Take Eunice Francois' story.
After initial treatment in the poor conditions of post-earthquake Haiti, Francois was airlifted to South Florida, where doctors told her to prepare to have her foot amputated. It was a fate she could not accept, and one that ultimately led the Haitian woman to doctors at Orlando Health who thought they could save her foot with a radical surgery.
Her ordeal began shortly before 5 p.m. Jan. 12, when Francois and about 30 other members of the Church of God of the Last Hour noticed the ground shaking, getting more intense with each passing second. They were on the second floor of her parents' two-story home when the first floor sunk to the ground and falling debris blocked all the exits on the second floor.
Members of Francois' church group escaped through an opening where a pillar held up a section of the roof. But near Francois, the roof had collapsed, bringing down a huge chunk of concrete that fell on her foot.
"I thought my foot had split in two," Francois said.
Dragging her injured foot, she and her husband eventually found an escape. When they were clear of the ruins, she looked down and saw that a big chunk of her foot was missing. A stranger gave her his shirt to wrap around her foot. Another man gave her Advil to help her pain. Those were the first of many random acts of kindness to come.
The next morning, Francois was driven to the nearest hospital, about two hours away. The scene there was total chaos.
"There were people on the floor, bleeding," Francois said. "Many of them had gotten hurt helping others."
A nurse eventually gave Francois a local anesthetic and stitched her foot together. A New Jersey-based ministry that learned of Francois' situation paid for a first-class ticket from the Dominican Republic to Miami, where her cousin lived, so she could receive further treatment.
After she arrived in Florida, Francois was taken to a hospital in Coral Springs, where doctors immediately put her on antibiotics for the infection that had set in. When they opened her stitches, they found pieces of concrete still lodged in her foot. Without proper medical supplies, medics in Haiti were unable to clean the wound properly.
The next day, Francois was told to prepare for her foot to be amputated.
"I just thought, no. I can't accept that. My family couldn't accept it," Francois recalled. "We wanted a second opinion."
Francois asked her cousin to take a picture of her foot with her cell-phone camera and send it, along with a plea for help, to a minister friend in California. Through a vast network of faithful followers, the e-mail reached Orlando Health executive vice president Sherrie Sitarik. She forwarded it to Dr. George Haidukewych, co-director of orthopedic trauma for Orlando Health. After seeing the photo, he thought Francois' foot could be saved.
Orlando Health made arrangements to transfer Francois to Orlando Regional Medical Center. There, Haidukewych performed several surgeries to clean the large wound and prepare the foot for reconstructive plastic surgery.
Dr. Kenneth Lee, a plastic and reconstruction surgeon at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center Orlando, transferred tissue from Francois' thigh to cover the large hole that remained in the foot. With Lee's expertise in microsurgery, he was able to take the thigh tissue with blood vessels intact, and then reconnect those blood vessels to those in the foot, allowing blood flow to resume in the transplanted tissue.
"The first time I saw the foot was in the operating room. It was a big hole on the top of the foot with bone and tendons showing," Lee said. "We knew our only option was to cover it with tissue."
Lee used a surgical technique called free flap reconstruction. Unlike a graft, a flap contains blood vessels, tissue, muscle, skin and fat. Flaps are used to cover an area in need of tissue. But in more complicated procedures, they are used to reconstruct structures such as a breast or nose.
"It's cool, but it's also very complicated," said Lee, who said only about 40 doctors nationwide do this type of surgery.
He said about 65 percent of free flap reconstruction is done in breast reconstruction. "Crush injuries are more difficult," he said. "In this case, the challenge was finding blood vessels outside the zone of injury that were long enough to attach other blood vessels to."
Francois is one of about 40 Haitian nationals who have come to Orlando Health for treatment after the earthquake, spokeswoman Kena Lewis said.
Now Francois is recovering at Hubbard House, Orlando Health's hospitality home, while she waits for one more follow-up appointment before she can return home. Her sister, Ruth Francois, took time off from her bank job near Atlanta to stay with her.
The sisters were always close, but Ruth says the experience of surviving such a disaster has brought them closer.
"I never lost hope," Ruth said. "I think I tried to keep my sister hopeful, too. I told her we would get help. I told her everything would work out."
Eunice Francois is overcome with emotion when she looks back at all the friends, family and strangers who came to her aid.
"I believe in God. I have faith. I wasn't sure what was going to happen to me. We didn't have any money. We did not have any idea how this was going to work out. It was just a blessing," she said.
"I lost a lot of friends in the earthquake. But you can't mourn any longer or you will never stop. You're just thankful that you're alive. That you are one of the lucky ones."
Fernando Quintero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-650-6333.