During 2016, two podiatry students from Queen Margaret University made several trips to Calais in France to provide much needed healthcare support for migrants in refugee camps including ‘The Jungle’.
The students who are studying the BSc Podiatry degree volunteered to provide specialist foot care for many of the migrants who had travelled thousands of miles to reach the infamous Jungle camp. They returned months later to assist refugees after ‘The Jungle’ camp had been dispersed with smaller camps forming all over Calais.
Danielle Knox, aged 25 and Christine McSweeney aged 42, both from Stirling, were keen to do something that would ease the suffering of the migrant population.
Christine McSweeney said: “When watching the crisis on TV we could see that there was a human trail of people who had walked thousands of miles across many countries. So, when we saw the promotion asking for volunteers on the Foot Care project, it was obvious that we could offer our help.
“The first trip was a real eye opener. People were living in really awful conditions. It was freezing, wet and muddy and many people had nothing more substantial than flip flops on their feet. There was only cold running water and very limited sanitation.
“Because of the conditions, people were presenting with trench foot and fungal infections. Measles was rife and we suspected that some people had rickets. There were countless cases of people with broken bones - many claiming that their injuries were as a result of being beaten by police. Medical supplies were incredibly scarce and people were grateful for a few paracetamol.”
Fortunately, the students did not feel under threat at any time from anyone in the camp. Danielle Knox said: “We were slightly apprehensive about going to the camp but people could not have been nicer. All of the immigrants were incredibly grateful for the support that they were receiving.”
Danielle continued: “It was a myth that there are mainly healthy young men at ‘The Jungle’. There are actually hundreds of children, many without any parents, and plenty of women there too. The aid workers were doing a really incredible job but the situation was still brutal. People were not starving but they were definitely hungry.
“Bringing some attention and care to people in need was gratefully received”, said Danielle, “and it was a great way for us to put into practice everything that we had learned on our podiatry degree. We had the chance to help people with wounds and musculoskeletal problems. Obviously we were limited as to how we could effectively deal with broken bones as they were literally no medical supplies other than what we could carry. We were operating out of an old caravan with extremely basic facilities.”
The students travelled to France as part of the Foot Project, which was organised by Simon Miles, a podiatrist from London. They raised enough money for their own flights and accommodation, but they were also keen to source specialist podiatry supplies. They explained: “There were hardly any podiatry and medical supplies, so for our second visit we got people to donate shoes, socks, dressings, paracetamol and specialist podiatry materials.”
The opportunity to experience such challenging real life problems has certainly helped accelerate the students’ learning. The range of injuries and lower limb problems they encountered over several visits, changed with the seasons - the warm weather bringing patients with spider bites, skin disorders, heel fissures and ulcers.
Danielle and Christine were also lucky to have a podiatric surgeon join them on one project which presented an amazing opportunity for them to work with, and learn from an experienced healthcare professional.
The students also experienced how different cultural attitudes impacted on healthcare provision. They said: “Women from some cultures will not allow men to examine them, so we made a lot of progress in these centres where women are more relaxed about examination. We also got the opportunity, with the permission of their mothers, to examine the children’s feet. Fungal infections and footwear were the main issues for children living in these damp conditions.”
The students both said that they would defy anyone to go to the camp and not want to return and help. Christine said: “We knew that, under the circumstances, we could only provide a quick fix – it’s not a long term solution, but at least it shows some human compassion and may offer some temporary relief to people who have found themselves in the most awful situation.”
Christine said: “We were better prepared the second time and we were realistic in knowing that the break-up of the Calais camp would bring more challenges. The aid workers were mobile and were travelling around Calais trying to help people who were setting up small camps with no facilities and no running water or medicines.
“It was challenging and emotionally draining but having been there and experienced the situation, we just couldn’t sit back and do nothing.”
Following the demolition of the Calais jungle the team decided to try one project in Greece. After much fund raising, and with the addition of another QMU student, Andrew Gilmour, to the team, they headed to Greece, basing themselves in Ioannina and travelled out to camps at Faneromeni, Filippiada, Konitsa, Katsikas and Doliana.
The students explained: “On December 28th 2016, we arrived in Greece ready to take the project to a new level. The camps in Greece are legal camps with an army presence so there were strict access rules. Fortunately, Calaid, a donations distribution charity, enabled us to work with Medicin du Monde (MDM) which secured our access.
"Six of us stayed for eight days working in two podiatry teams and each morning we made our way to the campus with the MDM teams. The Greek camps were a lot different to Calais. The Calais ‘Jungle’ was an illegal camp so there were thousands of tents and shacks packed closely together with more or less unlimited access. In contrast to this, Greece was more organised with small camps of 200 people dotted about the mountains in old disused army base and schools. The conditions were grim, particularly in the cold temperatures. The people we saw were mainly refugee families from Syria and Iraq. We set up clinics next to MDM GP’s, nurses, midwives and translators, mainly in a spare room at the camp building, and sometimes they gave us their MDM campervan (a makeshift mobile clinic) to work from. Podiatry is not a known profession in the countries these people came from so MDM worked with us referring people and explaining to patients how we could help.
“We were also able to refer people to hospital, which was very useful, particularly when our team came across a young girl with suspected RA, a child with cerebral palsy and another boy with Osgood-schlatters disease. People in these camps had medical records so, along with the translators, we were able to treat them more effectively. We carried out diabetic foot checks, strapping for MSK injuries, dry needling for verrucae, toenail surgeries, provided orthotics and acupuncture.”
Footwear was poor and unsuitable so fungal foot infections and open fissures were a common problem. The students observed multiple children with bunion formation. Christine explained: “This is quite a unique situation and likely causes are long distance walking and poor footwear. Many of the children had the same type of boots or ‘croc’ type footwear - all were lacking in support and without shoe liners.”
The Foot Project-Greece was very different to the students’ Calais projects, which has added to the students’ overall experience of working with podiatrists in challenging environments. Christine concluded: “This has been an invaluable experience and one which will stay with us throughout our working lives. The patients were extremely appreciative of our services and MDM has asked us to return to continue the work. We plan to go back to Greece in March to build on the relationship we have formed with MDM. Working as part of its team, and as part of the foot project this past year, has enabled us to use podiatry to help people who have suffered unimaginable loss and experienced horrendous journeys.”
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