After the 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, a close friend suggested I contact Handicap International (HI) about working there as a physiotherapist. I was more than hesitant. However, I have always wanted to do work in developing countries.
My first mission with HI lasted for four weeks that July. By the end of my first week, I knew that four weeks would not be enough.
The following January, I took a six-month leave from my permanent job in Whitehorse to return to Haiti. This time I worked out of the Prosthetics and Orthotics clinic, which later became the Centre du RehabilitationFunctionalle (CRF).
I led the mobile team, which consisted of an occupational therapist, translator, driver, rehabilitation technician and prosthetics/orthotics technician. I travelled with the team three days a week, and an occupational therapist led the team the other two days.
Port-au-Prince had some serious accessibility issues prior to January 2010 and the destruction of the earthquake created even more barriers for many people with mobility issues.
In some cases, clients were not confident in the physical skills needed to be mobile in the community. For example, one client did not go to the market despite the fact it was only blocks away, because she was worried about going up and down the hill outside her home.
She lived along a very busy street. The sidewalk was very narrow and uneven, and she was worried that if she tripped she might fall into the busy traffic. We walked this route with her several times until she gained confidence.
Within a month she was able to go independently to the market.
We also visited clients who were unable to attend the clinic, adjusted prosthetics and mobility equipment, and assessed community mobility.
I also helped screen clients for services. While some were referred from other organizations or medical clinics, many just walked in off the street.
We assessed their needs, decided if they could benefit from our services, or referred them to another organization that could better meet their needs.
If they were in need of prosthetic or orthotic assistance, they were measured and cast for their device, which was made on-site. Once their device was completed, they worked with the physio and rehabilitation technicians on learning to walk with it.
The people were incredibly warm and welcoming; they showed so much appreciation for any support.
I was touched by their resilience and strength; so many lost so much in the earthquake, yet their focus was often about moving forward and not about the obstacles they faced.
Once of my favorite client stories involved a 21-year-old woman with atransfemoral (above knee) prosthetic. Her home was a metal and tarp shelter far from the main road. Because there was no specific address for her house, she had to walk down to the road to get us.
When she led us back to her house and we arrived about 20 minutes later, we were sweaty, tired and out of breath from attempting to keep up with her as she easily climbed the hills. She had hardly broken a sweat!
Working in Haiti involved many challenges and taught me many new clinical skills, but I think the skill that proved to be most useful was the ability to be flexible.
Often my job wasn’t exactly what I imagined it would be—besides treating beneficiaries I also did things such as locating free, local medical services, tracking down missing prosthetics or delivering mattresses.
Sometimes my well-planned day in the field was suddenly cancelled because of security issues or elections. Or, the mobile team travelled across the city to visit a beneficiary, only to find out that rehabilitation was the least of their needs.
Needs often included feeding families, finding a source of income or locating a shelter that was safe and dry.
While I don’t have plans to return, if the right opportunity came up I would love to go back.
Because of my experiences both abroad and in Canada, I have become very interested in program development and evaluation of health/rehab programs, especially in service delivery models that help rural and remote communities access health services and programs.