Nova Scotia

From lawn chair to wheelchair: what bare-bones care looks like in some countries

Many of the clinicians that travel around the world, volunteering in hospitals or health centres or community groups, do it on their own time. That means using their vacation and own personal resources to get to their destinations.

"Even though they may not have what we have ... they can make do," says pediatric physiotherapist

Keisha Jefferies is doing her master's of nursing degree at Dalhousie University and has also worked as a registered nurse at the IWK for two years. (Sherri Borden Colley/CBC)

Each time Krista Sweet visits Belize to help train health-care workers and fit children with wheelchairs and walkers, she's reminded of how people with few material assets can survive.

Sweet, a pediatric physiotherapist at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, is a volunteer with Team Canada Healing Hands.

The organization brings together medical professionals and support staff that provide donated medical equipment to children, rehabilitation treatment and education throughout the world in areas that need help the most.

'We learn while we're there'

"Even though we're there to teach some, we learn while we're there, too," said Sweet.

Krista Sweet is a pediatric physiotherapist at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. (Sherri Borden Colley/CBC)

"Even though they may not have what we have available to us here in Halifax, they can make do with what they've got."

During a global health fair held Tuesday at the IWK, Sweet showed a photo of a wheelchair made out of a white plastic lawn chair and an old wheelchair frame.

"That was somebody's make do with what we've got," Sweet said of the invention.

"It's a horrible chair for anybody to need to be in for any amount of time, but when you really need to be able to get from point A to point B, and you've got nothing else and somebody can figure out how to adapt a lawn chair onto an old wheelchair frame and some bike tires and away you go, then it does what it needs to do."

While in Belize, Sweet saw a wheelchair made out of a white plastic lawn chair and an old wheelchair frame. (Sherri Borden Colley/CBC)

Appreciative of outside help

She said the people of Belize are so appreciative of the outside help.

"And the kids that may not have had a wheelchair that fits them properly or that special wheelchair that they need, are so happy to have what they need and will fit them well," she said.  "And that may mean they can now go to school where they couldn't before."

Sweet has volunteered in Belize four times. During a weeklong visit last November, the team saw about 50 kids.

Postpartum care in Tanzania

Keisha Jefferies, who worked as a registered nurse at the IWK for two years, is now completing a master's of nursing degree at Dalhousie University. 

For three months last summer, the New Glasgow native worked as a research assistant on a project related to postpartum care in Tanzania.

"It was looking at the care that women receive in hospitals from obstetricians and nurse midwives," Jefferies said.

Jefferies said about half of all deliveries in Tanzania still happen in communities, with and without the assistance of a trained birth attendant.

'Many benefits to the work'

For her own work, Jefferies focused on exclusive breastfeeding — mothers feeding babies only breast milk for the first six months of their lives and how that is being practised in rural communities in Tanzania as well as more urban centres.

Michael Sangster, a physiotherapist with the IWK's complex pain team, said many of the clinicians that do this global work do it on their own time and use their vacation and personal resources to get there.

"There are many benefits to the work," he said.

"Certainly there's benefit in knowledge exchange with the hospitals or health centres or community groups that we work with globally ... But also, and more importantly, is that in doing that work, we develop greater cultural competence, so an ability to serve our diverse population right here in the Maritimes."


Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts. To get in touch with Sherri email