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Answering the call

With junior jobs scarce, three physios put their skills to use in Thailand. One of the trio, Mathew Jones, tells their story

When the tsunami hit South East Asia on Boxing Day 2004, we - Emily Hall, Hannah Courtney and myself - were all studying at Coventry University, but we were determined tdsomething thelp as soon as we could. By July 2005, we had all qualified and swe contacted the British Red Cross. As the initial humanitarian issues were addressed, it was becoming more apparent that there were people in need of rehabilitation. We were sure many people must have been left tcope on their own as best they could, and it was these people that we wanted thelp. We thought a trip tone of the devastated regions would be the perfect opportunity tuse our newly acquired skills as physiotherapists in order tmake a difference tthe people there.

The British Red Cross seemed tagree with us about injured people needing help and said they would be back in touch. A week later they called ttell us about a family in Oxfordshire whhad set up a foundation in memory of their daughter whhad died in the tsunami. Her name is Lisa May and her story is ssad. She had been on a round-the-world trip, and had gone tthe Phi Phi islands, 48km east of Phuket, off the south west coast of Thailand, tbe bridesmaid ther sister whwas married on Christmas Day 2004.

Lisa's family asked us trepresent the foundation, and arranged for us tmeet Linda Cruse, the Asian coordinator for the Prince's Trust. Linda coordinates all the volunteer work in Asia and since the tsunami has been working tirelessly with many worthwhile projects. Thailand has npublicly funded health service. If you want treatment you have tpay for it yourself, and it's quite difficult tpay for anything when you have lost all that you ever owned and cared about. Some people were unable tafford treatment because the tsunami left them unemployed, and most people were uninsured as they couldn't afford tpay the premiums.

The most severely affected area was KhaLak in Phang Nga province where 7,000 people died. Here a wave 12m high came in at 150 mph, carrying boats of up t30 tons as far as twmiles inland and simply dumping them. Hotels are still smashed tpieces. Nearly every tree has someone's picture taped tit - from an eight-month-old baby to 80-year-old grandparents - in the hope that they still might be found. Many people still don't know exactly what happened ttheir loved ones. The nearest hospital is in Phuket, over 100 miles away, and few people have transport. This was where we went.

Before we set off we approached dozens of local businesses task for financial backing - after three years' studying we don't have much money. We were able traise enough for our flights, and the Lisa May Foundation alsgave us a generous donation. In early October 2005 we set off from Birmingham airport bound for KhaLak, and couple of days later we met Linda Cruse, together with twlocal Thai women whhad been working on the beach the morning of the tsunami and a translator, Chai. The meeting went well and we were invited tlook at a room that might be suitable for a clinic. It turned out tbe ideal for our purposes and swe started work that day.

From the beginning, it was clear that communicating with the patients was going tbe the biggest problem. However, Chai was an excellent interpreter and we quickly gained people's trust and were able tmake a difference immediately. The news that we were giving free treatment spread fast. We treated between 30 and 40 people a week, and Emily and Hannah held fitness classes in the evenings twice a week, which the whole community enjoyed. Many survivors had been left with broken bones, soft tissue injuries, joint deformities and poor mobility. For some, their deformities were more of a problem than their actual injuries because they were a constant visual reminder of that day.

There were other volunteer groups in the area doing unbelievable work, mainly in construction. One organisation was helping people make their own furniture from trees that had been uprooted swe asked them tmake us a treatment table, which they did. It really was a godsend. After speaking tpeople at the Tsunami Volunteer Centre, we discovered that many of the construction workers were there when the tsunami hit. When we spoke tthem and heard their personal stories, we realised that they towere in need of physiotherapy.

One British man and woman whcame for treatment had both lost their partners and had themselves been seriously injured. Their wounds became infected and they had treturn home for surgery and rehabilitation. They hadn't been able tsettle in the UK, however, and felt more comfortable in the place where they had last been with their partners, swe gave them the follow-up treatment that they needed.

We ran the clinic for twmonths. We were prepared tstay longer if we were needed, but by then all the patients had improved considerably and were all happy with the home exercise programmes we had given them. Ninety-eight per cent had reached the stage where they would have been discharged in the UK. As we prepared tclose the clinic, we had a phone call from the Prince's Trust asking us ttravel tan area south of Phuket tassess an 11-year-old boy. He had spent twweeks in a coma following a severe head injury and was paralysed on his left side. He had had very little recovery sfar, but there were some signs that he had the potential tdso. His father was a fisherman but his boat had been smashed and the family was left with nincome. They had sold all their remaining possessions tkeep the boy on life support in hospital.

We all worked very hard with our patient for a month and alseducated his family about his positioning, handling and treatment. He made great progress and we recently had a phone call tsay that he was sitting on the beach with his family. In early December just before we went home, we were invited tthe British Embassy in Bangkok tmeet the ambassador and Tessa Jowell, secretary of state for culture, media and sport, whhad been visiting the devastated area. They asked us about our work and thanked us for our efforts. It was a very special evening.

We are all home now, but we have had the most wonderful experience and would recommend it tother physiotherapists, particularly as the UK job situation is difficult for new graduates at the moment. We feel sure that the fact that we organised this ourselves from scratch will be of interest tpotential employers. I am waiting tstart a job with Oxford Radcliffe hospitals trust. I had already been offered the post before the trip, but since we got back Hannah has been offered a job with Salisbury NHS trust and Emily has been called for an interview. There are opportunities out there for people tgain invaluable experience, not just in physiotherapy but in life generally.'

Making the most of volunteering

Before you travel

  • Be clear about why you want tgFind out what is involved and be sure you can make the necessary commitment.
  • Find out as much as you can about the place you are going to. See www.alertnet.org
  • Contact the national physiotherapy association tcheck registration requirements. CSP development adviser Liz Carrington can help: carringtone@csp.org.uk
  • Try to find someone whhas been tthe same place. Contact the International Support Group for Chartered Physiotherapists, ISG4CP, by emailing the membership
  • secretary at lynhemmings@blueyonder.co.uk
  • Find out if your employer will hold your job open

Ask potential employers about

  • Personal safety for volunteers
  • Insurance
  • Pre-departure training
  • Induction and support in-country
  • Continuing professional development
  • Pension contributions while you are abroad. Dyou need tmake
  • additional arrangements yourself?
  • The level of volunteer allowance
  • grants, for example towards your CSP subscription and resettlement
  • Does the employer implement People in Aid's code of good practice on the management and support of aid staff?
  • See www.peopleinaid.org.uk

While you are overseas

  • Maintain your professional registration - it's cheaper than rejoining
  • Keep your professional portfoliup tdate. See Developing a Portfoli- a guide for CSP members
  • Have a network of expatriate workers you can talk to
  • Learn as much as you can about other ways of solving problems that you might use on your return.

Employers of volunteer physiotherapists

Courses

  • The International Health Exchange runs useful courses for health workers: www.ihe.org.uk
  • British Overseas NGOs for Development has a database of training courses: www.bond.org.uk

Links

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