Physiotherapy in Bolivia by Victoria Eastham
I was initially drawn to Bolivia because of the placement. I qualified from a degree in Physical Therapy last year and wasn’t quite ready to join the real world. Volunteering is something I have always wanted to do and this placement in Cochabamaba, Bolivia was something I thought I would both learn from and be able to give something to. It also meant I would be able to combine this with new experiences, traveling and learning about new cultures.
When I arrived in Cochabamaba I was picked up from the airport and taken to my host family. Although I was a little nervous as soon as I met my host mum, all this went away. She was so welcoming and friendly, I knew I would be looked after well.
I was to be working in Hospital Viedma, the local and only public hospital. Here I worked in the Burns Unit. This consisted of one operating theater, 3 wards with 4 beds in each and a gym used for treating outpatients. In the physical therapy department there were two full time physical therapists then monthly rotations of students from two different universities in the city. The medical department consisted of a handful of nurses and volunteers. The doctors were only paid if they were consultants so the remaining worked unpaid for experience. There was also a charity that was run by an American nurse who was able to provide pressure garments to the children, to aide in their recovery.
Whilst I was there I was being looked after by Andrea, one of the physical therapists there, who thankfully spoke English. This was helpful in my first couple of weeks there when I spoke close to no Spanish. Despite my lack of Spanish though I soon managed to find a way of communicating with the other members of the physical therapy team. Everyone was appreciative of me being there they so were so welcoming and this meant I was able to fit in very easily and quickly.
The children in the burns unit were from only a few months old to 20 years. Most had burns from accidents at home. In Bolivia most families all live, cook, sleep and play in the same room this means there are accidents with hot water and petrol used for cooking. The burns were of varying degrees of severity, the worst of them being full body burns. My treatment as a physical therapist was to manage these burns. This included scar management and maintaining joint range of movement and strength. To do this with children in the UK is a challenge, to do this in Bolivia where you don’t speak the language is harder! Luckily there is a universal language with children, play.
Spending my days treating and playing with the children was rewarding. Not only did I become their physical therapist, I became their friend. Some outpatient children would make sure they came in at certain times to ensure they saw you. This helped with treatment. It meant they would come in as often as they could. Follow up treatment is difficult in a country like Bolivia. Getting to and from the hospital is difficult so a lot of families don’t bring their children back after their initial treatment, if the children enjoy going, their family are more likely to bring them.
Working there also helped me become innovative; the little equipment there meant that treating wasn’t the same as in the UK. We used a bath as a hydrotherapy pool, treated patients on mats on the floor when there wasn’t room and used toys as equipment. This didn’t matter to the children and their families though as they were just so appreciative of their children getting the treatment they needed, which without the center, they wouldn’t be able to afford.
I wasn’t the only volunteer helping out at the center. In one of my first weeks there a group of American surgeons came to give a week of free operations. They treated over 90 children and gave free equipment. I was able to watch several surgeries whilst I was there, being able to see the treatment process from the very beginning helped me a lot as a therapist in understanding the full extent to what these children go through.
The center was very reliant on these volunteer projects involved in the hospital without which they would not be able to treat the hundreds of children that have benefited from the treatment they have received. Even with these projects there was a constant shortage of creams for therapy, antiseptic, and gauze pads. It is a constant struggle to give the care to these children they need but with such a worthwhile cause everyone involved in the project always gives all they can which made it such a great place to work.
It wasn’t all work whilst I was in Cochabamba. The evenings were spent meeting the other volunteers for dinner, the cinema, and the occasional few drinks! The weekends we went away to visit the various places Bolivia has to offer. I was able to visit La Paz the capital a few times, go hiking in the mountains, visit the jungle and see dinosaur footprints at a national park. The weekends we spent in Cochabamba itself we went to the soccer, “la cancha” (the giant local market selling everything from ipods to cakes) and I even managed to see a Bolivian boy band!
Apart from the great experience I got from volunteering at the hospital I also made some great friends, both local people and volunteers. Although I went out traveling on my own, it didn’t feel like that at any point whilst I was out there. I learnt a lot about myself and about a different culture and environment and will definitely go back one day.