Volunteer Michelle White.

Eswatini Physiotherapist Seeks to Make a Difference

February 2021
Volunteer story

Physiotherapist Michelle White from Eswatini spent two months working in the Tintswalo District Hospital’s rehabilitation department as a Tshemba Foundation volunteer in 2020.

In addition to working in a clinical environment, Michelle has also worked as a Sustainable Health Financing Analyst. She has a Masters in International Public Health from the University of Sydney and says she chose this course to gain a better understanding of the public health sector: how its systems should deliver healthcare, what results in inefficiencies, and ultimately how these can be addressed. “After working in a public hospital in South Africa I realised that while we have amazing nurses, doctors and physios working in the public health sector, the system in which they work is very flawed,” says Michelle. “It is not so much the lack of skill or knowledge, than the system that results in inefficiencies.”

When asked why she feels medical professionals volunteer to work in places outside of their comfort zones, Michelle says she believes being exposed to cases and situations – which you wouldn’t experience in your normal context of work – offers an opportunity for growth. “It’s also a great opportunity to connect with other people who have a similar drive: to expand their knowledge and share their skills,” she says.

Q: Why do you volunteer?

A: “I do it because I get great fulfilment using my physio skills to help people in government hospitals, specifically here in South Africa. The people who are accessing government healthcare services often need rehabilitation services a lot more than people who can access private healthcare. And I say that because many people who access the public sector – about 84% of South Africans – are blue collar workers who perform manual labour. The work they perform also means that they are more likely to be injured. I feel I can make a much bigger impact and difference rehabilitating patients here, as opposed to patients who access private healthcare, who are often able to earn an income through passive means, or to whom a physical injury would not be as devastating as it would be to a manual labourer.”

Q: What has been a highlight of your volunteering experience thus far?

A: “Being involved in Tintswalo’s clubfoot clinic was definitely a highlight – the team is very enthusiastic, and though they had undergone some basic training, they hadn’t yet had any long-term mentorship. I really enjoyed being able to spend time with them, and help them fine tune the skills they already had, as well as show them a few other techniques. I felt my contribution to the clubfoot clinic was well-received and we achieved a happy balance of being able to complement what they had already established. My input and advice was welcomed, which is very important when you’re volunteering. It also speaks to the willingness to learn and the humility of the physios I worked with.”

Q: What are the challenges you face or have faced, working in rural Mpumalanga?

A: “With regard to seeing patients in rural Mpumalanga, one cannot forget that getting to the hospital for them is difficult and expensive. As a physio, if you want to rehabilitate a patient thoroughly, you would want to see them three times a week for a good session, but for many patients that is just not possible. So if you’re trying to rehabilitate a shoulder, or a fracture, or a spinal cord injury, your rehabilitation work is undone during the time before they come back. It’s a sad tension between the knowledge the patient needs to get back to work, and that I really need to see them more frequently. One has to encourage and educate them and their families (while faced with a language barrier), to self-manage at home, and that it is up to them to take care of their injury in the time that you do not see them.”

Q: Any advice for would-be volunteers?

A: “I would recommend that people come for at least three weeks to a month. The first bit is taken up by orientation, and in order to add value, come for longer. If you are thinking of volunteering, approach your role with humility. Have a conversation with your sectional head about what your role is going to be and find out where you can add value. Try not to implement changes, without understanding what it is you want to change. Systems in a hospital develop organically, and there is often a reason why they have developed: take your time to understand why and how they have developed. In this context take a slow and gentle pressure kind of approach, as people will take time to warm up to you.”

If you would like to volunteer your specialist services and make a difference to the lives of many, we invite you to take your #LeaveOfPurpose and apply now to become a Tshemba volunteer.