Olivia Giles was working as a lawyer in Edinburgh when, in 2002, she caught meningococcal septicaemia. On what was an ordinary day she began to feel ill at work. She thought it was a very bad cold, but it was much more severe. The symptoms were in fact blood poisoning. Olivia’s condition deteriorated rapidly. Her flesh was dying and her internal organs were struggling. Within just a few days the doctors told her family they were going to have to amputate all four of her limbs, above the elbows and knees, in an effort to contain the disease. The doctors asked her family whether they should do that, or switch off the life-support machine and let her go. The next day however, the plastic surgeon said he might, after all, be able to save her joints. Despite having her hands and feet amputated to save her life, she battled through, slowly learning new skills and regaining her independence.
She has since founded the Charity “500 Miles”, which supplies prosthetic limbs to developing countries in Africa. The Charity helps people with mobility difficulties and gives them a chance to live independent lives. As a quadruple amputee Olivia knows just how important that independence is. The Charity’s name comes from The Proclaimers’ famous lyrics, “I would walk 500 miles”, because that’s the aim, to get disabled people in Africa up and walking.
Olivia says she has been given a second chance to enjoy life and that everyone else deserves that too. The mission statement at “500 Miles” is that “all who need and can use a prosthetic or orthotic device to improve their quality of life, will have that chance”.
I knew of Olivia and her colleagues thorough my work, but I had not met her before her illness. It was one of those one in a million chance meetings. I was staying at a small hotel in Mzuzu, Malawi, while supporting Opportunity International Bank of Malawi (a Microfinance Organisation which helps the disadvantaged people with loans and savings products) with skills training. Olivia was also staying over. I introduced myself and we struck up a conversation. I learned of the incredible work Olivia was undertaking in that Region. I was in awe of her determination to improve the lives of those afflicted by disability and the courage with which she had fought, and to a huge extent defeated, the terrible illness she had suffered. With the loss of both her hands Olivia proudly wears her wedding ring on a neck chain and boasts of her ability to thread a needle, something many of us find incredibly difficult.
The African Continent is home to an estimated 60 million disabled people who are often marginalised because of a perception that disability is some kind of curse or witchcraft. In Malawi, Zambia and Zanzibar, when people are born with deformities, lose their limbs or the use of their limbs due to accident, disease or poverty, many of them also lose their livelihoods, homes or families. The most vulnerable can even die. “500 Miles” is working to give them back their lives by making prosthetic and orthotic devices as accessible, and as affordable, as possible. In Lilongwe, Malawi, “500 Miles” set up a Prosthetic and Orthotic Centre in the grounds of Kamuzu Central Hospital, the main tertiary care hospital for the Central Region. “500 Miles” runs this facility for the Malawi Ministry of Health as part of the Government Health Service. When “500 Miles” began work at the Centre in 2008, their building was made out of three seagoing containers. That has evolved into a modern purpose built unit close to the original building. Since “500 Miles” opened to patients in March 2009, they have carried out well over 3,500 patient fittings and are currently producing an average of around 80 devices each month. The long term aim is to build the capacity and economic efficiency of the Centre, train and develop the Malawian staff and then hand over the Centre to the Ministry of Health. “500 Miles” will then continue to support the Centre by providing it with the income it needs in order to be self-sufficient by funding and subsidising the purchase of devices for those who cannot afford to buy them.
John Sankulani is a beneficiary of the work done by “500 Miles”. He is 9 yrs old and has Cerebral Palsy. He was referred by a local Malawian charity called Development and Integration of People with Disabilities (DIPD) which works in the Mchinji area where John lives. DIPD promotes an inclusive society that adequately cares for, supports and protects the rights of people with disabilities so that they can realise their full potential and make a contribution to society as equal and dignified citizens. When John was first seen he was very spastic and could not fully straighten his legs. The Centre managed to get them straight and after much physiotherapy “500 Miles” made knee/ankle/foot orthoses (KAFOs) for him to wear at night to assist with keeping his legs straight. When “500 Miles” last went to John’s village, Chimteka, it appeared that he no longer needed KAFOs and might be able to stand with only ankle/foot orthoses (AFOs). “500 Miles” organized for the new supports to be made and as the cover picture shows he is is now able to stand with them. The next step is trying to walk!
With around only 13% of the population in Developing Countries who need a prosthesis or orthosis able to get one, the work of “500 Miles” will continue for some long time yet. What an incredible journey they are on and what an amazing difference they are able to make to people’s lives.
A version of this article was also published in the Marlborough Express on 11th June 2014.