On a roll: How free wheelchairs are bringing a community together

September 18, 2023
Two young female health care professionals sit on either side of a young Ugandan child who is smiling and has both hands up in the air.
MUSC College of Health Professions students Alex Hogan (left) and Beth Chard smile as they flank Peace, a 6-year-old Ugandan girl who has just been fitted for her very own wheelchair. Photos provided

A few came on mopeds. Others on makeshift crutches. Some crawled there on their hands and knees, often dragging themselves for miles through the dirt, just to see them.

MUSC Health pediatric physical therapist Kaitie Burke, DPT, remembers one person in particular from that summer morning in 2022 – a young man named Peter. As she would quickly come to find out, the 24-year-old, who previously did most everything for his family, was now in the unusual position of relying on them for even his most basic needs. A recent tractor accident left him with two terrible leg injuries: a compound fracture to his left and the amputation of his right. A man who, just a few months prior was in his the prime of his life, could barely stand up with assistance.

Peter was there at the clinic – along with dozens of others in that remote Ugandan village – to be fitted for a free wheelchair. But what became abundantly clear, above the gift of mobility, was that Burke and the rest of the MUSC team were offering something even more powerful – hope.

In the span of a little less than a week, Peter – now able to come to the clinic on his own thanks to his new wheels – poured himself into rehab and by the end of the week was able to cross the room on his own with the use of a walker. But that wasn’t the part that stuck with Burke. What got her was when, the very next year, Peter came back. Not because he needed a new wheelchair, but because he wanted to assemble wheelchairs for others. 

“I still can’t wrap my head around that,” Burke said. 

Over the past eight years, Burke has been to Uganda four times, but it was during her visit this summer that her mindset shifted.

“I think I got to see, firsthand, how we weren’t just helping these people. We were teaching them how to help themselves,” she said.

It’s that spirit – the gift of self-sustenance and what it represents in the even bigger picture: hope in its purest form – that’s at the heart of the Ugandan Wheelchair Project, a collaboration between MUSC’s College of Health Professions and OneWorld Health, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide quality, affordable health care to people in need.

A tale of two (small) cities

All the way on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, 7,000 miles away from that clinic in Masindi, Uganda, is a small town in southern Virginia, situated along the Dan River. That’s where physical therapist Cindy Dodds, P.T., Ph.D., grew up – Danville. 

The MUSC College of Health Professions associate professor spent the majority of her formative years there, just across the North Carolina border. It’s where she learned to ride a bike. Where she went to high school. And where she fell in love with health care.

mugshot of Cindy Dodds 
Dr. Cindy Dodds

“I know this will sound crazy, but I knew I was going to be a physical therapist when I was in the third grade,” she said from her office on Rutledge Avenue. 

Dodds’ father was the football, basketball and track coach at the only high school in town. Like most young girls, Dodds revered her dad and spent as much time with him as possible. As a result, that also meant lots of time with the people surrounding those teams, like the athletic department’s physical therapist.

“I was just immediately drawn to therapy,” she said. 

Maybe it was the idea of helping people in need or because she just enjoyed being close to them and their unbridled determination, but to this day, Dodds still isn’t sure. The one thing she does know is that it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with health care.

“I knew right then that I wanted to do that,” she said. “To be so close to those people and their resiliency was just amazing. I mean, how did they do that? How did they find a way to overcome? I desperately wanted to be a part of that process.”

And for the past several decades, she did just that – helping the people of Virginia and South Carolina. Along the way, she got married, began teaching, started an academy for children with disabilities, bought a donkey. You know, your run-of-the-mill PT career arc.

“My husband bought it so our horse would have a friend,” she said with a laugh. “I think he paid like $25.”

Eventually, Dodds began to think even bigger. And so began the first of dozens of international outreach trips in her career. In 2016, during one of her multiweek stays in Uganda, she noticed a particular need for wheelchairs. So she, backed by OneWorld Health, began a crusade to bring as many of them as possible to the developing African nation. 

“To use a therapy term, these wheelchairs allow them ‘participation in life,’” she said. “It lets them go to church. To school. Get water. Go to the doctor. It not only gives them legs, it kind of gives them wings, too.” 

A group of six people stand in front of a clinic in Uganda 
Dodds on her most recent Uganda trip, along with Kaitie Burke (from left), Jack Callahan, Patrick Kugonza, Peter Isingoma and David Opendi.

The gift of knowledge

According to OneWorld Health, it’s estimated that 750,000 Ugandans have life-altering mobility challenges. Of those three-quarters of a million people, only 5% are able to get the wheelchair they so desperately need.

That’s where the Ugandan Wheelchair Project comes in. Every year, Dodds and her team raise money to purchase as many wheelchairs as possible. Now these aren’t just your standard, everyday wheelchairs. Because of the rough, uneven terrain found in most of Uganda, these chairs have giant bicycle tires – something much easier to replace in low-resourced countries – as well as larger durable casters, adjustable seating and the ability to fold to a size where they can be transported by even mopeds.

A man and a woman work on assembling a wheelchair 
Simon Kasangaki of OneWorld Health and Dr. Dodds work on customizing a wheelchair.

But because an ill-fitting wheelchair can be almost as bad as not having one at all, every summer for 11 days, OWH and MUSC send a team of physical and occupational therapy students and faculty members as well as wheelchair experts to fit patients for their custom chairs. It’s there, in that small western Ugandan village – using pool noodles, straps, seatbelts, you name it, they have it in one of their bins – that they carefully and creatively fit each person for his or her very own chair. This, in turn, reduces the chance of pressure sores and increases the likelihood of success in getting around. In the past two years alone, the program has outfitted nearly 100 people for custom wheelchairs. 

MUSC pediatric physical therapist Meghan Andrews, DPT, who traveled with the team in 2022 and hopes to go again next year, remembers the impact their work had on the Ugandans. 

“Every day, you see people who, you just think, ‘You know, if you were just born in a different country, you might not even be here in the first place because you would have gotten the proper care,’” Andrews said. “But they don’t look at it like that at all. They’re just so appreciative of everything. To see their faces light up when they get their chairs, it’s just hard not to be moved by that. There were times I had to turn away because I had tears in my eyes.”

A series of three photos, two men and a young girl smiling in their new wheelchairs 
To date, more than 100 people have been given custom wheelchairs thanks to the project.

For Burke, the pediatric physical therapist, each visit has brought her resolve slightly more into focus. 

“The first few times you go, you’re really excited, but the more times you visit, the more you realize how hard life is there,” she said. “It’s still a charge to make the trip, but now I feel a bit more of a responsibility. Because I know I have the tools and knowledge to help. I know I’m not going to fix the whole problem, but I certainly can improve a few people’s lives.” 

And, as she, Dodds, Andrews and the others involved are so quick to point out, what they’re doing is contagious. Not only with their colleagues but with the Ugandans themselves. Each visit, a few more locals learn how to assemble and fit others for wheelchairs. 

“Eventually, they’re going to be able to do this without us,” Dodds said. “And that, right there, is the whole purpose of what we as therapists do. Help make people more self-sufficient.”