In the poverty-stricken country of Haiti, diabetes is rampant, often bringing in its wake amputation and early death.
In November, local Ochsner, LA podiatrist Dr. Tim Syperek was one of two U.S. physicians who went to Haiti to help physicians there fight the battle against diabetes.
The situation is grim.
“In Haiti, most diabetics don’t live past 40,” Syperek said.
Syperek went to Haiti with his colleague Dr. Patrick DeHeer, of Indianapolis.
DeHeer, a podiatrist who works with the Johnson Memorial Hospital Wound Healing Center, near Indianapolis, has traveled to Haiti many times.
He began there by working with infants born with clubfoot, a condition in which the foot turns inward.
During the course of that work, he began seeing “how many diabetic foot problems there were.”
Building relationships with Haitian physicians Nancy and Philippe Larco, who have a foundation there devoted to diabetes and cardiovascular care, DeHeer was able to begin a wound care center.
The rate of diabetes is 7 percent in Haiti, a rate comparable to that of the U.S., a much larger country, DeHeer said.
It means that of the roughly 9 million people in Haiti, 63,000 have diabetes, he said.
Fifteen percent of those, or some 9,500, will develop a foot ulcer, DeHeer said.
Of those, he said, 15 percent, or about 1,400 people, will have to undergo some type of amputation. Of those, “half the patients die within five years of the amputation.”
“If we can save a limb, we can save a life,” said DeHeer, who is also one of the team podiatrists for the Indiana Pacers basketball team.
DeHeer and Syperek were in Haiti during the second week of November, World Diabetes Week.
DeHeer spoke at a public conference in Haiti on Nov. 14, World Diabetes Day, and told the audience, “The goal is to establish a wound care center in Haiti just as good as anywhere else in the world.”
Haiti’s a place where diabetics usually have a leg amputated by the time they are a teenager, Syperek said.
“There is no wound care, no antibiotics, no shoes, no socks,” said Syperek, who was tapped by DeHeer for the most recent trip to Haiti.
Syperek had met DeHeer in Indianapolis, when Syperek was doing his externships with the Ohio College of Podiatric Medicine.
Syperek has had some unique experiences that made him a good candidate for taking his surgical skills to unusual settings.
In April, Syperek was in Russia, where he did a fellowship at the Russian Ilizarov Scientific Center for Restorative Traumatology and Orthopedics.
Previously, Syperek served with the Army, as the chief of podiatric orthopedics at an Army base in South Carolina, and trained in performing surgery in the field, he said.
Last month, in Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince, Syperek and DeHeer encountered rough conditions, as well.
“Port-au-Prince is a really dangerous area. There’s not a whole lot to work with” in terms of medical facilities, Syperek said.
The U.S. doctors brought in their own instruments, he said.
At a number of medical locations, Syperek and DeHeer taught “about diabetes, good wound care and diabetic limb salvage surgery — leaving some form of foot, allowing them (patients) to still walk,” Syperek said.
They visited a number of hospitals, working with a small team of Haitian surgeons.
“We saw hundreds of people,” Syperek said.
The physicians focused on a multidisciplinary approach to the treatment of diabetes and limb care.
“It’s the wave of the future … It has to be a team effort. We need to educate everyone, the internist, the vascular surgeons, the nurses — and recruit people to this cause,” Syperek said.
Syperek and DeHeer brought with them educational materials from the Save A Leg, Save A Life Foundation, which has a chapter in Lafayette, one of 35 in the country.
The foundation’s mission is to “reduce the number of lower extremity amputations and to improve the quality of life of our fellow citizens who are afflicted with wounds,” according to its Website.
“With these chapters we hope to start more education for the patients,” said Courtney Smith, Lafayette chapter organizer.
Syperek said he will be going back to Haiti annually to help with the clinic.
“It’s the hardest, heart-breaking work you’ve every done, but I can’t wait to get back,” he said.
“If you can save a leg in this world for a diabetic, you will save a life,” he said.