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Living with brittle bone disease, Venezuelan refugee pursues her dreams


Michelle is a teenager with brittle bone disease. She came to Colombia looking for medical care. An adapted wheelchair has helped her pursue her dreams.

Michelle and her mother Zulay are optimistic about the future.

Michelle and her mother Zulay are optimistic about the future. | © L. Trujillo / HI

Michelle Duarte is 13 years old. In 2010, she was diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. Her bones are extremely fragile and there is a constant risk of fracture or bone deformity. The young girl needs high-quality medical care and close monitoring, which is why she left Venezuela with her parents to come to Colombia. She and her mother are both strong women who are looking to the future with optimism.

Seeking stability, medical care in Colombia

Michelle spent her entire childhood in Venezuela with her mother, Zulay, and her father. Due to the worsening economic and social crisis in the country, the young girl left for Colombia in June 2022, in the hope of getting much-needed leg operations.

Michelle needed to replace two pins in her legs, one bent and the other loose. The cost of these operations in Venezuela was almost $12,000. And because of the shortage of medicines and the hyperinflation in Venezuela, Michelle could no longer get medical check-ups and receive the treatment that helped reduce the risk of fractures.

Today, her family lives in Antioquia, Colombia. Although Michelle's parents are both Colombian, the young girl doesn’t have Colombian nationality yet, which is delaying her registration with the country's social security system. But with the support of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Humanity & Inclusion's teams have at least been able to register her with the health system. As a result, she has had pediatric medical appointments and has been referred to an orthopedic specialist.

A wheelchair to help her study

In addition to the operation on her legs, Michelle needed a new wheelchair. Her godmother had given her one to help her get around, but it wasn't adapted to her needs. It was too big and didn't hold her spine in position. Poor posture was increasing the risk of fractures and deformation of her bone structure. So, in February 2023, HI provided Michelle with a wheelchair adapted to her needs and fitted with a work table.

"It was the best birthday present of my life," says Michelle. "Today, I feel much stronger and more independent.”

For Michelle to study, she needs her mother with her all the time, which means that Zulay can’t go to work. But this hasn't discouraged her. She has a talent for pastry-making and cooking and is always on the lookout for opportunities that will enable her to train and start her own business from home.

Today, with her new wheelchair and the unconditional support of her mother, Michelle can continue her studies. She already has a brilliant academic record and hopes to become an obstetrician-gynecologist one day.

Date published: 07/27/23


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