In 2009, Laura Brown de Rodriguez (Clinical Specialist in Learning Disabilities at 2gether NHS Foundation Trust) went to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico with Outreach International to carry out 4 months of voluntary physiotherapy at a day centre for children with disabilities. The experience opened her eyes to the realities of life in Mexico for children and adults with disabilities. upon her return to the UK she knew that so much more could be done to develop physiotherapy services for the local community and started to make plans. Laura returned to her NHS role as a rotational physiotherapist but within 9 months she had returned to Mexico to start up Therapies Unite, a non-profit organisation. What followed was years of hard work, rotating between 6 months in Mexico and 6 months in the UK, to earn money as a locum to then go back to Mexico and do it all again. Fast forward 9 years and Therapies Unite is now a growing and thriving UK registered charity with five Mexican employees and a small team of UK-based volunteer physios and Trustees who work hard on developing the services the charity provides.
Therapies Unite’s first success story was that of Usiel. Laura met Usiel, who has post-polio syndrome, through a Mexican neighbour in 2010. Usiel, then in his mid- 20’s, was unable to work to support his family as his callipers had broken and he had no wheelchair. He got about by sitting on a skateboard and pushing himself along with his hands, meaning he was unable to manage working on his market stall. Laura managed to secure funding for a new set of made-to-measure callipers through the generosity of a UK rheumatology consultant. He received these in May 2011 and since then he has not looked back. Usiel also received a wheelchair and a hand bike through Therapies Unite, donated from the UK. 8 years on, he is independent, working, exercises daily and regularly participates in wheelchair road racing. He has been supporting the charity since 2011 and was made a paid employee of Therapies Unite in 2013. Through training and support provided by Therapies Unite, he is now one of our physio technicians, repairing, restoring and adapting wheelchairs and equipment donated from the UK.
Left: Laura Brown de Rodriguez (left) with Usiel Usiel Misael Ledesma Valladares (right) when he received his callipers in 2011.
Usiel competing in a wheelchair road race in 2018, using his donated hand bike
Therapies Unite started accepting volunteers in 2011 and one of the first volunteers was Keele University physiotherapy student Catrin Pickles. She volunteered with us in 2011 alongside fellow physio student Emily Smith and physiotherapist Vicki Pauling, who is now a Trustee of the charity (Specialist Physiotherapist in MSK Outpatients at Northamptonshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust). Catrin was so touched by what she saw and wanted to become more involved and to help set up links with Keele University to enable more Keele students to experience volunteering with the charity. Tragically, Catrin passed away in 2012. Her family and Therapies Unite wanted to keep her dream alive and in 2013 the first elective physiotherapy placement took place over the summer with 4 students sent to Puerto Vallarta. In April 2017 this progressed to providing an accredited placement for 3rd year students and we continue to commit to this every year. To date 20 students have benefited from this program. Catrin’s parents continue to provide scholarship funding for Keele students to take part in the placement. We are exceptionally proud of this project that would not have been possible without Catrin’s vision and the support of her family and the Keele Physiotherapy School. Therapies Unite are currently fundraising with Keele University who are planning a full scholarship for a Mexican National to attend Keele University to study an MSc (pre-registration) in Physiotherapy. They will then return to Mexico to work for Therapies Unite and help them to continue to develop our projects.
Therapies Unite started out in 2012 by offering aquatic therapy for both adults and children with a wide range of disabilities and injuries. They ran a free two week Halliwick Foundation and Advanced course for 25 locals. The group was named ‘Catrin’s Penguins’ and focuses on Halliwick Therapy and aquatic rehabilitation. Our biggest success story in the pool is Sergio. Sergio, who is 9, has bilateral lower arm and lower leg deformities and learnt to swim through Halliwick. He progressed to swimming with the local adapted sports team and now competes nationally. He has won many medals and his goal is to compete in the Paralympics for Mexico.
Sergio learning to swim with Laura Brown de Rodriguez
After the successful set-up of aquatic therapy, we set up the Catrin Pickles Postural Management Clinic in 2013 to provide wheelchairs and equipment to those in need as well as offering postural management advice and exercise therapy. We ship containers of donated second-hand equipment from the UK to Mexico, with our long-term aim to provide annual postural reviews and equipment to all in the area who need it. As children grow or our service users’ needs change, they return to the clinic to be re-assessed for a new wheelchair and where possible, we make further use of the wheelchair they have returned. Additionally we provide a drop-in wheelchair maintenance service run by our technicians Oscar and Usiel.
Dante is an example of how a wheelchair donation can change lives. Dante’s family heard about Therapies Unite by word of mouth in 2017. His parents were asking for a wheelchair for him and so we arranged for him to come to our clinic for an assessment. Dante was diagnosed in 2017 with a rare neurological condition and had a terminal diagnosis. He had deteriorated quickly and was struggling to walk. His family wanted to be able to take him out and about but didn’t have the money to purchase a suitable wheelchair. Therapies Unite provided him with an adapted chair for which his family were extremely grateful. Sadly, Dante passed away in late 2017 but we are so glad that he and his family were able to make the most of his final months. His family have since returned the chair and it has now been re-issued to another child.
In 2015 we began providing physiotherapy services for the residents of Asilo, a government-run adult residential care facility. Our aim here is to set up and develop a regular physio service, providing therapy, exercise classes, postural management and equipment for the residents. The residents have a wide range of disabilities and prior to our arrival, many did not have the basic equipment they needed or the ability to transfer safely. We have provided a number of manual handling training sessions, falls advice, monitoring and prevention sessions as well as exercise advice sessions to the staff. In addition we have provided equipment such as hoists, plinths, exercise equipment, hospital beds, toilet frames and slide sheets, all donated from the UK.
