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Physical Therapists Playing Critical Role in Post-Earthquake Haiti

3/22/2010

Haiti’s devastating January 12 earthquake left hundreds of thousands of people dead, tons of rubble scattered along the streets of Port-au-Prince and thousands of new amputees in a nation that relies heavily on its workers for physical labor. Many people within the disabled population in Haiti have historically not been able to earn a living, and have been tucked away out of sight due to the social stigma that physical disability can bring.  With such large volumes of newly disabled, the Haitian people may be redefining their concept of disability, and discovering the productive roles the disabled play in the United States and elsewhere in the world. It’s a paradigm shift that is creating an enormous need for education and rehabilitation --- and UM physical therapists are taking the lead in filling that critical role.

Since the second week after the quake, there has been a continuous stream of clinical faculty, staff, alumni, and colleagues organized by the Department of Physical at the Miller School sent to the UM Hospital in Haiti. These therapists get right to work by evaluating the functional mobility needs of hundreds of patients, and their goal is to promote normal movement, strength and function to the extent each patient is capable. And this is only the beginning.

“The physical therapy needs will go on for years,” says Teresa Glynn, M.S.P.T., associate chair of clinical services for the physical therapy department. “Our scope of service covers general trauma, spinal cord injuries, amputees, wound care, pediatrics, patients with stroke, or traumatic brain injury to name a few. Our work is really dedicated to helping people overcome their physical challenges and to live fulfilling lives.”

As Project Medishare takes over the long-term UM medical effort, establishing a rehabilitation hospital is a priority. Up to 80 percent of the population of that facility is expected to be involved in some type of physical therapy, whether it’s fine motor skills such as finger dexterity, or gross motor skills such as walking, functional daily movement, and sports.

Sherrill Hayes, Ph.D., P.T., professor and chair of physical therapy says “for the persons with amputations, there will soon be comprehensive efforts aimed at measuring, fitting, and fabricating artificial limbs in Haiti, followed by physical therapy ambulation training. Key to these efforts is Dr. Robert Gailey.”

Gailey, associate professor of physical therapy, is organizing a massive project to get prosthetics into the earthquake-ravaged area. “Dr. Gailey is long known for his community service efforts, especially with persons with amputations. It is through his international contacts, leadership, and tireless commitment, that many of these efforts will be soon coming together in Haiti,” says Hayes.

The Miller School’s Department of Physical Therapy, a doctoral level program, is one of the top ten in the nation. Department leaders hope to assist Haitian health workers in establishing a technical level program to train rehab technicians in their own country, and perhaps ultimately help establish a professional level preparatory program, as this will be a long term professional health care need.

Glynn says any disaster plan should have therapists heading into the target area in the first wave. In the U.S., physical therapy often starts the same day as surgery, and immediate PT can prevent post-operative complications such as pneumonia and blood clot formation, in addition to providing pain relief. “That’s how soon we can be effective. Long gone are the days that we wait a week after surgery to start therapy.”