Learning to Build and Deliver Wheelchairs in Masindi, Uganda

Center for Global Health
May 23, 2022
MUSC students in Uganda pose with a patient.

For many individuals, a broken bone is painful, but with the proper medical treatment the injury will not likely impact future mobility. In areas of the world with limited health care resources, a broken bone or mobility issue can create restrictions on a person's independence. MUSC physical therapy students learned how to help increase the quality of life for many individuals in Masindi, Uganda through a recent global health project. From April 25th - 29th, a group of seven College of Health Professions students, many supported through a Center for Global Health Student and Trainee Travel Grant, joined Dr. Cynthia Dodds, Ph.D. in Masindi to participate in fittings for wheelchairs and other mobility aids within the local community. Highlighting the importance of the project, MUSC physical therapy student Meghan Andrews shared how something as simple as a compound femoral fracture could cause disability and total loss of independence for many in places like Uganda. With the proper medical care and resources, challenges with mobility do not have to limit future opportunities.

The following MUSC students, faculty, and collaborators from the College of Health Professions participated in the project: Katelyn Abernathy, Meghan Andrews, Kaitie Burke, Jack Callahan, Austin Dixon, Cynthia Dodds, Breanna Grant, Michelle Hunt, Megan Marra, and Elizabeth Turner. 

MUSC students pose with patient and family. 
MUSC students pose with a patient in their new wheelchair in Uganda.

Dr. Cynthia Dodds believes the trip was impactful, “It was a pleasure to lead this remarkable team of physical therapy students and a physical therapy pediatric resident! In collaboration with OneWorld Health, Patrick Kugonza from the Ugandan Disabled Persons Union (middle of the top picture), and Jack Callahan from Floyd Brace, we assembled, measured, and delivered 40 Rough Rider wheelchairs to children and adults with mobility limitations. Because of these wheelchairs, individuals with disabilities will now be able to travel to gather water and food, attend school, and seek medical attention without crawling in the dirt or being carried by a caregiver. The entire team is grateful to have had this opportunity to serve and learn!”

Students were initially trained to build wheelchairs from disassembled kits, before starting their own assembly and personalizing efforts with patients. At first, the task can seem a bit overwhelming, as MUSC student Meghan Andrews described.

“I will be honest, on that Sunday as I watched Jack (our wheelchair specialist) assemble a wheelchair from all its different parts I was thinking to myself there is no way in I am going to be able to do that. I didn't even know how to use half of the tools laid out in front of me.”

Wheelchair maintenance 
Anthony, Simon, and MUSC students are trained in wheelchair maintenance.

With a bit of assembly practice, the students were able to make real progress. Community members Anthony and Simon also completed training in wheelchair assembly and maintenance, ensuring work will continue in Masindi after the MUSC students departed. By the end of the week, a total of 13 wheelchairs for pediatric patients and 27 for adults were assembled. The group also delivered one pediatric and adult walker, and nine pairs of adult crutches. 

"It was an honor to be a small part of such an impactful trip, and I can only hope the patients we met found themselves a step closer to independence," said MUSC student Michelle Hunt.

Distributing mobility aids was not the only goal of participants. Students also collaborated in rehabilitation efforts with local patients. The group worked closely with a 24-year-old patient named Peter, who had one below-knee amputation and a femoral fracture following a recent traumatic injury. MUSC students spent four days assisting Peter with his rehabilitation activities. Progress was evident by Friday, as Peter was able to walk with crutches for 20 feet with standby assistance.

A local patient Peter does rehabilitation exercises. 
Peter completes rehabilitation exercises after a traumatic leg injury.

“Peter came in walking on one knee and one foot with a single crutch due to a tractor accident. He was a rock star and was able to take some steps using crutches; we have high hopes for Peter being able to walk again," said MUSC student Breanna Grant.

MUSC student Austin Dixon summarized the importance of the work they completed in Uganda and in ensuring a person has access to the assistance needed.

“Movement is empowering and giving someone that autonomy back is impactful on a personal, mental, social, and economic level. Their newfound sense of purpose and hope can be restored with the ability to move, work, and take care of their family.” 

Students' interaction with patients in Masindi will not end with their return to Charleston. A series of follow-up requests will ensure that any outstanding equipment needs can be transported by future group visits, and the students will check in with Peter in his rehabilitation efforts via telehealth.

Center for Global Health travel grant awardees will be presenting on their experience in Masindi, Uganda on June 8, 2022, from noon-12:50 p.m. in College of Health Professions Building A-205. All are welcome to join. 

View more trip photos from Masindi, Uganda