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News and Events

Going the Distance

USC Chan Magazine, Winter 2015

It's been five years since a magnitude-7.0 quake devastated Haiti, but USC Chan alumna Karly Streisfeld is as dedicated as ever — even competing on NBC's American Ninja Warrior — to help shine a spotlight on the island nation's continued need for aid.

By Jamie Wetherbe MA ’04

While in Haiti five years ago on a service trip, Karly Streisfeld MA ’05 helped a 16-year-old boy feed himself for the first time.

The teen, who lived in an orphanage, had been born without an arm while the other was severely deformed. Using duct tape, scrap metal and more than a little ingenuity, Streisfeld fashioned an apparatus in 15 minutes that the boy could use to eat.

“If he were born in the United States, he would have been in therapy right away,” says Streisfeld, a USC Chan alumna and an occupational therapist at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

“Once you know how simple things can change someone’s life there, it’s so hard to not want to continue to go,” she adds.

Prompted to action by the country’s devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake in 2010, Streisfeld started volunteering with the nonprofit Project Medishare, and later with the Haiti Rehab Project, even competing on NBC’s American Ninja Warrior to raise awareness for disadvantaged populations in the poverty-stricken country. “It’s an hour-and-a-half flight from Miami,” she says of the island nation. “How do I sit here and know what’s going on and not go help?”

Karly Streisfeld MA ’05 balances atop the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course

Karly Streisfeld MA ’05 balances atop the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course

Streisfeld has taken four volunteer trips to Haiti in the past five years through Project Medishare. During her first trip, just weeks after the quake, she treated patients with severe trauma, including amputations, spinal cord injuries, as well as multiple fractures. “People had been crushed,” says Streisfeld, who specializes in such trauma-related conditions.

In the weeks following the quake, she saw victims of violence, including gunshot and machete wounds.

“It was an unstable environment,” she explains. “People were fighting for food and survival.”

Cultural differences also posed unique challenges to providing care, including newly paralyzed patients who slept on the ground. “You’re teaching them how to get from the floor back into a wheelchair because they’re not going home to a place with a bed,” she explains. In the United States, “we don’t teach that until at least eight weeks after someone’s been injured, depending on the injury.”

Patients with a range of ongoing disabilities and injuries, who until the earthquake didn’t have access to care, also poured into the clinic. “People now had access to an American-run tent hospital with skilled staff,” she says, adding that patients, including children with developmental delays from orphanages, “were just being dropped off — it was mayhem.”

Streisfeld says her education at USC Chan helped prepare her for fieldwork.

“USC developed a program to make people leaders; they want you to think on a higher level outside the box,” she says. “It helped me to problem-solve, working with nothing in unique situations.”

Between patients, Streisfeld trained providers who had less experience treating trauma patients. “A lot of people volunteered, but they didn’t have that expertise,” she says. “When you’re in that environment, you’re all working as a bigger team with people from different professions, countries and training all trying to make things work in one small hospital.”

Years after the quake, Streisfeld continues to treat earthquake-related injuries and complications, but funding has become increasingly scarce. “Haiti has been forgotten,” Streisfeld explains. “There are a lot of other problems people are putting money and energy into.”

While in Haiti in 2012, Streisfeld began working with another provider, New York-based physical therapist Ginger Oliver. “I took her under my wing and showed her the ropes since I’d been there and knew the people,” Streisfeld says. “She fell in love with the culture and need there and started the Haiti Rehab Project.”

In addition to providing medical care and supplies to disadvantaged populations, the Haiti Rehab Project trains and employs Haitians with disabilities to fabricate adaptive equipment for amputees.

“I don’t know of any organizations [in Haiti] that are trying to provide jobs for those with disabilities from the earthquake,” Streisfeld says.

“It’s very taboo to be paralyzed or disabled, and the environment isn’t set up for people to get around easily if you have one leg or are in a wheelchair — they don’t have job opportunities.”

To raise awareness for the organization, Streisfeld, an avid athlete who counts Parkour among her workouts, appeared on NBC’s reality competition, American Ninja Warrior.

The show’s producers shot a package on Streisfeld and the nonprofit, but her footage didn’t air on the June 23 episode. “I was so disappointed,” says Streisfeld, who got tripped up on the course’s second obstacle and was disqualified. “The only reason I decided to do it was to raise money for the Haiti Rehab Project.” Still, Streisfeld managed to raise nearly $3,000.

The Haiti Rehab Project continues to raise funds to start a rehab clinic in the rural area of Gonaives. And Streisfeld plans to return to Haiti to help the clinic open its doors. “The people there are very resilient and they’ve gone through so much,” Streisfeld says. “They are just so appreciative for little things we take for granted.”

To volunteer or donate to the Haiti Rehab Project, visit HaitiRehabProject.org.