Prosthetics in Colombia, Part One
June 2019 Issue
On my latest trip to Colombia I had a chance to catch up with Patrolman Carlos Munoz, the only active duty individual with a major limb loss among Colombia's military and police forces, in which people are routinely retired out of service following an amputation. I first met him last year at a Jim Hughes prosthetics clinic at Fundación Cirec in Bogota, which was partially sponsored by Munoz's unit, the Mounted National Police. Munoz spent a few days helping us fabricate at the clinic, using technical skills he learned through a local program, SENA (Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje), and through an internship at Ottobock, Duderstadt, Germany. This interview shares Munoz's thoughts about his rehabilitation process and his hopes for people with amputations in the military and in civilian life in Colombia.
How long have you been in the National Police?
I have been serving eight years in different special units of the National Police, tactical groups, mounted police squads, and at the administrative office of the police.
Before you were part of the mounted police what was your unit?
I was in a commission studying prosthetics, and before that I was in a special tactical group called GOES (Grupo de Operaciones Especiales).
Author's note: GOES is a special forces tactical unit that counters guerilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia/Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and narcotics traffickers in remote areas of Colombia. Munoz was on duty in Central Colombia when he was injured, which led to a transfemoral amputation.
How did you become an amputee?
My incident was six years ago. I was ambushed with my patrol partner by guerillas from the FARC front where my partner and I were badly injured. I received four rifle shots in my left leg, two pistol shots to my chest, and one in my back. My partner lost his life during that event. We were transported to a hospital and there I had a number of surgeries. I was in a coma for eight months. After waking up from my coma, my leg still had the injuries and the orthopedist said that they could not do anything else to save it. It had to be amputated above the knee. Before the accident I wanted to be something similar to a Navy Seal. Now my life project is to help others through a foundation that is in charge of helping police officers who have been victims of this type of incident, the families of police who need prosthetics, and orphans of policemen killed on duty. We actively help to make them feel they are not forgotten.
What do you do in that foundation?
I help people to get prostheses, and I help to collect toys and school supplies for policemen's orphans. We organize an event for Children's Day (a holiday celebrated in South America) so they don't feel completely abandoned by the fact that they have lost a parent. It is important that we make them feel that we are also here for them. Because what hurts the most is to feel abandoned by the institution you have sacrificed so much for.
How did you feel right after the amputation?
It was a bittersweet feeling because when I had my leg it hurt a lot, and when they amputated it my pain disappeared. But you find yourself with the question of "What am I going to do now? How is my life going to be?" We must be aware that there is a lot of stigma still in Colombia when we think of amputees. The first thing that is a person asking for money or selling candies in the street. I knew that I did not want that for my life.
What does it mean personally for you to still be active duty?
When you acquire a disability, the first thing that comes to your mind is "What am I going to do with my life from now on?" I am very grateful to the National Police as an institution that has supported me not only with psychological and physical rehabilitation but also with training and education that I have received to be a useful member of society and the police force. As a person who has lost a limb in my duties, I feel included and useful. I have never felt discrimination of any kind.
From other interviews I did on the military bases in Bogota, I understand that people with limb loss within the military and police forces are referred to rehabilitation and then retired from the force. Why is that not your case?
Right now, the National Police are trying to integrate those members that have lost a limb in their duty by adding them to any of the different administrative offices or headquarters. I do believe that with the appropriate prosthesis you can come back to combat ready and play any active role needed. I think that it might be implemented in the future.
What do you think keeps other amputee police officers from reintegrating into active duty?
When you lose a limb, you feel that you have already sacrificed so much for duty that you feel there is nothing more you can give. Sometimes it is the lack of self-love that comes with the shock of feeling incomplete.
As an active duty member, do you have to pass the physical exams?
As long as you wear the uniform you have to fulfill all the requirements to be a police officer.
What advice would you give an officer who lost a limb?
I believe the most important thing in these cases in which a disability is acquired is that one has to be very disciplined and have good self-esteem. First you have to accept yourself and your disability in order to succeed in life. Once you accept what happened, you will be able to overcome any situation. Life is not over because you lost a limb. It starts again in a different way where you have more to prove and achieve.
Tell us about your overall experience of the prosthetic world, seeing it as an amputee and an advocate.
It was a revealing experience. I learned that although making a prosthesis might sound simple, it is not. I believe that people who do prosthetics and orthotics have great hearts because they dedicate their life to improve the quality of life of disabled people. That learning experience showed me there is a large group of people working to help others.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to study law so I can keep helping people in different ways. Maybe thinking big, I will become a politician or a minister in the future so I could create more spaces or programs of inclusion for people with disabilities not only in the military forces or police departments but other areas of development for this country. Never underestimate or discriminate against somebody with a disability. Most of the time it is other people telling you, you cannot do this, you cannot do that. That is the worst thing to do. On the contrary, we need to encourage them to pursue a normal, independent, and useful life.
Recorded interview translated and transcribed by Nery Santaella.
Jason Rovig, CPO, is from the Pacific Northwest and has been on a sabbatical traveling Latin America working on projects with O&P organizations, refugee centers, humanitarian groups, and art galleries. His current projects are sharing refugee stories to help supplement the lack of free press in Venezuela through www.venezuelanvoices.com and using art for activism through his art collective www.artforimpact.org.
Photographs by Jason Rovig or submitted by Carlos Munoz and used with permission.