I recently returned from a two week trip to Kenya where I volunteered as a physiotherapist to assist children with disabilities and their families. This was a humanitarian trip was organized by A Better World Canada, an organization based out of Alberta, Canada which strives to create a better world by initiating sustainable change. This was my first time in Africa and my first time as a medical volunteer. I blogged for A Better World Canada throughout the trip to share the experience with those interested back home. Here is one of those blog posts to give you an idea of my experience.
Maasai Mara National Reserve
If you’ve been following along for the last couple of weeks, you would have noticed that I’ve written about our drives to and from clinics and schools a few times already. It turns out it was all a lead up to the drives we’ve been experiencing over the last couple days – game drives! We took up residence in the Maasai Mara National Reserve for the last few days, Kenya’s famous grassland wilderness. With our clinic set just outside the reserve’s boundaries, our morning and afternoon commutes involved driving through this beautiful park. There’s nothing quite like waving hello to families of elephants and zebras on your way to a medical clinic.
Hosting a community medical clinic
This region of Kenya is home to the Maasai tribe, one of Kenya’s main tribes. The number of children with disabilities in this area is difficult to estimate as it's not uncommon for children born into Masai families to be hidden by their families and rejected by their communities. By setting up a rehabilitation clinic here, we wanted to address this under-serviced area. As with our Ndanai clinic earlier in the week, we had education and community support high on our list of goals.
The volunteer medical team
This jam-packed clinic had everyone involved. Our entire rehab team was back at it assessing children who had made the trip, some who traveled well over a few hours to get there. We were supported by an occupational therapist (OT) from a local county, as well as by Veronica, another experienced OT from Kenya. Rounding out our team was Speech Therapist Marcia from Alberta. Up front were Joyce, Barb and Jessica, registering new families, welcoming returning children and just about organizing everything to help the clinic run as smoothly as possible. I’m not able to describe everything it takes to run a clinic like this but it definitely takes a massive amount of preparation and patience.
Children with disabilities
Great attendance at the clinic confirmed to us that there is a need for rehabilitation in this area. The children we met ranged in ages from a few months through to the mid-teens. Most were new to the clinic with their parents looking for assistance with their child’s development, an understanding of what the problem was and what they could do about it, or all of the above. We worked in teams to complete a physiotherapy and occupational therapy assessment, prescribe an exercise program if applicable, provide education on the child’s disability, and offer support for what the parent (or parents) were already doing. The parents also had several opportunities to participate in group sessions to share experiences, learn about the stages of childhood development, and gain insight into raising a child with a disability.
Healthcare in Kenya
To put things in some sort of perspective, most of the families we met live in rural communities without access to experienced clinicians, in the midst of existing stigma and lack of knowledge on disability. Assistive devices for these children are extremely difficult to come by, not to mention financially unattainable. We saw more than one older child (in their teen years), who could not walk, and with no access to a wheelchair, was being carried by their mother. If a parent was unable to carry their child, or refused to, the child was resorted to scooting on their buttocks or getting around on their knees.
Glimpses of hope
As with our previous clinic, there were many glimpses of hope amongst what may have appeared to be great despair to many First World eyes. Loren, a kinesiologist from Alberta, recalls a very positive experience, one that will remain with him for a long time. Working with a 15 year old girl who couldn’t walk independently due to severely contracted legs, he was able to show the mother and daughter that with diligent exercises, walking was in her future. At first the mother refused the recommendations, not believing this was possible. With further discussion and education, and a night to sleep on it, she saw a window of hope and accepted it. At our end of clinic celebration, it was this mother who stood up in front of all the others to thank us publicly. There are many other stories like this one that the team will be taking back home with them following this successful clinic.
For more of the blogs from my trip, visit A Better World Canada.