• Antonin Biret, a Physiotherapy undergraduate at CEU UCH’s Elche campus, will spend two months in Africa helping children with a range of disabilities

How can a physiotherapist show solidarity with others? What can a physiotherapy undergraduate do to make a difference? Antonin has the answers. Perhaps it is no surprise, given that he sees his future after graduation in helping those with a disability. It is this same spirit of solidarity with others which will take him to Togo this summer through his collaboration with JEMAV, a French student volunteering organization. He will spend almost two months there as part of the Handicap Debout project which aims to help children with disabilities such as clubfoot, developmental dysplasia of the hip, and cerebral palsy. Antonin is now looking to raise funds and has set up a crowdfunding campaign on his social media accounts: https://www.instagram.com/antogo_kine/https://www.leetchi.com/c/humanitaire-au-togo-antonin2020 and https://www.facebook.com/antonin.biret.7.

What made you decide to volunteer for this physiotherapy project?

I’ve always dreamed of doing volunteering, and when I saw that I could combine that with physiotherapy, it was a nice surprise. I also saw that this project was focused on improving children’s quality of life from the health point of view. So, it’s a project in which I can feel useful and can contribute everything I’ve learnt. The organization takes on students for a minimum six-week period, and I worked out that I had six weeks between the last examination of the extraordinary examination period in July and the beginning of the 2021-2022 academic year. Antonin Biret is participating in a volunteering project in Togo.

Why did you decide to go to Togo with NGO JEMAV?

The truth is that I found out about this organization because I’m part of a Facebook group where people post about opportunities to work abroad as a physiotherapist. I saw that they were looking for a physiotherapist, even people who hadn’t yet graduated. I took the first step of sending them an email and the person I contacted explained the whole process very well. I’ve also called them to clear up a few things I was unsure about and to see whether it was possible to set up a placement agreement between them and the University. I chose to work with them because it’s all really well organized and I feel like I’m getting the right support and supervision from them. I’ve even got the phone number of the organization’s president, who I can call whenever I need to.

The volunteering experience for physiotherapy

You believe that an experience like this can help you to develop some of the fundamental principles that underlie being a good physiotherapist and even a good person. Why?

I imagine that, when I go out there, I won’t have all the resources that a physiotherapist can normally call on in Europe, so I’ll have to be very inventive to make toys and ways of stimulating my patients so that I can work with them. Also, because I’ll be working with children, I’ll have to adapt the way I work to them. Sometimes maybe I won’t feel like working, or I’ll have to work with them when they’re hungry, or problems like that. I’ll have to develop my social and communicative skills, because their first language isn’t French but Ewe. Although I’ll be working with a translator, I’ll have to interpret their emotions from their facial expressions and so I’ll have to develop ways of understanding that go beyond language. As I’d like to specialize in paediatric physiotherapy, I’ll need all these skills in order to create an effective treatment programme for my patients.

I also think I’ll grow as a person because I don’t yet realize how lucky I am to have the things I have. I think we complain too much about trivial things. Here our number one complaint is about when the curfews will end. Out there, the biggest worry is finding water to drink. This experience is coming to me at a key time in my life, in which I’m going to find out about who I am and to be able reflect on the importance I place on different things.

You’re going to be working alongside other healthcare professionals (a speech therapist, a physiotherapist, and a specialist in adaptive sports training). Why do you think this collaboration between disciplines is needed and timely?

It’s certainly a great opportunity for me to share my passion for physiotherapy with people from other professions who are equally enthusiastic about their fields. I think I’ll learn a lot from them, because they’ll be more experienced than I am. I also think that, to monitor a patient’s progress effectively, you have to take in other points of view. For example, I know that the speech therapists will give me materials that I can bring into my physiotherapy sessions, making them more effective.

We’ve also got access to shared online folders where everything that the other therapists do with the children is recorded, enabling us to coordinate what we do. At the end of each day, there’s some time to set down what we’ve done that morning and set new treatment objectives for the next session.

Leaving the comfort zone

How do you think what you’ve learnt during your degree can help you in this project?

I think that what I’ve learnt at CEU provides me with really solid foundations, as I’ve been able to draw on my lecturers’ knowledge and experience. Physiotherapy is something that you need to actually do, certainly, but you also need the right knowledge behind that in order to really contribute to patients’ improvement. Also, my lecturers for paediatric physiotherapy have said that I can contact them about any questions I might have. I think they’ll be getting a few emails while I’m out there! And I’ll have to be more imaginative. The University trains you very well to work in a well-equipped clinic or hospital, but when you’re out in the field without those resources, things are different.

What would you say to other students about the volunteering experience?

The most important thing is to move out of your comfort zone, because that’s how you expand your horizons and discover who you really are. I’m from a generation that has grown up with social media and yet out there I might barely be able to get a signal to let my family know that I’m OK. I use technology a lot – too much, I think. The aim is to open myself up to a very different culture and to a new language, but the biggest thing is to believe in myself. Because, although I will have someone supervising my work, I’ll have to be responsible. But I think that has to come from within. Maybe this isn’t for everyone, maybe there are people who would prefer to support other causes such as helping animals that have suffered mistreatment. I admire and respect that, but that’s not for me.

Why is this important for a physiotherapist or a trainee physiotherapist?

The most important thing when you take part in a volunteering programme for physiotherapy is that you have to forget about yourself for a while and concentrate on other people. And if that doesn’t come naturally to you, you shouldn’t do it. You can help in other ways, as many of the people on my degree have done, by contributing to the crowdfunding campaign. But several other students have been really impressed with the project, and that’s the aim too, to raise awareness of the chance to take part in a volunteering project for physiotherapy and to show other people that it is possible and not so difficult really.

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