Passers by inspect the damage after the Japanese earthquake in March
Passers by inspect the damage after the Japanese earthquake in March

New natural disasters highlight physical therapists' role in rebuilding lives

With a string of natural disasters causing devastation in many parts of the world, the most recent earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan have left physical therapists attempting to rebuild their own lives, as well as helping others who have been affected.

The Japanese Physical Therapy Association has written to WCPT expressing “deep appreciation” for the warm messages and offers of support it has received from people and organisations around the world. “These kind words have been a great encouragement to many people in Japan,” says Handa Kazuto, President of the Japanese Physical Therapy Association.

He reports that there are a significant number of people who have suffered badly as a result of the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent threat of nuclear emergency. Health care services need to be urgently reestablished for people who are suffering. “I went to the disaster areas after the earthquake and I sadly understood that there would be complex and multifaceted problems which will take a long time to solve,” he said.

The JPTA is dispatching appropriately qualified physical therapists to the affected areas to assist disaster victims. It has established a support team in partnership with other professions and government in order to provide a physical therapy perspective.  

It is also financially supporting local branches in the damaged areas and is exempting victims from JPTA member fees. JPTA has set up an account for those wishing to make donations towards supporting victims and mobilising resources (see

“As time passes, more and more damage becomes apparent and the situation remains serious,” says Handa Kazuto. “We endeavor to support suffering people with our profession and human resources. We sincerely hope that we can work together for the recovery from the serious damage.”

Meanwhile in New Zealand, physiotherapists are working in the aftermath of the earthquake that rocked Christchurch in September 2010, and the subsequent earthquake that hit on 22nd February this year.

Bachelor of Physiotherapy student, Kurt Harrington recalls the earthquake striking as he was on his way to take a pulmonary rehabilitation exercise class in northern Christchurch with a physiotherapist and an assistant. “All of a sudden the car started rocking, and a two-storey building collapsed onto the road in front of us.  We knew it was an earthquake, but did not know the scale of destruction.  We decided to still go to the exercise class, which was based in an old church.  When we arrived, I instantly saw that the back wall of the church had collapsed and several class attendees ran to us saying that people were hurt.”

“We found two elderly men who had severe lacerations to their legs, but were stable. I ran back to the car to grab the first aid kit. While the physiotherapist called an ambulance, the assistant and I bandaged the two men with everything we had in the kit to stem blood flow. As the ambulance service was unavailable, the physiotherapist had to take the more severely injured man to a medical centre. In the meantime, I stayed and ensured everyone was alright to get home and calmed anyone who was panicked.”

In the aftermath, physiotherapists have had to deal with cases of severe trauma such as crush injuries that would not normally been seen in the city.  According to Margot Skinner, who is WCPT’s Executive Committee member for Asia Western Pacific, and Deputy Dean at the University of Otago’s physiotherapy school, physiotherapists are having to work while also coping with problems in their own lives, such as their homes being destroyed and young children or parents requiring support.

“The major health service employer had up to 25% of its staff displaced from their own homes following the earthquake,” she said. “In addition they may have been required to change location in their staff role.”

Sandy Ferdinand, the University of Otago’s Clinical Centre Co-ordinator, said: “The earthquake has generated a time of enormous change, not simply from the quake itself but also because future planning has been reviewed, amended, expedited in ways which were not foreseen before the quake. There is no time to stand still.”

Physiotherapy New Zealand has set up a support fund (see  Its Executive Director Karen McLeay and President Gill Stotter visited practitioners in Christchurch a few weeks after the quake.  “Christchurch physiotherapists are seeing people with multiple injuries,” said Karen McLeay. “Each visit takes a lot longer to deal with due to the added emotional issues.  People are often not presenting when injuries are acute as they are just trying to survive – food, water, family are taking precedence.”

Earthquakes are just one type of natural disaster having a major impact on physical therapists, and their clients. Floods in Pakistan in 2010 have had a devastating effect on the population, and the national organisation of physical therapists, due to be admitted to WCPT membership in Amsterdam this June, may not be able to send representatives as a result of the national troubles. Most of the funds of the Pakistan Physical Therapy Association have been spent on helping needy people in the aftermath of the floods.

With efforts at rebuilding also continuing in many countries, including Australia, Brazil, South Africa and Sri Lanka where there have also been severe floods  –  the WCPT congress in June will consider how physical therapy projects can bring long-term sustainable benefits in conflict zones and disaster areas. Theo Verhoeff, Director of the International Committee of the Red Cross Special Fund for the Disabled, will chair a discussion panel looking at how physical therapists are needed in all phases of the establishment and management of sustainable services for those injured in disasters and conflicts.

“Unfortunately, natural and so-called ‘man-made’ disasters seem to keep on hitting the headlines,” says Theo Verhoeff. “This has the obvious effect of increasing the number of people in need of rehabilitation, making access to those services more difficult and sometimes destroying part of existing rehabilitation infrastructures. But it also risks taking, quite understandably, resources and focus away from people with similar needs in more forgotten contexts.”

“I hope that our session on disaster management will help make people aware of the complexities, in addition to sharing experiences and lessons learned on the various approaches in different situations, keeping in mind that each context has its own specifics.”

If you would like to support those affected by recent disasters, please go to