“As a student of Physical Therapy, I never thought I’d need a machete on the job,” said Allison Stowers, as she laughs with friend and colleague, Hannah Redd. Both young women are completing their final year at the Byrdine F. Lewis School of Nursing and Health Professions at Georgia State University in the Physical Therapy program.
Stowers and Redd boarded a plane for Africa in the summer of 2014 to join the CURE International organization in Uganda for three weeks. CURE International is a non-profit organization that operates charitable hospitals and health care programs in over 30 countries worldwide. Through the selfless service of health care professionals and well-equipped facilities, CURE provides patients with medical treatment regardless of gender, religion or ethnicity.
Stowers and Redd joined a team made up of foreign, medical volunteers and Ugandan natives to bring hope and quality health care to local patients that often do not have access to modern treatments and surgical procedures in this East African nation. While working with different medical professionals from surgeons to pediatricians, the two young physical therapy students were able to utilize and implement the clinical skills they learned in PT school in a real-world scenario, often with life-changing results.
While working with two certified Physical Therapists in extraordinary circumstances, Stowers and Redd learned skills that could only be applied through actual practice in the field and hard to master in a classroom. Given the lack of medical resources in Uganda, the girls were challenged to improvise treatment techniques and to adapt everyday objects as clinical tools. These lessons were pioneered by PT veterans Dr. Julie Johnson and Dr. Sam Lwanga, both of whom serve in Uganda and all too familiar with hurdling the challenges of providing treatment in a developing country.
“We watched as Sam (Lwanga) took a machete into the bush and cut down branches to try and make parallel bars for a child who could not walk or stand by herself,” said Redd. “It was amazing how he would transform the most simple of objects to aid in a patient’s recovery.”
Both women recall using ‘MacGyver-like’ techniques to help patients. “Once we dug a large hole to teach parents how to position their child to sit upright instead of laying on her back all day, “Stowers says. “There is little to no money available for proper equipment, so you have to think outside the box.”
The courageous and inventive spirit of Lwanga, in the face of monumental challenges, was a lesson not lost on the young students. “The everyday problems that Uganda patients face is entirely different than what patients in the states could even imagine,” said Redd. “Sam was our guide to Uganda, he engulfed us in the culture and taught us how much good we could accomplish.”
“Julie was also incredibly helpful,” Stowers describes. “She was also far away from home and helped us realize how lucky we were to have the financial and educational resources that are available in America. Her heart and ours were in the same place, we developed a love for the patients we saw and didn’t want to leave.”
Stowers and Redd were also able to pass on the knowledge and training they had learned in PT school back home to local health care providers who have little to no access to cutting edge techniques and physical therapy education. “We all traded ideas on different techniques and creative ideas,” Redd says. “We were able to teach Sam how to use the donated splinting materials as well.”
The disparities between providing treatments in Uganda as opposed to the United States were extremely evident to the students. “We may see a patient once and not see them again for six months to a year or ever again in some cases,” Redd says. “Unlike in the United States, where most children can come back (to therapy) and find quality medical care when necessary, a child’s condition may change drastically and his/ her needs may change before their families are able to seek medical care again.”
“We also had to account for the differences in lifestyle,” Stowers added. “For instance, mothers who live in the rural villages are literally surviving day-to-day; cooking, cleaning, growing food, building structures, raising animals; therefore, proscribing them an in-depth exercise routine for their child was unrealistic.”
Stowers and Redd expressed a sense of nostalgia when reminiscing upon their trip. Redd plans to return in summer of 2015 to work with CURE once again. Stowers is also itching to return to Uganda. After their first week there, the young women both met with CURE hospital leaders to plan a return trip.
Redd not only wants to return because she greatly misses helping the many children in need, but also to bolster the physical therapy education system in Uganda. “There are only two DPTs in all of Uganda and most PTs are at the diploma level. Even the higher levels of education in Uganda are taught by the same professors who teach at the diploma level. Because of this, many who graduate from the PT program don’t feel the need to return to school due to lack of new information to learn.”
Stowers and Redd miss their friends and patients from Uganda every day, but thankfully, they have been able to keep in touch via the CURE blog, CURE Kids. Here, the organization profiles all of their patients and how they are doing, if they end up returning to the CURE hospital or if follow-up care is taken to them.
“At first, I didn’t know if just two PT students could make an impact in Uganda,” Stowers says. “I didn’t realize that we could not only help patients, but we could also help the doctors learn more about new PT procedures. We felt so overwhelmed with emotions about how much we were touching children’s’ lives and ultimately, how much they would touch us.”
“We can’t wait to return and do more,” Redd says. “I want to encourage anyone willing to offer help to do so through CURE. There is such a need for PTs in Africa. In the future I hope to take other PT’s and students over for this incredible, challenging and life-changing experience.”