Being one in a million: hope through occupational therapy in Niger

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By: John Stuart

Occupational therapist Amy Griffiths demonstrates an occupational therapy device during the first-ever camp for children with disabilities at Galmi Hospital this past February – Photo courtesy of Deb Knight.

Amir first came to Galmi Hospital after suffering a major electrocution injury – while surgeons were able to save his feet, both his hands were amputated. Amir was crushed.

But Deb Knight never gave up on Amir. She knew what was possible for him.

Deb is one in a million, and then some. She is the occupational therapist (OT) at SIM’s Galmi Hospital in Niger since 2011 and is the only practicing OT in a country of 17 million. In a country with so few medical personnel, Deb immediately saw the need for training in OT skills.

“Once our patients finish in the hospital there’s really nothing for them for occupational therapy,” Deb says. “Niger is so big and people come from so far away and they lack some cultural understanding and exposure to occupational therapy as a norm of healthcare. So getting our patients to come back regularly is a challenge, we have to get really creative in our treatment.”

Amir thought all hope was lost when his hands had to be amputated, but after his prosthesis was fitted at Galmi Hospital, he regained his motor skills and independence – Photo courtesy of Deb Knight.

Deb’s passion has always been to equip local Nigeriens to help their own people, and this past February Deb and her small team hosted their first camp for children with disabilities. They had high hopes for the camp, inviting children and their mothers to attend. They planned to spend two weeks training the mothers how to care for and encourage their children, and helping the children with their devices.

After just one day of the camp, it was obvious things were not going well. Only seven of the 10 families showed up and a number of social class, spiritual and relational issues came to the surface.

“From the beginning, we had some issues of who would sit where, who would do the cooking and different degrees of parental involvement in the process,” Deb says.

Deb and her team made changes on the go in order to account for the cultural dynamics that had overlooked. In a culture where shame is heaped on mothers of children with disabilities, there is a tremendous need for healing.

They shortened the program to one week and realized the moms needed emotional support just as much as their children. Using a trauma healing curriculum developed by the American Bible Society, Deb and her team guided the mothers into biblical principles of restoration.

“There are many things they believe about God and their suffering and their child’s illness,” Deb says. “There is a lot of guilt that they did something wrong or somebody cursed their child.

Deb and her team (Justine Rehak, pictured) realized at their camp in February that it isn’t only the children who need support for their disabilities, but also their mothers, especially in a culture where disability is associated with shame – Photo courtesy of Deb Knight.

“The trauma healing helped them to see that God loves them and he suffered, so even in the midst of our own suffering we can glorify him.”

 

After a difficult start, the week ended well. Multiple children went home with devices to help their mobility and motor skills and three mothers came to accept Christ as their Savior; Deb and the team hope for follow-up and continued relationship for both of these things.

Deb hopes to host these camps quarterly and has plans to hold another children’s camp in July. They still need short-term physiotherapists and occupational therapists to come assist at the July camp. The need is always greater than the demand. They also have plans to host prosthetics camps for adults learning to use their prostheses.

Long-term, Deb’s vision is to help build a vocational training center at Galmi Hospital where recently-disabled adults can receive training to restore their mobility and dignity.

Like Amir, many adults need assistance in restoring their lives and encouragement that there is hope. Just when Amir was losing hope in his recovery, Deb showed up in his room with a new prosthetic hand.

“As I showed Amir how the hand worked, a smile spread wide across his face. For the first time in months, he had hope. Hope is an amazing force!” Deb says. “Sitting on the edge of an ancient hospital bed in a village, through a magnificent-yet-simple plastic hand, a young man found the hope he needed to not give up.”

Galmi Hospital and Opportunities to Serve

Since 1950, SIM’s Galmi Hospital has been an oasis in the desert. On the south edge of the Sahara desert in Niger, West Africa, the 180-bed hospital provides compassionate care to Nigeriens from all walks of life.

Compassionate medical care serves as a bridge to share the love of Christ. Every day, patients have the opportunity to hear the Gospel message through Bible teaching and other forms. We believe in healing for the body and the soul.

There is a need for short-term physiotherapists and occupational therapists to come assist at the July camp, as well as long-term opportunities. If you are a PT or OT, we encourage you to pray about serving, whether short- or long-term. For more information about the Physical Therapy Project and Galmi Hospital, click here.

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