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McMaster Faculty of Health Sciences Newsmagazine — Volume 6, Issue 1, Spring 2012

Julie Hard is assessing a child with polio, while working in rural Kenya with a community-based rehabilitation program

Strengthening lives:Physiotherapist's heart lies in different corners of the globe

When an earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, Julie Hard (BSc '97, M. Sc. (PT) '03) didn't stop to think twice. She took a leave of absence from her position at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto and put herself on the list of emergency personnel to fly to the Caribbean nation to assist.

"It felt right," said the 37-year-old McMaster alumna, "It seemed very clear that I needed to go."

Julie Hard
Julie Hard

Hard arrived at one of the local hospitals and encountered patients sleeping inside tents on the parking lot. As a physiotherapist, she treated countless amputations, fractures, spinal cord injuries, burns, head injuries and tended to many wounds.

What was to be a six-month stint, turned into one year, and one year turned into two years.

"You can't just provide a bandage and walk away," she said. "If I am doing something, I want to see long term impact."

It all began for Hard in the summer of 2001, when she volunteered at an orphanage in Zimbabwe. Since then, she has spent much of the past decade working in developing countries, such as Kenya and Haiti.

While in Zimbabwe, the kinesiology graduate's eyes opened to the disparities in the world and she began to consider a career in physiotherapy.

"There was no medical treatment for people living with HIV, so they were dying in droves," Hard said, in a telephone interview from her home in Mississauga. "I felt limited with what I could do for the kids in the orphanage, but I knew if I got an education, I could do some work in the area of rehabilitation."

She returned to McMaster University to pursue physiotherapy. Her last student placement was in rural Kenya in a disabled children's program and a community-based rehabilitation program for people with HIV and AIDS.

She saw many people with issues relating to polio, children with cerebral palsy, congenital malformations, as well as amputations and burns.

Hard returned to McMaster and spoke to the 2004 graduating class about the opportunity to get involved in Kenya. From that, began the Kenya Working Group, which is made up of volunteers in the rehabilitation sector improving services in the developing country. Volunteers from McMaster University, the University of Toronto and other parts of Canada continue to head to the country to volunteer.

Hard founded the group, but since making her decision to head to Haiti, her husband Michael Willekes has assumed the position of co-chair.

While in Haiti, Hard originally provided hands-on care to those injured, eventually training Haitians on rehabilitation as it was more sustainable.

She later became the health program manager for CBM, an international organization improving lives of people with disabilities in low-income regions, and worked on creating partnerships with local organizations to set up rehabilitation services in a number of facilities.

Her final post was country co-ordinator for a number of programs, such as health, inclusive education, child protection and community-based rehabilitation.

Haiti has a long way to go, in overcoming its challenges, but Hard takes some satisfaction knowing that she has been able to improve some people's lives. She has also received applause for her work. In 2007 she received an Arch Award, which specifically recognizes recent graduates, from the McMaster Alumni Association.

Hard returned to Canada in October to give birth to her baby girl Ruby and although she doesn't plan to return to Haiti in the near future, Hard and her family intend to relocate soon to help in another part of the developing world.