Alynx Benardin: A Hand Across the Sea

The distance between Philadelphia and Fort-Liberté, Haiti, is more than 1,450 miles, and the two cities are worlds apart in many other ways, as well; but Deacon Alynx Benardin’s commitment to serve his parish and complete his path to ordination as a Catholic priest inspired others to help span that gap. Despite distance, language barriers, and pandemic travel complications, the arm Benardin lost in a vehicle accident in Haiti was successfully replaced with an above-elbow prosthesis and hand created in Philadelphia in 2020 by Lawall.

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Benardin would likely be the first to agree that the Lord works in mysterious ways: Becoming a priest had been first a childhood dream, then a lifetime commitment as he embraced the ten-year program of study scheduled to culminate in his ordination to the priesthood in June 2022. His preparations for future pastoral ministry embraced schools, religious education programs, hospitals, prisons, and parishes, and his studies have included practical learning such as preaching, presiding at Mass and pastoral counseling.

Possessing two functional arms and hands would naturally be an advantage in this demanding life of service; but when Benardin’s vehicle ran off the hazardous mountain roads in northeast Haiti and landed in a ravine—pinning his left arm beneath it for hours before he was extracted—that severely damaged arm could not be saved.

A challenging setback; but Benardin remained committed, faithfully continuing his studies and his assigned duties preparatory to dedicating his life to the church.

Enter a new character: Tom Kardish, President of Villa Joseph Marie High School in Holland, Pennsylvania, makes frequent visits to Haiti to engage in medical mission work, and just happened to be present there in December 2019 with a group of his students.

“There was a feast,” Kardish recalls, “and Bishop Quesnel Alphonse of the Fort-Liberté parish was visiting this small mountain community for the first time. Afterwards, he came back to the rectory with his entourage, and asked what, at the time, I thought was a very audacious question: could I get Deacon Benardin a prosthetic arm?”

It wasn’t till after his return to Philadelphia that Kardish remembered that one of his students was the daughter of Dave Lawall, of Lawall Prosthetics & Orthotics, and contacted him with the request.

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Lawall was glad to help by donating their skills and materials to create a prosthesis for Alylnx at no cost, so Benardin travelled to the United States for his initial fitting on February 27, 2020. As the predominant language of Haiti is Haitian Creole, with some French also spoken, communication between Benardin and his prosthetist, Dave Lawall, initially posed a problem.

Providentially, Kardish was able to locate a Haitian priest, Father Pierre Joseph, from the Trenton area, who willingly served as translator and assisted during Benardin’s fittings at the Lawall facility.

“That was pre-pandemic,” Lawall explains. “I started making the prosthesis, and it was like the world changed while we were making it! COVID-19 concerns were causing the airports to shut down, and Tom (Kardish) said, ‘Listen, we’ve got to get Alynx out of the country while he can still make it home!’

“We met with him a couple of times and were able to get the prosthetic finished on the 4th of March, with a fitting at the rectory where he was staying—just in time for his flight, which was scheduled for the 5th!”

Empowerment, Stage One:

Unfortunately, although Lawall had designed both a prosthetic hook and prosthetic hand along with the above-elbow arm, the hand wasn’t yet completed—and only arrived three weeks after Alynx had returned to Haiti with the serviceable prosthetic hook. This multi-functional hook, however, was most helpful in allowing him to perform a variety of the essential daily tasks so often taken for granted by those with two biological hands.

“The hook is generally a much more functional terminal device than the hand, which only opens the first three fingers,” Lawall points out. “With the hook you can grab things, you can pull things or push things, making it easier to work buttons, pick up utensils and tools; so traditionally, the hook is a more versatile and functional device than a hand.

“Because the hand only uses the index finger, the middle finger, and the thumb to grasp things, it has greater limitations—which is why we chose to design and fit the hook first. We thought it was going to be more useful,” he explained.

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“The hand, which is used with a glove, is a more cosmetic terminal device. We thought that with his appearances in church, saying mass, the hand would be more cosmetic and less distracting.” Lawall remembers Alynx as a healthy, athletic young man, “…super appreciative of everything that was being done for him.