One success story from Asilo is Adalado. Laura and Vicki first met Adalado whilst in Mexico as clinical educators for the 2017 accredited Keele University placement. He had recently started living at Asilo following a road traffic accident in which he sustained a complete spinal cord injury. Unfortunately he was spending all of his time in bed as the staff didn’t know how to transfer him and he didn’t have an appropriate wheelchair. He was low in mood and looked quite deconditioned. We made it our mission to assess him for a self-propel wheelchair and to get him transferring independently as well as providing foot splints. Our lead technician, Oscar, made him a transfer board and he has since learnt to transfer independently to his wheelchair. He also exercises in the mini-gym that we have set up at Asilo and participates in the exercise classes. We hope to further rehabilitate Adalado so that he has the chance to return to living independently in the community. Below is a photo taken during the 2019 Keele placement, of Adalado looking much healthier and happier alongside Catrin Wyn Davies, one of our volunteer physios and clinical educators.
The making of Pablito’s chair: Top left: Keele University Students working on the chair, the chair being built up, Jesus (Asilo Resident) with the chair that he kindly painted, Pablito in his finished chair.
In 2017 we sent our Mexican team on an Appropriate Paper-based Technology (APT) course that was being run in Monterray, Mexico. Since then our team and volunteers have been working hard on a number of pieces of APT equipment. Although we regularly ship equipment from the UK, we don’t always have the things that we need, in particular suitable school chairs, standing frames and seat inserts. Learning APT has been fantastic for making equipment that we just do not have. So far we have been amazed by the results and the difference these pieces of equipment, which do take many hours to build, make to the lives of the people who receive them. We have made a standing frame for Hanna, a young girl with spina bifida, a seat insert for Oswaldo who has cerebral palsy and a Disney Cars themed school chair complete with a table for Pablito. His chair was very kindly painted by Jesus, a resident at Asilo who is an artist. In 2020 we plan to host an APT course in Puerto Vallarta and learn to make moulded wheelchairs using APT. We are really excited about expanding this project as there are many children in need of moulded wheelchairs.
Hanna standing in her almost-finished standing frame with Oscar (lead technician)
Another of our charity’s objectives is to provide education to families, carers and physiotherapists to improve the standards of physiotherapy practice in Mexico and the management of children and adults in their own homes, schools and care facilities. We have held a number of postural management and manual handling training sessions and courses over the years as well as funding our own staff to attend locally run courses. In 2018 we began offering guest lectures in aquatic therapy at the local university in Puerto Vallarta and in April this year our Keele University students and their educators were invited to provide aquatic therapy training at a small International Physiotherapy Congress in Puerto Vallarta, with this being the first congress that they have held here. We hope to build on the lectures we provide at the university as we know education is key to moving the physiotherapy profession forwards in Mexico.
Left to right: Joe Adams (Keele Physiotherapy Student), Alison Aries (Lecturer, Keele University), Nadia Minerva Ramirez Ibarria (Lead Physiotherapist), Catrin Wyn Davies (Senior Physiotherapist), Lauren Brennan (Keele Physiotherapy Student), Steph Morrison (Keele Physiotherapy Student) and Mariano Perez Vivanco (Physiotherapy Assistant) at the Physiotherapy Congress
Laura, Vicki and Trustees Eric Brown and Tony Spencer are planning more developments for the next 12 months and we are excited to see how far we can grow Therapies Unite. In 2020 we celebrate 10 years of operations and we are already making plans for 2020, including a shipment of equipment which will arrive in Puerto Vallarta in April. We will also be hosting a further APT course in April and have already allocated two students to the Keele Physiotherapy placement, also in April. Catrin Wyn Davies will be back out in Puerto Vallarta from January and will be staying until after the Keele Placement, once again being a clinical educator alongside Laura.
Laura has recently been awarded £3,500 funding from the CSP Charitable Trust to carry out an overseas development project in Puerto Vallarta on behalf of Therapies Unite. We hope for this to happen in November this year and we are busy making plans for this. The project focuses on health promotion and prevention and we will be holding free health check clinics to the local adult population with a focus on promoting exercise for health, maintaining a healthy diet and smoking cessation. We will be holding education sessions on these subjects as well as offering written information booklets and holding fun exercise classes to get people moving, in keeping with the CSP ‘Love Activity, Hate Exercise’ campaign. We look forward to updating Frontline readers in early 2020 with how we get on with our new project.
At Therapies Unite we are always on the lookout for qualified physiotherapists who would like to volunteer on our projects in Puerto Vallarta. You can go for however long you like, from a few weeks up until 6 months (due to visa restrictions). All we ask for in return is for you to fundraise £500 for the charity and that you organise and fund your own accommodation and flights. For more information or for a copy of our Volunteer Pack you can get in touch with Laura at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our Therapies Unite Facebook page.
We also welcome donations of equipment, in particular all types of specialist seating for both adults and children, standing frames, manual plinths and paediatric walking aids that are in good, reusable condition. Unfortunately we cannot accept electronic equipment. If you have anything you would like to donate then please contact Laura at the above email address. We are able to collect items from many parts of England and Wales so please do get in touch.
Alternatively, you can donate towards our projects through www.justgiving.com