Helen Hyams’ Work in Ghana

Back in 2015 with retirement looming I approached the Beverley based charity Jacob’s Well Appeal (JWA) about the possibility of using my skills as a Paediatric Physiotherapist on one of their projects abroad. A few months passed and then I heard from JWA that they had found through Sandra, their Project Worker, that there was an opportunity to volunteer at Tamale Teaching Hospital in Northern Ghana, to work alongside one of their Physiotherapists as I had experience of working with cerebral palsy patients.

So, after various injections against yellow fever, rabies and other diseases, malaria prevention tablets, and getting my visa I was on my way to Ghana in October. My husband Steve drove me to Heathrow and then Accra, the capital city of Ghana.

Sandra was at the airport to meet me. After an overnight stay in a guest house I went with Sandra to oversee the delivery of a JWA container to Ridge Hospital in Accra. We then took an internal flight to Tamale.

My first night in the hospital guest house was a real eye opener, bed sheets were not supplied! Luckily I had packed a sheet sleeping bag. I also found the cooker had an empty gas cylinder so no hot food either. Then the water supply ran out. After three days I was moved temporarily into a small two star hotel until the conditions at the hospital accommodation improved, but remained in the hotel for the rest of my stay.

On my first day Sandra introduced me to the Physio Department. Tamale is the largest city in Northern Ghana and has its own medical school and nursing college. Physiotherapy and more recently Occupational Therapy are degree courses at Accra University. Physiotherapy is fairly new profession in Ghana so many Heads of Departments are only in their thirties.

I was surprised by how large the Department was. There were heat machines, traction bed, wax bath, parallel bars and static bars. I felt I had stepped back twenty years! Equipment such as crutches, sticks and walking frames had to be purchased by the patients themselves.

The Children’s area was just at the end of the adult treatment area and consisted of two gym mats on the terrazzo concrete floor, and a small cardboard box containing a few rattles and picture books.

I had taken some toys with me, mainly Fisher Price type stacking rings, shape sorters and rattles. These were a welcome addition. My main task was to work alongside Esther, a qualified Physiotherapist and show her how we use the toys in the UK to encourage increased function in the children. Ghanaian children have very few toys at home so the opportunity to play can act as an incentive to engage in active treatment, rather than the passive treatment which is more often used.

Mothers are keen to bring their children for physiotherapy, many are diagnosed with cerebral palsy at a young age in Tamale so treatment can begin early. There is a distinct lack of children’s mobility aids, standing frames and supportive seating, which we take for granted in the UK. Many severely disabled children spend a lot of time lying on settees or beds to stay safe and so have no sitting balance.

On my return to the UK I contacted a Physio called Diane whom I had met previously at an “ADAPT” conference (Chartered Physiotherapists in International health and Development). Diane had already taught an APT (Appropriate Paper based Technology) Course, in conjunction with the Cerebral Palsy Africa charity, for parents in Ghana. I enrolled on a one week APT course in Hampshire and learnt to make standing frames from cardboard and newspaper. We had arranged to go out to Ghana in February this year and I visited Tamale I September 2016 to begin organising and informing people about the forthcoming course. Unfortunately, Diane is unable to come to Ghana in February, but has arranged for Marian, a Dutch Occupational Therapist who has taught several APT courses in Africa and other places for Cerebral Palsy Africa to come with me to Tamale.

Marian and I will set off for Tamale on 23rd February to run our first two-week course. Jacob’s Well volunteer Liz Lyle will come with us a helper.