In less than a week I’ll be boarding a plane and heading off to volunteer for 3 months in Madagascar. This moment feels long awaited with lots of planning and work allowing me to finally reach this point. I have often felt frustrated and unsure of myself in the lead up to this moment. I thought I’d write a post explaining the steps which have led to this point so that anyone who also hopes to volunteer overseas may find this helpful. I also thought I’d answer a question I’ve been asked many times over the last few months, “Why Madagascar?”. What made me decide to volunteer as a Physiotherapist in Madagascar and why.
University voluntary work
Now without getting too long winded and taking a trip down memory lane I thought I’d summarise where my interest in volunteering overseas began. I studied Physiotherapy at the University of Birmingham (UOB). UOB do not offer elective placements, however I was interested in completing an elective placement after learning about how other Universities encourage students to partake in elective placements either locally or overseas.
Large organisations can organise placements for students for quite a large sum of money (e.g. 2 weeks volunteering for approximately £1,500). These organisations are great if you prefer to have everything sorted and organised for you, as often knowing where to start is the hardest part! However, I chose not to go with one of these organisations and instead sought out other options of volunteering independently.
I received an email from one of the lecturers at UOB who had been contacted by an alumni Physiotherapist from UOB. She explained that she had volunteered in Tanzania in a school for disabled kids and that they required more volunteers in the centre. I jumped at the opportunity and spent a month in Tanzania, volunteering at the centre and travelling around the beautiful country. To read more about my month in Tanzania click here.
ADAPT- Chartered Physiotherapists in International Health and Development
ADAPT are the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy’s (CSP) affiliated organisation who support Physiotherapists interested in working overseas. ADAPT organise regular study days where Physiotherapists can meet, network, and learn from the experiences of others who have worked overseas previously. I first attended an ADAPT study day in November 2016 in London. I had been working in the NHS for a year by this point completing my Band 5 rotations, and was excited to learn of how I could begin working overseas.
I attended the day with grand ideas of how my one year of experience would be enough and couldn’t wait to begin working overseas. The study day made me realise that I still had a lot more to learn and although I didn’t quite have enough experience to begin working overseas yet, there were lots of other ways I could develop my skills in overseas working whilst also gaining the important clinical skills of Band 5 rotations.
As a result of attending the ADAPT study day in 2016 and networking and gaining advice from other physiotherapists I have:
- Worked as a voluntary physiotherapist with ‘Freedom from Torture’ a UK based charity who support refugees and asylum seekers who have experienced torture in their home country
- Established and set up a committee similar to ADAPT called the Northern Network of International Rehabilitation (NNIR). NNIR organise regular evening lectures and study days to support those beginning their career in international development.
- Become Treasurer for the ADAPT committee
- Started a blog to engage and share my experiences of planning to work and volunteer overseas with those who share a similar interest
Northern Network of International Rehabilitation (NNIR)
Following attending the ADAPT study day in London in 2016, I returned to Leeds full of ideas and excitement of how I could begin volunteering as a Physiotherapist overseas. I initially contacted established charities such as Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) or Humanity &Inclusion (HI), however, I found that there were limited physiotherapy jobs available, and the jobs that did come up required a lot more experience than my one year’s worth of Band 5 rotations.
I contacted friends who worked at the Trust who I knew also had a keen interest in volunteering overseas. Together we began planning how we could gain experience and contacts for overseas work, alongside developing those important rotational skills. We decided to organise an evening lecture in August 2017 which would incorporate a mix of four speakers discussing their experiences of working overseas and highlight the variety of routes available. You can read more about this evening lecture here.
The evening lecture was a great success and highlighted the large number of people who shared similar interests to us, and felt just as clueless when it came to knowing where to start working overseas! As a result of the evening lecture, we then formed a committee comprising of twelve people who were interested in working overseas. The committee aimed to organise regular evening lectures on topics related to overseas work. The lectures organised were:
- Getting started in Therapy Abroad
- Experiences from the Field: Ethiopia and Nepal
- Therapy Management of Burns
- Therapy Management of Spinal Cord Injuries
- NNIR study day which incorporated: cultural aspects of working overseas, wheelchair adaptations practical session with ‘Motivation UK’, working in the Emergency setting with UKEMT, Occuptional Therapy in International Development, student electives abroad, funding and grant options to support therapy abroad, and therapy in New Zealand and Australia
Attending study days, networking and communicating with speakers, and establishing and chairing NNIR allowed me to gain many valuable skills which I feel gave me great experience for working overseas. I now feel much more prepared, and have a clearer idea of what working overseas will actually involve, including the challenges I will likely face and the incredible rewards and skills I will gain from voluntary work.
Now, I realise I’ve gone off on a slight tangent and haven’t yet answered the question of why I chose to volunteer in Madagascar. For this decision I have the incredible women, Dr Philomena Commons and Prof Anne Chamberlain to thank. Phil is a Physiotherapy Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, and has spent 8 years volunteering and developing the Physiotherapy service in Bangladesh. She has also worked in Madagascar, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, India, and North Korea. Phil has been a speaker at two of NNIR’s study days, and has always been on hand with any advice or support I have needed when beginning to work overseas.
Phil put me in contact with Prof Anne Chamberlain, the co-director of Opt-in (Overseas Partnering and Training Initiative). Opt-in aims to share the knowledge and skills of NHS staff with partnering hospitals in low income countries. Opt-in mainly work in Madagascar, and it was through these links that I began to organise my voluntary work which would aim to support the skills and development of Physiotherapists in Madagascar.
Following this, I spent a year organising meetings and making contact with the local Malagasy physiotherapists to determine what my work would involve. I also fundraised by organising a cake sale, holding a raffle, and setting up a gofundme page to cover the costs of my time in Madagascar, including translator and equipment costs.
My journey to begin working overseas has been a long one, with lots of support given and ideas offered from a wide variety of sources. The realities of working in Madagascar are still unknown to me, however I am looking forward to this new challenge and plan to keep posting about my experiences as my work develops.
My top tips are anyone wishing to begin working overseas are:
- Join ADAPT or OT Frontiers. Becoming part of a network of like minded professionals offers new ideas and opens many more doors to you for opportunities to work overseas. Much of my work has been guided by advice I received from networking with other professionals at ADAPT study days. ADAPT also send out regular emails and updates of job opportunities which are worth knowing about!
- Network and engage with as many professionals as you can! The world of working overseas is a friendly one, with so many people willing to offer their experiences and advice as needed.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of clinical skills! Gain a wide variety of rotations and experience to support your work overseas.
- Seek out other voluntary opportunities in the UK which will support your work overseas, such as working with refugees, the homeless or established charities.
- Enjoy the experience! I have learned a lot about the opportunities available when working overseas and met incredibly inspiring people along the way who have helped me when hoping to achieve my goals, so make the most of your time and have fun!
If you have any further questions about anything discussed in this post feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or keep following my blog for further posts from Madagascar!