I'd like to introduce you all to my brother-in-law, Omar Boumenjel. Omar is an above knee amputee who lives just outside Marrakech, Morocco. I, Stewart Staudinger, and my wife, Mariem, pray this story will help you to get to know a bit more about Omar, and help us support him in his ongoing care.
Tragedy struck the Boumenjel family when Omar was just six years old and his mum was pregnant with Mariem, his father died. This left his mother as a single parent of 9.5 children in a country where there is no state support or welfare system. What followed was a testament to Omar and his family. Despite all their hardships, they refused to give in, loving and supporting each other through thick and thin. Omar and one of his brothers dropped out of school in junior high to go to work to support the family, managing to put their oldest brother University and youngest sister through College in the process. With his two older brothers having married and moved out, Omar is the primary breadwinner for his mother and two of his sisters.
It was while Mariem was in her work experience program at the beginning of her second year of college that I, then a Royal Air Force pilot, met her while on exercise with the Moroccan Army in October 2003. In late November, I returned to Morocco, slightly terrified as I spoke little French and no Arabic, to meet her family. I need not have worried, I was treated with the finest hospitality from the moment I walked in the door.
Mariem and I married in 2005, by which time Omar had adopted me as another brother. Whether dragging me through Place Jamaa El Fna in central Marrakech for some 'Houdenjel' (a hot spicy drink), dodging through Moroccan traffic on his motorcycle or driving up winding mountain tracks in an aging Fiat rental car, Omar was determined to make me worthy of marriage to his special baby sister. By 2007, I had travelled to Morocco a number of times and was just another member of the family, and very much the better for it.
Then, just before Christmas 2007, tragedy struck again. While unplugging the header on a sileage cutter on the farm, Omar's right foot got snagged and he was pulled into the machine. He managed to get hold of a couple of handholds to prevent himself being pulled in completely but was stuck, with the tractor straining against a slip clutch, with a sileage machine trying to pull him in. He didn't know it at the time, but the chopper behind the header had already taken his foot and his right knee and lower leg were badly crushed by the rollers in the header. He managed to hang on until his older brother Simohamed and some other farm workers spotted him and rushed to his aid.
Within minutes, the farm manager was on scene and Omar's fortunes turned. The farm is owned by the Moroccan Royal Family, and the manager carries royal authority. Therefore, when the ambulance arrived, it did not head for the public hospital where good medical care would be unlikely, but he was taken to the Military Hospital. There, he was seen to by the Colonel, the hospital's head surgeon and an experienced military trauma doctor who learned his trade in a field hospital treating soldiers suffering from injuries by land mines. Omar was in good hands. After stopping the blood loss and prepping Omar for surgery, the surgeon turned to Omar, who was still conscious, and told him that he could probably save his knee but that it would never work again. However, if he took it off, Omar could get a mechanical knee and learn to walk again. Omar told him to take it off and was then put under for the surgery. When he woke, he was an above knee amputee with no income and an uncertain future.
However, that came some weeks after the accident. In the immediate aftermath, the family were left in shock. With very minimal medical care available publically, and private medical cover being the preserve of the wealthy, the future looked very difficult. Mariem flew from Belfast, where I was stationed at the time, to Marrakech to be with Omar for a couple of weeks. I told her before she left to let him know that we'd help him get walking again. So off she went, while I stayed at home, worked and prayed, researched, worked and prayed some more.
While she was gone, I discovered that we were just a few miles from one of the UK's best prosthetics departments at Musgrave Park Hospital. After a few enquiries, I was convinced that we needed to bring Omar to the UK to get a prosthetic limb fitted and be taught to walk again. Gavin, the prosthetist at MPH, was one of the nicest guys I'd ever met and dedicated to his patients.
So, long story short, we made arrangements, I booked a flight for Omar on hope and a prayer (he didn't have a visa yet), and flew to Morocco in late March to go with him to the British Embassy to sponsor him for a medical visa. The visa officer informed me that this was the first time that she'd ever seen a sponsor actually come to the embassy with the applicant, and then issued Omar a medical visa valid for the next 12 months.
Omar and I drove back from Rabat to Marrakech in high spirits. A couple days later we were on a flight back to the UK and the unknown.
I can't relay all the details of the weeks that followed, but the staff at MPH were brilliant. Mariem and I were both working full time, had no kids and no mortgage so we were able to come up with the funds to have Omar fitted with a leg based on a Otto Bock 3R80 mechanical hydraulic knee. The cover photo of this page shows Omar on the 31st of May 2008, having just walked the entire cliff trail at the 'Giant's Causeway' on the North Antrim coast. Despite his smile, he'd pushed himself a bit too hard and had to spend the next couple days recovering, but a few days later he got off an aeroplane at Marrakech International and walked out to meet his mother. As the family had seen him depart on crutches and no leg, to see him walk back into their home was very emotional. His manager met him a few days later and informed him that they'd got him a job in their main office and sorting centre.
One year after his accident, Omar returned to Belfast to have his first 'permanent' suction socket fitted.
In 2010, we found Omar a nice VW Golf as he'd had to give up his motorcycle after his accident (couldn't change gears without a working foot) and was having to rely on a 50cc moped to get to and from work. Omar immediately turned his car into the local emergency transport system. Many local people cannot afford even a moped for transport, so he keeps blankets and other supplies in the trunk all the time. He's driven several ladies who have gone into labour to hospital in the middle of the night as well as other friends and neighbours who have had medical emergencies of one kind or another. Rarely has a month gone by without a tale of some rescue mission or other having dragged him out in the wee hours of the night. Strange as it may seem, Omar losing his leg has actually enabled him to help others in ways he'd never have been able to in the past. Always generous with his time and resources, and thankful for the opportunities he's had restored to him, Omar has found great joy in passing that joy on to others in whatever way he can.
In 2010, Omar returned to the UK to have his knee serviced and in late 2012, he returned again to have a new socket made and fitted and his knee serviced again. The residual limb atrophies and changes shape over time so a socket only lasts so long before it no longer fits properly and begins to get loose, or rub, or both, etc.
In early 2013, I retired from the RAF and moved back to Canada with my, then pregnant, wife and daughter. After some financial challenges, last year we were very fortunate to sell our house and free up the funds to travel to Morocco in September. We had a brilliant time with the family and I enjoyed the chance to hang out with Omar and catch up.
Unfortunately, all is not well with Omar's leg. He desperately needs a new socket and his knee joint is 9 years old and needs a service at the very least. We discovered that Omar has been driving illegally for several years (his Golf was a 5 speed) so he's had to replace it with an automatic, which are both rare and expensive in Morocco.
Our goal is to bring Omar to Canada to have a new socket made and his knee serviced, probably in August 2017. He cannot get the prosthetic support he needs in Morocco, many amputees there give up on their prosthesis and return to crutches due to poor fit and function, hence his original prosthetic work in the UK.
We'd also like to have a new leg made based on a better knee. His current knee, while excellent on hard flat ground, struggles on the rougher terrain of the farm he still works for. Omar is fit and agile, but occasionally falls where soft sand or rough terrain beats his simple knee. Therefore we're investigating microprocessor knees, or the new 'VGK Go' out of the UK which might be a more cost effective, yet capable solution. We can't afford to do it all alone anymore, so we're aiming to raise funds for a new leg (his original one will be serviced and retained as a spare, as he's a long way from help if something breaks in North Africa).
We'll be setting up a gofundme.com account to help reach this goal, and this site will follow the story.