by Joe Jamieson

Physiotherapy, Sri Lanka Kandy, Where Are They Now?

I was a mature student when I travelled, so prior to becoming a physio, I had a completely different career in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter. It all changed when I needed to go into hospital for a couple of knee operations.

I had to have a lot of physiotherapy after the surgeries, and found the benefits that I saw fascinating. It was just engaging in more physical activity and kind of building up my strength. Prior to my operations, I wasn't very active. I didn't really take care of myself.

It really helped me build my confidence back up. It inspired me to look into physiotherapy a little bit more. Because I was a little bit older and already in a career, I booked annual leave from my jewellry job and went to do work experience in the local hospitals to experience different aspects of physio. I just wanted to make sure that if I was going to change careers that it was the right decision.

But it was the best thing I ever did without a doubt.

I ended up studying at Coventry University. I looked at other universities, but Coventry stood out because it was obvious from researching them, and from the open day I attended, that they invested a lot in their healthcare courses. The course at Coventry was also more practical than at other universities, which made sense to me as I was studying physiotherapy.

I went in thinking I was going to be a musculoskeletal physio because that’s what I’d experienced. But when I was at uni I loved the neurology side of things, and then I went on my second clinical placement and that just blew everything else out of the water. That second placement was in mental health, and it completely shifted my mindset.

It opened my eyes to this different world, and once I went on my trip to Sri Lanka with Work the World, my whole career path changed.

We flew into Colombo airport — there were six of us on the same plane. The experience of walking through the airport knowing that we were in Sri Lanka was surreal. I had spent all this time planning and preparing beforehand and suddenly here I was.

I’m quite introverted, so this was a big deal for me, being in a country I had never been to before and meeting all these new people. But the truth is I felt comfortable really quickly — you start chatting to these other students who are going to be your housemates for a few weeks and realise everyone is in the same boat. You bond quickly because of that.

And on top of that the Work the World house team were great as well, they really made you feel like it was a home from home. They really looked after us the whole time we were there, but without being overbearing. We had lots of space to explore our independence.

When it came to the clinical side of things, I kind of turned up not really knowing what to expect. We had really solid introductions and briefings from Work the World, but you don’t know until you know. If you know what I mean.

The idea of physiotherapy being involved in mental health is relatively new in the UK. So, you can imagine it raised a few eyebrows in Sri Lanka. Going onto the mental health ward and telling local staff that I was a physio interested in mental health, I think they found it a strange idea at first, but after a while they were interested in how physio can help patients.

But the care in the UK versus the care in my placement hospital in Sri Lanka were worlds apart. They regularly restrained patients in Sri Lanka, and that’s an absolute last resort at home. Lots of patients were sedated as well, so they were quite drowsy. That was all common practice over there.

There was no integration between physical and mental health — they were very much two separate things. So, they couldn't understand why I was there asking about medication and side effects in relation to eating disorders and things like that.

On the other wards, the big differences were seen in the rehabilitation equipment. A lot of it was homemade and improvised by local staff. You'd never see that in the UK, it all has to be ordered from specific places that have been pre-approved.

It really made me appreciate how good things are in the UK.

There were other big differences too. The hospital didn’t provide meals or personal care, so a patient’s family would be there getting involved. They were coming in and washing and dressing their relatives, bringing them meals…  If people didn't have families they would reach out to local charities for help.

The whole experience was an eye opener.

When I came back home I had my final year, then went on to graduate into a teaching hospital. I did rotations in different departments, getting experience and developing my competencies before specialising. It was a great experience, but I kept thinking back to the mental health placement I did in my second year.

One day, out of the blue, the team over there contacted me. They said they had a job there and asked if I wanted to apply for it. I went for it and got the job as a physio working with stroke patients.

And that's how I went back into mental health. In January of this year, I moved to Midlands Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, as it's one of the leading trusts for physio.

I now manage a team of physiotherapists that work across two different counties. It’s a small team, but they're an amazing bunch — I'm really lucky. I also help to develop the service as well as having a clinical caseload.

The age range is varied, my youngest patient at the moment is 15 and the oldest is 92. And the cases themselves are varied, some patients present with aches and pains, or arthritis, and others present with self-harm injuries. I’m working in mental health, so patients often have acute distress, so have self-harmed or attempted to take their own lives.

Another part of my job is research. I'm with the National Institute of Health Research, currently doing a research project on physiotherapy and eating disorders, which is a big passion project of mine.

I also go to universities and give guest lectures on mental health and physiotherapy. And I've been to conferences, national and international, to present on women's health. It’s a varied role and I love it.

My trip to Sri Lanka contributed massively to helping me get to where I am today. The experience broadened my horizons and helped me get a different perspective. From a mental health point of view, it helped me understand all the different experiences patients can have under circumstances where the healthcare model is primarily medical.

My placement also helped me become more confident. I’d never done a big trip on my own before, and when I came back into my final year of university and back onto a placement in the UK, I could draw on all this extra clinical experience I’d gained in a totally different environment.

People always talk about how much travel can help you grow as a person, but you never really understand how profoundly true it is until you go and do it for yourself.

Being able to put my Work the World trip on my CV is something that helps set me apart from other applicants. It's not a standard thing that most physiotherapy students graduate with.

It's really important to say yes to things. I say yes to as many experiences as I can and see where that takes me. You want to try something new and push yourself out of your comfort zone. So, if you’re thinking about doing an overseas placement I would say do it without a doubt.

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