Colombia: José Harrinson Zuluaga, Orthopaedic Technician
Explosive devices and anti-personnel landmines have injured many people in Colombia. Commissioned by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the Centre for International Migration and Development (CIM) responded by placing an orthopaedic technician on site. Together with SENA, Colombia’s National Training Service Centre, this master craftsman helped establish a training centre for orthopaedic technicians and artificial limb makers. One of the first to graduate, José Harrinson Zuluaga will shortly be teaching a class of his own. Zuluaga is pleased that in future he can work with these students to make better artificial limbs for landmine victims.
What did you study?
I studied industrial design. Over the years I came to realise just how many people in Colombia have been injured by landmines. And they all have to learn to live without a leg or some other limb. That’s not easy. And that’s what gave me the idea of designing a prosthetic limb as part of my final dissertation project. I was aware that most artificial limbs are expensive and imported, but are not fitted to the person who has to wear them. I wanted to do something about that.
Now there is an orthopaedics training centre. Why is that so important for Colombia?
Artificial limb makers have been working here for the past 20 or 30 years. But it is still more like buying a pair of shoes – the landmine victim gets a standard-size prosthetic limb, not one that is custom made. The pressure points and pain they generally cause can be worse than if they don’t wear one.
You are set to start working officially as a member of the teaching staff at the orthopaedic training centre. What is it you would like to pass on to your students?
My role here will be to teach the subjects ergonomics and biomechanics. We analyse what the patient needs and then design a tailor-made technical solution – that might be a wheel chair, crutches, orthopaedic shoes or a prosthetic limb.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
As a child I used to paint a lot. But my grandmother told me I would never earn any money doing that and so sort of forced my grandfather’s books on me – they were about medicine and anatomy. A perfect combination and ideal preparation for what I am passionate about doing today.
What do you think a conflict-free Colombia would be like?
I believe Colombia could be a superpower. We have enough resources to finance infrastructure, education and culture – an ideal country. The conflict here is dividing us and driving us into poverty.
For José Harrinson Zuluaga precision is everything. He wants to produce custom-built and fitted artificial limbs made out of nationally sourced materials.
CIM expert Dietrich Niklas has been teaching at the orthopaedic training centre since 2009. Zuluaga will soon be taking up a teaching post there, too.
Theory and practice go hand in hand at school: if people don’t know how to use them, even the most precise machines are useless. Photos: Thomas Wagner
Zuluaga knows how badly landmine victims suffer from their disability. He treats every one of his patients respectfully and according to their needs.
In lessons plaster casts are made and the prosthetic limbs are customised accordingly. The students work hands on.
Laser measuring devices are used to fit the artificial limbs. Most landmine victims sustain injuries to one or both legs.
Since 1982 more than 7,600 people in Colombia have fallen victim to a landmine. Zuluaga will not rest until the patient is able to wear the prosthetic limb without pain.
Reading and painting: since early childhood these two passions have carved out Zuluaga’s professional path to become an orthopaedic technician.