For three glorious weeks in July, I hung up my "educator/researcher" hat and slipped back into being a full-time physical therapist for an experience that has changed my life. I worked in the Advantage Haiti (advantagehaiti.com) clinic in Les Cayes, Haiti. I’ve been home for two weeks, and I’m still processing all the sights, sounds, smells and stories from this opportunity.
The first thing I learned was that adaptability is necessary for volunteer delivery of physical therapy overseas. From the cultural differences and dissimilarities of healthcare systems, to the variety of patients and body systems I examined and treated, I had to be flexible in my thinking. The majority of my patients had been injured in the devastating earthquake Jan. 12. I saw a variety of problems, including burns, unhealed wounds, fractures still with external fixation and amputations, in patients 6 to older than 60. Six months after the earthquake, because of the emergent nature of the surgical procedures, inconsistent follow-up some patients received and generally poor nutrition, healing has been difficult and delayed for many people.
Support was essential for a voyage like this. My workplace allowed me to take three weeks off; I had support from my family, friends, colleagues and students, who generously donated funds and supplies, cutting my out-of-pocket costs. I felt awkward at first asking people for handouts, but I received numerous e-mails and cards of support from these extraordinary people with words of encouragement about how they wished they could donate their time and talents, but in lieu of that were excited to support me, and how inspiring they found my adventure.
While in Haiti, I had the pleasure of meeting and working with Cristiana Kohl, PT, PhD, NCS, and learning about her new organization, Physical Therapy for Humanity (physicaltherapyforhumanity.com). Her vision is a sustainable charity to which people can donate funds and other necessary items, allowing PTs to engage in volunteer therapy missions in areas of high need. I highly encourage those interested in helping with this effort to visit the website and find out how to get involved during the start-up phase.
June Hanks, PT, PhD, the Advantage Haiti clinical director and founder, mentioned to me the night before my departure that I would find it hard to answer what would seem the simplest of questions: "What was it like?" I’ve struggled with writing this short column, and I’ve struggled in responding to this question in every form. Such an overwhelming experience, with such wonderful people, has surpassed my ability to describe it in any succinct way. What I do know, and what I can say with certainty and conviction, is that I will be back. I already am planning next year’s visit to Les Cayes and other parts of Haiti, and I can’t wait.