Physical Therapy in Uganda


Doctor of Physical Therapy students serve in Uganda

Within a day of arriving in Uganda in June 2014, two professors and a group of 12 George Fox doctor of physical therapy students were hit hard with a harsh reality: Things were done differently here.

Among their first impressions: A young man tied to a tree, restrained there for four years because of his disabilities. “He hadn’t walked in years, and nobody knew how to deal with him,” says Tyler Cuddeford, director of George Fox’s physical therapy program. “They were afraid he’d make bad decisions, so they tied him up. It just shows the lack of care for children with disabilities in the country. It’s hard to see and hard to prepare for.”

Into that backdrop Cuddeford, fellow professor Jeff Houck and a dozen third-year students tended to the needs of Ugandan children and adults stricken with disease and immobility last June. It was the first service trip for the program but won’t be the last, as plans call for an annual visit.

Doctor of Physical Therapy students serve in Uganda

Serving with Passion

And while making the two-week trip isn’t a requirement to graduate from the three-year program, it more than meets the program’s “professional duty and social responsibility” component. It also embodies the department and university’s mission to “serve with passion.”

“Ultimately, being experts in mobility, our mission was to empower people to take care of themselves – to get them to function better, whether that means teaching someone to walk or just helping them move in a more efficient way,” Cuddeford said.

Treatment and Research

The George Fox team visited two rehabilitation clinics for disabled children, an adult clinic and a remote village, Kisowera. They also partnered with Uganda Christian University to conduct research on foot health, comparing Ugandans who grew up wearing shoes to those who’ve been walking barefoot all their lives. The data is still being analyzed.

Doctor of Physical Therapy students serve in Uganda

For student Alex Grimsley, the experience won’t soon be forgotten. “I’d never been to a different country to do anything like this,” he says. “I was excited to use the knowledge I had to educate people and see them respond. It was a practical application of all we had been learning in the classroom.”

Students treated patients with clubfoot, cerebral palsy, spina bifida and polio. Ailments ranged from dislocated shoulders and an inability to move arms to a complete breakdown of the legs. “The very first person we treated crawled in, legs rotated sideways, and his feet didn’t even resemble feet,” Cuddeford said. “He also had a shoulder that routinely subluxed. Still, even though he had significant post-polio challenges, we were able to help him by improving his mobility and strength.”

The People: 'Beautiful and Kind'

Doctor of Physical Therapy students serve in Uganda

George Fox students assisted more than 50 children that first day. They would go on to treat 40 more at another school a few days later and 40 at the adult clinic. The reality of their surroundings was reinforced by the presence of a cemetery on one of the school grounds.

“It’s hard to walk into a place and past a kid on the ground who isn’t moving – and you don’t know if he’s alive or dead,” said Houck, director of research in the George Fox physical therapy program. “It takes an emotional toll on you. I had to step away at one point and collect myself. What was rewarding was seeing how grateful the people were. They were beautiful and kind.”

'We'll Definitely be Back'

Cuddeford will assess the trip and make modifications, primarily to improve efficiency. He also says there is a possibility of adding other service-related trips, perhaps to China.

 “The average wage [in Uganda] is less than $2 a day, yet the people there love life and are wonderful to work with,” he said. “We’ll definitely be back.”

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