By Laurie Wang

Angela remembers the day she went into a shop to buy groceries. “Get out!” said the clerk at the store. “You’re too ugly!” Her face had been badly burned in 2014. It was a typical day in South China when *Angela was taking the bus to run her usual errands. The bus crashed into an oncoming vehicle, leaving three people, including the bus driver, dead and four severely injured. Angela’s right hand also suffered burn contractures and she inevitably lost functional use of her hand. She and her husband sought health care and surgery for her hand, but they were turned down by many hospitals because they couldn’t afford the surgery. That’s when she heard about the EMAS (Education, Medical Aid and Service) China South surgery team, a team of health-care professionals from across Canada who do surgeries and post-operative care for underserved groups in China.

“It’s awesome. You have people from all across Canada that come together with just one goal in mind. You learn to rely on one another, appreciate each other’s skills and really do become like family by the end of the trip,” said Jeremy Chan, an occupational therapist from Edmonton, Alberta. Chan is currently the OT team lead in the inpatient medicine program at the University of Alberta Hospital.

The EMAS China South team is made up of surgeons, physicians, occupational therapists, physical therapists, nurses, pharmacists, IT technicians and general helpers. The team goes twice a year to South China and runs their own operating rooms (OR’s), doing surgeries for burn victims, children with cleft lip and palate, and more. Jeremy’s main role on the team this past November was post-surgical rehabilitation of patients through splinting, scar management, exercises and education. “After burn injuries, patients face a long recovery process and ensuring patients are diligent with therapy is vital for the best functional and long-term outcomes,” he explained.

Though the surgery gives many renewed construction and function—some patients are even able to walk again thanks to contracture release of the popliteal (area behind the knees)—the impact on patients is more than just the surgery. “The first impact is obvious: through the regaining of physical function, people are able to participate in their most basic activities of daily living. The second impact we see is an emotional one as people begin to regain their self-esteem and dignity,” Jeremy said. “And the third and most important is the spiritual impact. Spirituality is actually found at the core of our Canadian Model of Occupational Performance and is really where I believe the deepest transformation takes place as people find new meaning through their recovery process and the implications it can have for the rest of their lives – and for eternity.”

It was the impact of an EMAS trip 10 years ago that inspired Jeremy to become an occupational therapist. When he was finishing up his first year undergraduate studies in 2005, he served as a general helper on the team. “It was during that trip that I was first exposed to what occupational therapy was and saw firsthand the life-changing work that the therapists were able to participate in. I was inspired through that trip to pursue a career in occupational therapy and have now subsequently made multiple trips back with EMAS.”
On EMAS trips, Jeremy doesn’t have the same supplies and equipment he is used to having, so he is always forced to put on his “OT creativity hat.”

“For example, I had to use a large water jug as a temporary axilla support, and we deconstructed Zimmer splints and used the metal bars to add support to an airplane splint!”

Jeremy Chan encourages other rehab professionals to take on experiences like these. “Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zones and experience new things! The beauty of occupational therapy is its diversity and how you can be the change agent wherever you are.”
Angela is one of many who’ve been impacted by these EMAS “change agents.”

“I was crying during the surgery not because I was scared, but because I was so touched. I am so thankful for the EMAS team. They have allowed me to get better so I can take care of my three daughters,” Angela said. “They have allowed me to live again.”

“The beauty of occupational therapy is its diversity and how you can be the change agent wherever you are.”

Jeremy Chan, occupational therapist from Edmonton

*Names have been changed

Laurie Wang had the privilege of being a general helper and translator for the EMAS team in November 2015. She was “embedded” with physiotherapists, occupational therapists, surgeons, physicians, nurses, pharmacists, IT and general helpers on the team.

Rehab Professionals Needed
EMAS is currently recruiting physiotherapists, occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists to join the China South team. If you are interested, please contact Lawrence Lau