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Occupational Therapists Susan Hannah, Altum Health, UHN, and Edith Ng, Toronto Rehab, UHN, truly understand what it means to be team players. As instructors for Haiti’s Hôpital Albert Schweitzer’s nine-month Rehabilitation Technician Training Program (RTTP), Susan and Edith joined a group of volunteers this past May to educate Haitian students on providing therapy support and restoring functionality for Haiti’s earthquake survivors and the 345,000 people living in the Artibonite Valley of central Haiti.
In an effort to prevent brain drain, RTTP makes rehab education accessible to Haitians in both their native Haitian Creole and French, effectively building professional infrastructure for the country’s rehab services. Without RTTP, the closest physiotherapy program is in nearby Dominican Republic, where money and predominantly Spanish-speaking instruction create barriers for Haitians to attend.
“RTTP ensures that Haitians are being trained to care for the people in their own country,” says Susan. “The philosophy of educating and training Haitians to be frontline health care workers ensures that our impact will be long-lasting.”
After the earthquake, frontline health care workers like rehabilitation technicians were highly instrumental in helping Haitians recover. Injuries sustained during the earthquake included peripheral nerve and spinal cord injuries, amputations, burns and untreated post-surgical complications. Due to the lack of resources, most Haitians are living in remote communities with these injuries and physical challenges that can be prevented or overcome through therapy intervention.
The aim of the RTTP is to fill this gap in services by training rehabilitation technicians with the basic therapy knowledge and skills to work with high-need patients. The technicians are also taught how to help families make their homes adaptable for accessibility and facilitate common daily functions, including sitting comfortably, interacting with family and helping with meal preparation.
With an international team of volunteer physiotherapists, speech pathologists and occupational therapists like Susan and Edith, RTTP has proven to be essential for Haitians.
Knowledge, however, is always easier to distribute than rehabilitation resources, as Susan and Edith discovered: “They have to be creative and use readily available local materials for devising special seating for children with cerebral palsy, fabricating splints and adapting equipment for increased function, for example,” explains Susan. “Some of these materials may be pieces of wood or plastic buckets which can be cut out for seating purposes.”
Another challenge is Haiti’s often volatile environment—something that Edith experienced at a roadblock on the way to a homeless shelter. The vehicle she was travelling in was attacked, and she was injured. However, it was the Haitian RTTP students who showed the most caring response, singing and videotaping a song to raise Edith’s spirits and demonstrating their sense of fun and ability to work together as a team.
“It is our hope that by teaching the students to see the possibilities in their patients and by helping one individual and one family at a time, their work will become examples for others to learn from,” says Edith. “It is also important to be realistic and have an open mind to learn from our students regarding the barriers that they face in Haiti that can limit one’s rehabilitation potential.”
Before embarking on their journey, Edith consulted with Susan on hand therapy treatment following trauma or surgery during Edith’s previous visits to Haiti with Healing Hands for Haiti and TRI, and to Nepal with NepalAbility. After being involved from a distance and helping to contribute equipment to Haiti’s hospitals, Susan decided to move to the frontlines and joined Edith on her most recent voyage to Haiti.
Happy to have made the trip, Susan and Edith came away with respect for Haitians, specifically “their versatility, strength and perseverance.” Together, they have achieved a global impact that only true teammates can. As a volunteer travelling to Haiti since 2007, Edith has made several return trips to see how the students and Haiti have progressed. She is already planning her next international volunteer opportunity to Nepal in 2012. Susan also hopes to return to Haiti to work in a similar capacity one day and to lend a therapeutic hand as a team member in other locations around the world.
- Elyse McKenzie