of the crushing sense of grief that they felt for the body they had lost.
“I had to relearn everything,” Jones said. “And you are putting yourself in a position where you can see what other people are capable of — things that you were once capable of.”
And she was living in Berkshire, not Port-au-Prince. Jean’s aspirations at that moment were the same as those of the amputees on the surrounding mattresses. “I just hope to find some way of surviving,” she said. “I’ve got no house, nothing.”
She hoped to get a prosthetic limb, but she was not particularly confident that this would happen. Beside her lay Myrlene Samedi, 29, a student of computer science. “They promised her another leg,” said her husband, Polycarpe Schiller, 27. “I think this will be a difficult thing in Haiti.”
Conflicting expectations over what happens next for Haiti’s amputees were colliding in the city’s operating rooms.
That same day in the general hospital, Christopher Bulstrode, a trauma surgeon from Oxford flown in by Médecins du Monde, was cleaning the stump of the left leg of a 16-year-old girl. “This can’t take an artificial limb,” he said. “We need a plastic surgeon to do a skin graft, or we need to re-amputate higher up. If one of my doctors in Oxford did that I would have his guts for garters.”
The professor had just had a furious argument with a Haitian doctor. “He had left the amputation wide open with the bone showing. I said you can’t do that. He said: ‘We can, she’s never going to walk on it again’.”
In Britain, surgeons would leave a large flap of skin to be folded over the stump. “We put on prosthetics 24 hours afterwards, which is very important psychologically speaking,” he said. “We say let’s get you up and moving and signed up for the ParaOlympics. But this kind of work costs thousands of dollars per limb. This Haitian doctor was saying: ‘You’re in Haiti now chum.’ The subtext was: ‘You guys are going to get bored and go home.’ We have a huge battle on our hands because here, if you lose a limb, people think: ‘That’s it for you’.”
I spoke to Bulstrode again this week. “After I spoke to you I stormed back to Médecins du Monde and said: ‘There is no point in closing stumps if we don’t get the second phase going’,” he said.
He is back in Oxford now, but he believes the message got through. Plastic surgeons arrived in Port-au-Prince last week. Handicap International advertised for 30 British physiotherapists and the charity is opening a prosthetics factory in Haiti that it hopes to staff with amputees. I spoke to Jean down a crackly phone line on Monday evening: she said that she was getting about on crutches, and her situation was “bad”. Would she get a prosthetic? “I think there is no chance,” she said.
I am a little more hopeful. I have passed on her number to Handicap International, and to StopGap and Candoco. Both dance groups said that they would be keen to work with her: both work on similar projects around the world.
StopGap is now in Albania, helping to establish dance projects, while Stine Pedro, artistic director of Candoco, is corresponding with Liu Yan, an acclaimed Chinese classical dancer who was paralysed by a fall as she rehearsed her solo role in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. She is starting to dance again.
“We are always looking for dancers,” said Pedro. “Though we are not the national ballet. It’s a big jump from being a dancer at a big institution to possibly coming to work for us.”
Jean has coped with larger reversals. She was watching television when her house fell down with her inside it. She was carried into the general hospital, where amputees were sedated with ketamine, the horse tranquiliser.
“It gives them the most horrible nightmares afterwards,” Bulstrode said, and things did not look that rosy when they woke up. There were no painkillers in the tents that passed for wards. Some were given midazolam, otherwise known as a date-rape drug, so that even if they were awake during operations they would not remember anything about it.
Now they are negotiating a ruined city on crutches: it almost seems perverse to worry about whether one of them will dance again. The British Council felt it was too soon to run a dance project in a city where “basic survival is still the priority”. It is probably right.
But I hope something can be done for Fabienne Jean. I remember squatting beside her mattress, after the translator’s outburst and my speech about people in other countries who danced in wheelchairs. She pulled out pictures of herself in all her glory, she sat up, she seemed happy for a moment. I hope that she will find a way back to the stage.