For someone who doesn’t enjoy the heat, Catherine McConnell, a prosthetist at West Park Healthcare Centre, has spent a lot of time in sizzling climates. From living in Cambodia and Thailand to travelling extensively in the region, McConnell has filled her passport with more overseas work experience than most in her field.
Having been involved in prosthetic and orthotic education in South East Asia for several years before coming to West Park, McConnell knows all too well how important it is for countries with developing health care to have access to properly trained prosthetists and orthotists.
McConnell was first inspired to take her knowledge and specialized skillset overseas after meeting refugees from Vietnam, and wanting to travel to Asia to see where they had come from. According to McConnell, about 1-billion people around the world currently need assistive devices, with that number expected to double by the year 2050, and this knowledge is what continues to inspire her in her travels today.
“I wanted to go to Asia and make legs for people who needed them,” McConnell says. “But just going there to make legs is not the most impactful way to help, as they won’t last. It’s much better to transfer your skills, so I worked with schools instead.”
After receiving a B.Sc in Biology and Bachelor of Education, McConnell graduated from the clinical prosthetics and orthotics program and George Brown College in 2000. She worked in Winnipeg for eight years before moving to Cambodia to work as a management team leader at the Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics. After almost three years in Phnom Penh, she moved to Thailand and taught prosthetics for four years to local and international students.
“Assistive devices help get people out of their homes and into the community. They give dignity, access to education, independence, jobs, and can lift someone out of poverty,” McConnell says, visibly moved as she spoke. “It was so meaningful to me, how much assistive devices can do for people.”
McConnell’s subsequent work with the International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics (ISPO) has been integral to getting trained and qualified prosthetists in these countries, all of which are in desperate need.
In 2018, McConnell flew to Myanmar to volunteer in exam oversight for the ISPO. Using her personal vacation time, she was all too happy to participate in prosthetics and orthotics exams overseen by the ISPO, which upholds international standards that must be met by recognized schools.
McConnell, a true travel junkie, jumped at the chance to add another stamp to her passport, and says she’d do it again.
“I would absolutely love to continue doing this for the ISPO,” she says of her experience. “Maybe only eight or ten people will graduate, but that means hundreds or thousands of devices will be made in their countries, and hopefully the graduates will take on the role as prosthetics and orthotics trainers themselves.”
McConnell emphasizes that although people in developing countries still deal with stigma associated with disability, she hopes their lives will improve with access to assistive devices.