Imagine meeting a man who is unable to walk. To get short distances he must crawl or be carried by his partner or neighbours. When going to church, he is transported in a wheelbarrow.
Situations like this aren’t common in Canada, but physical therapy student Jen Allen would see them almost daily. While studying abroad in Kenya, Allen provided treatment for this man suffering from a degenerative central nervous system condition, and many others with disabilities just as severe.
“Patients with sprained ankles are unheard of, whereas cases of contractures which have resulted from polio, babies with severe developmental delays, burns, and congenital deformities are common,” says the recent graduate from the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.
Through Canada-based organization The Kenya Working Group, Allen was teamed up with The Disability Service Programme to complete her six-week internship. Allen says many of her patients’ untreated medical conditions were a “bit hard to see,” but it isn’t the culture shock of her placement overseas that stands out in Allen’s mind. The appreciation her patients and their families had for her team’s rehabilitation services was the most memorable and gratifying part of her trip.
“Regardless of these clients’ conditions, they each greeted us with large smiles and were genuinely grateful for the help they received,” she says. “The strength, joy and appreciation each of these individuals exhibited truly left me reminded of the strength of the human spirit.”
Mark Hall, clinical coordinator of the University of Alberta’s physical therapy department, encourages students to “broaden their horizons” by completing their clinical placements in a developing nation.
“Although Canada is not a developing nation, I think that there are a lot of things students can learn by working in an environment where resources are thin and they really have to think about how they can achieve their treatment goals when the equipment or resources are not available to them,” he says.
“And I think there are some places in Canada where resources perhaps aren’t very well spread out and there will be populations in Canada where students will be able to apply the same sorts of things that they learned internationally.”
For Allen, a unique learning experience occurred when 20 patients ate, slept, and received intensive rehabilitation at the clinic in Opapo for one full week. The patients were mostly children, and the intensive program gave Allen an opportunity to see drastic improvements over a short period of time, both in the children’s health conditions and their parents’ knowledge of medical practices.
“The week flew by since there was so much to do,” she says. “It was certainly an effective way to educate mothers and patients on various topics such as hand washing, prevention of disease, traditional medicine and when to seek medical care. The mothers were also able to see that they were not the only ones with children with a disability.
“Perhaps most importantly, the mothers and patients learned that ‘disability is not inability.’”
Although Allen enjoyed her work, work wasn’t the only thing she did. She took time to make the difficult climb to Uhuru peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro, explored nearby towns and cities, stopped by the bar to watch the Ghana versus Uruguay FIFA World Cup game, rented a motorbike, took a boat through a lake full of hippos, and stayed an extra week after her placement for some free time in Tanzania, just to name a few activities.
Allen advises students interested in completing clinical placements abroad to start planning early and to budget accordingly. Students must be in good standing and should contact their clinical coordinator for more details.
About the University of Alberta Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine
As the only free standing faculty of rehabilitation in Canada, the University of Alberta Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine balances its activities among learning, discovery and citizenship (including clinical practice). A research leader in musculoskeletal health, spinal cord injuries and common spinal disorders (back pain), the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine aims to improve the quality of life of citizens in our community. The three departments, Occupational Therapy (OT), Physical Therapy (PT) and Speech Pathology and Audiology (SPA) offer professional entry programs. The Faculty offers thesis-based MSc and PhD programs in Rehabilitation Science, attracting students from a variety of disciplines including OT, PT, SLP, psychology, physical education, medicine and engineering.