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From Ireland to Peshawar: This Irish woman has dedicated her life to treating cerebral palsy in Pakistan

A physiotherapist falls in love with Pakistan and decides to stay to heal its most special citizens.
Updated 10 Jun, 2016 12:46pm


Yvonne Frizzell was a young woman when she first came to Pakistan with her husband in 1984. Years before she met him, her husband had taken an unlikely road trip from England to Bangladesh. He fell in love; after marrying Frizzell he brought her to Peshawar “looking for some excitement”. Frizzell – a paedreatic physiotherapist trained at the Royal London Hospital – found more than an adventure here. She found a cause.

The couple ended up staying in Peshawar for nearly six years. They brought their son to Pakistan when he was just two months old; their daughter, too, was born here. During this period, another young man became a part of Frizzell’s life. It was Akbar Saifullah Khan, a two-year-old boy with cerebral palsy.

Not many in Pakistan were equipped with the expertise required to deal with Khan’s ailment when he was growing up. But his luck turned when his mother met Frizzell at a social gathering. Mrs Saifullah Khan told Frizzell about her son, and soon the medical practitioner started working with him.

Frizzell was a big influence on Khan as he was growing up. In 1990, when she moved back to Ireland, eight-year-old Khan moved to the country with her. He spent the next 13 years at a school there.

Akbar's progress spurred an awakening. Mrs Khan knew that not everyone could afford to send their children abroad for treatment. Having seen firsthand what a mother goes through having a differently-abled child, she wanted to be a part of the solution. When her now 21-year-old son was moving back, she floated an idea for Frizzell: why not open an institute to help cerebral palsy patients in Pakistan, free of charge?

New beginnings

“We give new life to the young patients of cerebral palsy and make them stand on their own feet”, says Frizzell with pride over what her team has been able to achieve. She is the clinical lead at Akbar Kare Institute (AKI), located in the posh residential area of University Town, Peshawar.

Frizzell has been a busy woman since AKI opened its doors in 2005. Operating eight hours a day, for six days a week, the clinic already has an impressive 7,000 patients registered. Starting from a dining room 11 years ago, the institute has continued to expand.

AKI has become a passion project for her. She recognises that disability is a grave problem, yet maintains, “nobody understands that even the smallest thing you can do for a child will make a huge difference to their family”.

Frizzell has successfully integrated with the locals. “I can understand a lot of Pashto and Urdu, but my lips don’t allow me to speak the words”, she says. After taking care of differently abled children for many years, she has now taken Pakistani nationality. “I will stay in Peshawar and serve the people”, the physiotherapist declares.


A well-oiled machine

The staffers at AKI know what they are doing. At the entrance, stands a green-eyed guard who does more than ensuring security. As frantic parents enter with their children, he welcomes them with a warm, calming smile. The guard offers a wheelchair for the children, with quiet confidence indicating that he has things under control.

Huma Ali, manager operations says that registering at AKI is fairly straightforward. When a patient comes to the institute, the data administration staff notes the patients’ details and issues a code to each patient. “The process takes 10 to 15 minutes,” she says.

Opposite the administration office, Raza Khan, a senior physiotherapist, can be seen on his knees, firmly applying pressure on the shoulders of 2-year-old Adnan. The young cerebral palsy patient was registered with the centre a year back. The toddler was unable to hold his head in one place owing to his condition when he first came to AKI. Evidently, this is no longer the case. “He is improving with therapy and can easily hold his head up,” Raza Khan tells Dawn.com. While there is no complete cure for cerebral palsy, but with treatment, “we can facilitate their life up to some extent”.

Next to Raza Khan, therapist Wajid Ali is working with another young child. The patient’s mother listens intently as Ali shares tips regarding how to continue taking care of the patient at home. Most parents are overwhelmed and do not know how to deal with special needs children themselves. Cerebral palsy treatments can be long and punishing ordeals for both the patients and their parents; thus Ali thinks it is of the utmost importance to create awareness among the parents, and to support them.

Mothers want their children to start moving and playing like other kids. This, unfortunately, is unlikely. Ali says that at AKI they aim to improve the patient’s routine life; that in it self is often nothing short of a miracle.


Playing catch up

Pictures of past patients are displayed in the AKI building’s corridor. These success stories serve as motivators for the patients and the therapists alike. AKI, it seems, has been able to help people in their darkest hour. Adnan Danish, a resident of Peshawar, can concur. In a deadly road accident, which claimed his wife’s life, his young daughter Huma’s body was paralysed on one side. He consulted different doctors across the country, but no one provided any solutions. Down, but not defeated, he came to AKI. That the therapy at institute improved his daughter’s condition, he thinks, is nothing short of a miracle.

He complains about the lack of treatment facilities for children with cerebral palsy in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Both the government and private hospitals leave much to be desired. Mrs Ismail, the mother of another child with cerebral palsy agrees. “The condition of my son is improving,” she says, but laments that there are no quality schools for special needs children in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Clinical lead Frizzell shares that the province’s government also does not seem invested in supporting the centre. The health minister and other senior officials have visited the institute and praised AKI’s efforts. These words, however, seem empty since they do not translate into action.

The AKI has changed buildings three times due to different problems. Huma Ali says that during 2013 the institute also remained closed for three months, due to the district government’s crackdown against commercial operations in the residential area of University Town. The AKI administrators have now requested the provincial government for the provision of land to institute. “We are serving on humanitarian grounds but the government is not taking our request seriously,” Huma Ali says.


A model to follow

After 11 years, Frizzell believes that AKI has come to cost-effective treatments that work. “If we need a piece of equipment, we make it ourselves. We can bring the ideas from the developed world; we don’t have to start reinventing things,” she says. The institute doesn’t rely on electrical equipment, and instead evolves its own systems.

Frizzell believes that the AKI has a real chance for advocacy and to change the way people look at cerebral palsy treatment in Pakistan. She gives lectures in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad on sustainable ways to treat the ailment.

She maintains that more will have to join the fight against cerebral palsy: “There is always too much to do, there is always not enough we can do — it is just a big problem.”


All photos are by the reporter.
Video production by Sirajuddin | Editing by Aamir Baig and Kamran Nafees