“When we put the prosthesis on him, and he would work the device and see it respond; even with the language barrier, that smile that he gave us with it—that was worth a thousand words!” Because his was a short above-the-elbow amputation, Benardin’s arm required a mechanical elbow and a mechanical hand, which makes the design challenging, Lawall notes.

“Most important was the need to choose components that would be maintenance-free,” he points out. “We could have given him a myoelectric elbow, but then if something would break down, where would he get repairs done to it? It had to be something that required limited maintenance for the prosthesis; we wanted to give him something that was reliable and durable, that was better for everyday use.”

After Benardin returned home, continued travel restrictions allowed no opportunity for followup, says Lawall.

“I had no idea how he did after his fitting! There was no contact because the world turned upside down during the pandemic! It wasn’t till a year later that the airports were open, and Alynx was able to return for a couple of days in July of 2021, to pick up his hand and his cosmetic glove.”

At that time Lawall experts were able to make adjustments to his prosthetic arm and to confirm that the hand fit perfectly and Alynx was working well with it.

During his brief visit, despite limitations imposed by COVID restrictions, Benardin was able to do some sightseeing around the Philadelphia and Bucks County area—and also to become one of the rare few people in Haiti to have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine!

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During both his visits, Benardin gratefully enjoyed the home and hospitality provided by Monsignor Joseph Gentili, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Buckingham, Pennsylvania—a friend of Kardish and of the Haitian mission effort since 1997.

No doubt at a better time, Benardin may be able to return to the United States for a longer visit, to broaden his perspective and deepen the understanding and insights he can share with his parishioners in Fort-Liberté—where life is very different, and has evolved from a storied national history predating the Spanish settlement of the area in the 1490s.

The population of Fort-Liberté was estimated in 2015 at 34,434. The most common religious affiliations are Roman Catholic and Haitian Vodou.

In such a world, Benardin’s new arm is already visibly making a difference as he re-embraces his favorite sports, activities and duties, as mentor and leader within his parish.

Ripples in a Pond…

One might imagine that the chain of events that led to Benardin receiving his new arm began as long ago as 1983, with Kardish’s early career in the pharmaceutical business, and his later decision to accompany Mennonite workers at his Doylestown Lumber Company on their medical mission work in Haiti, serving as pharmacist.

“Once I learned to arrange and execute such missions,” Kardish explains, “I started the program within my church, Our Lady of Carmel in Doylestown. Until COVID intervened, I had gone to Haiti probably twice a year since 1997. Then when I got into the high school business, I started taking girls from Villa on these missions twice a year.

“It’s really rewarding to return to the same community, where you get to know the people and really see progress,” he observes.

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Since Haiti has no public school system to speak of, most education is provided by religious schools, which, alongside the church itself, form a foundation function for the community, he explains. Despite what one might expect to be desperation in a country plagued by shortages, the absence of reliable expectations is somehow liberating, Kardish reflects. “When you get to Haiti, you just need to be flexible; don’t have any expectations!” he laughs. “I’ve had trips go incredibly smoothly and I’ve gone on trips that took an extra 2 ½ days to enable us to start working, so you just have to sort of ‘go with it.’

“It’s interesting—there are no clocks in Haiti! Things just happen; even mass. When you hear the music, it’s time to start.”

This is the community which produced a student like Alynx Benardin, dedicated to serving his community’s physical and spiritual needs through the priesthood he’ll attain soon after this story is published. “I’m not sure that, without the Lawalls’ help, that that would have occurred,” Kardish muses. Alynx’s family, of course, is very proud. How many other lives might he also be influencing, and perhaps saving in years to come, through his choice? “Thousands,” Kardish believes. “The church in Haiti is everything in these communities. The priest serves as the electoral official, the policeman, judge, bank, the schoolteacher, the school administrator. In these communities, the church is really the foundation of the entire community.

Armed to Serve

What lies ahead for Benardin and his community and country, certainly only God knows; but “he’s functioning, he’s going to be a priest, he’s got a hand now, and he’s shared some amazing pictures,” Kardish notes. “The Lawalls really helped him to be able to do all the things he needs to do as a priest. And yes, I have pictures of him driving again! —on the worst roads in the world—where it takes 24 hours to go 90 miles. Unbelievable!”

“I express my appreciation to Dave and all the Lawall family,” he concludes. “They changed a life, and probably by extension, changed a lot of people’s lives.”