"It's such a blessing to be able to be able to touch their lives." So says Veronica Hache, PT, WCC, assistant administrative director of rehabilitation, Delaware County Memorial Hospital, about the volunteer work she does with the non-profit Wheels For The World. During the rest of the year, she works at the suburban Philadelphia hospital, but for ten days every year since 2006 she has made a trip to South America to use her skills as a physical therapist.
Wheels For The World has a four-part mission. A group called Chair Corps collects used wheelchairs, which are then transported to 16 correctional facilities across the United States. There, inmates learn how to restore the wheelchairs to like-new condition. Finally, the refurbished wheelchairs are distributed to underdeveloped countries across the world, where disability specialists work with the recipients. The last step on the journey is where Hache and her fellow physical therapists lend their skills.
Hache first learned of the organization when she was in physical therapy school and watched a video about its founder Joni Eareckson Tada, who is herself a quadriplegic. As time went by, Hache donated money to the charity. Later, a friend who is a missionary suggested that with Hache's skills as physical therapist, she should go on a short-term mission. Her familiarity with Wheels For The World made it a good fit and she embarked on her first trip to Peru. Volunteers serve all over the world, although Hache says, "I chose South American countries because I'm fluent in Spanish and can serve as a translator." So far, she's been Peru four times, plus the Dominican Republic and El Salvador.
Wheels For The World is a true team effort. Each trip has about 20-25 volunteers. Over time, Hache has noticed there is a core group of the same people that go every year, but there are also new people. They come from all over the country and start by organizing the donated wheelchairs by size, type, etc. Small groups of three, a physical therapist or occupational therapist, a wheelchair mechanic and a support person, assist each wheelchair recipient. The PT or OT serves as a sitting specialist who assists the patients to determine their needs. The mechanic will do any necessary modifcations to the wheelchairs.
Local organizations like churches or disability advocacy identify people who have a need and gather the recipients, who can travel seven hours or more to get a wheelchair. "We never know what type of patients we're going to get," admitted Hache. Some are traumatic injury victims, who had been in car accidents." From the neurological side "We see many children with cerebral palsy." Other ailments that may cause people to need wheelchairs include spina bifida, stroke and cancer. One of the most striking diagnoses Hache has come across were elderly patients unable to walk because of severe arthritis. In another country, they could have gotten a hip replacement; instead they were bed bound until they were fitted for a wheelchair.
The hallmark of the volunteer work is personally fitting the wheelchair to each person. "We build cushions and seats to adapt the chair to the needs of each individual," Hache explained. The PT or OT will talk to the recipient and their family to find out about their life. They find out how patients became disabled. Living conditions are also taken under consideration. Does the person need special tires to maneuver over rough terrain? Do they need to use the wheelchair to get to work or school or do they simply want to wheel outside their home for some fresh air? Besides fitting them into the correct wheelchair now, therapists must consider the progression of their disease. "We give them a chair that will suit their needs for the future," said Hache. The sitting specialists work with family members to teach them proper lifting and transfer techniques. They've even build transfer boards to assist the caregivers.
Hache is amazed by the gratitude of the recipients. Sometimes a single modification can take five or more hours, yet they never complain. She's also impressed by the amount of care they family members provide, given their limited resources. One story in particular sticks out in her mind. In 2005, the team of volunteers from Wheels For the World outfitted a Peruvian man with a wheelchair. The following year, volunteers returned to his village and he visited to say thanks and fill them in on his condition. It turned out he had an aptitude for working with tools and began to assist the wheelchair mechanic. Eventually he became the official mechanic for the local organization and now maintains the wheelchairs after Wheels For The World representatives leave.
To other physical therapists who are interested in pursuing volunteer work, Hache encourages them to go for it. A devout Christian, Hache appreciates Wheels For The World's mission of "share[ing] the love of Jesus Christ, extended through the gift of mobility." She takes great pride in giving back to improve the lives of others.
Danielle Bullen is an associate editor at ADVANCE and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out more about volunteering with Wheels For The World, click here: http://www.joniandfriends.org/events/wheels-world/