May 15, 2008 -- Galvanized by the heartrending story of Chinese teenager Yang Liu, whose crushed legs were amputated to free her from the rubble of her school in southwestern China, foreign aid groups are preparing to donate prosthetic services and artificial limbs to earthquake victims.
Early this morning, Chinese doctors amputated Yang's legs, the only way to rescue her from a massive pile of concrete slabs and bricks before carrying her down to a waiting ambulance that rushed her to a hospital in the nearby city of Deyang.
The operation took less than 20 minutes and her condition remains precarious, doctors told reporters at the site.
International aid groups are prepared to assist Yang and thousands of other earthquake victims who've suffered crushed limbs, much as the groups did in the aftermath of the devastating Pakistan earthquake in 2005.
In the next two or three days, the Pakistan office of Helping Hands for Relief and Development, an international medical aid organization, is planning to send a team to the affected area in China to assess the need for prosthetic limbs, according to spokesman Shahid Hayat.
After the Pakistan earthquake, the group provided 1,500 artificial limbs, consisting mainly of legs, several dozen feet and a few upper limbs to victims, many of whom were children like Yang who needed to have both legs amputated.
"We are prepared to help," says Martin Untermaehrer, an official with the International Committee for the Red Cross, which has a prosthetics and orthotics center in Hunan province. "At this point, we're still in the emergency phase. But depending on the doctors in the affected area, we're prepared to take any spill-over."
Specialists at the Red Cross center, where 850 patients are being treated, fit amputees for artificial limbs, produce the limb and provide physiotherapy.
"There is a whole healing process of the limb which can take weeks or months and then you can talk about fitting artificial limbs," Red Cross spokesman Bernard Barrett says.
Experts agree that there will be an enormous need for artificial limbs because so many people were crushed in building collapses.
"There will be lots of amputations with all the crushing that happened," says Raymond Pye, director of programs at the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation. "This happened a lot in Pakistan, where so many stone and concrete buildings fell on people."
China, unlike Pakistan, is well-prepared to deal with the crisis, Pye says. The country has a highly developed system for prosthetics and orthotics, with a specialized university in Beijing and rehabilitation centers in most of the provinces, he explains. And many of the components for artificial limbs are also manufactured near Beijing and Fujian province.
If there is a need for assistance with the production and fitting of limbs, some groups are ready to help.
After the Pakistan earthquake, Direct Relief International, a medical aid organization based in Santa Barbara, Calif., helped set up five specialized centers in rural areas that serviced 1,000 people. The centers provided 1,700 artificial limbs, many for children who needed to be refitted with new limbs as their arms and legs grow.
"Dr. Bahkt Sarwar, a prosthesis expert who has assisted amputees in Cambodia and Tanzania, created small, self-sustainable centers in these remote regions, where you can get fitted and get an artificial built for you, along with follow-up care of fitting and adjusting," says Brett Williams, emergency response coordinator for Direct Relief.
"We respond to requested needs, so if we get the call, we're prepared to help."
Wire services contributed to this report.