Working in a leprosy colony and helping those who’ve been shunned even by their own countrymen is perhaps not the most obvious way to spend a summer. But for physiotherapy graduate Maria Thaller, three months of volunteering in Vietnam have shaped her future in a way she could not have imagined.
“It sounds cliché, but it truly was life-changing,” Maria says, when she looks back to 2014 and the trip that preceded her graduation. “Friends have told me that I changed in many positive ways, and it was such an enriching experience that I can’t wait to go abroad and do something similar again. And I’m enormously grateful to the University for supporting me and making the trip possible in the first place.”
Maria, now 23, enrolled at Plymouth – her hometown university – because she’d been attracted by the course and its balance of problem-based learning and mixture of lectures with practical work. During her time as a student, she was involved with many societies and clubs, and it was in her final year that she applied to the University’s Roland Levinsky Memorial Fund for a grant. Set up in 2007 in memory of the late Vice-Chancellor, Professor Roland Levinsky, the Memorial Fund supports undergraduates with awards of up to £1,500 to enable them to undertake personal development activities.
And so it was that Maria’s grant funded travel to North Vietnam to work with leprosy sufferers in a hospital in Hanoi, a rehabilitation village located just outside the city, and a remote leprosy colony in Van Mon.
She explains: “I wanted very much to help people with leprosy but I thought it wouldn’t be possible, as I just couldn’t afford to travel there. I had nothing to lose so I put in an application for the fund, and it was amazing to be supported: without that help, there’s no way I’d have been able to make the trip.”
Charitable organisation Projects Abroad was able to put Maria in touch with a family, with whom she initially stayed, but many of the arrangements she made herself, overcoming language barriers in the process. Once there, she was able to use her physiotherapy training to help those who had suffered from leprosy and had been left with gravely debilitating side effects. The condition affects the skin and nerves of sufferers and can lead to disfigurement, deformity and blindness.
“I went to a village of around 300 people recovering from leprosy, and most of them didn’t leave their rooms. They existed in shocking living conditions, left lying in a metal bed, and with a very poor quality of life,” Maria says. “Some had no one coming to visit them, and many were amputees as a result of the leprosy, with at least one limb, if not all four, having been removed. I helped by providing physiotherapy, but in some cases what people needed was even more basic: I just carried them outside, so they could interact with others. The simple fact that I was willing to touch them was quite an emotional experience for many, as they’d been shunned by society.”
Recalling her meeting with one man, Maria adds: “I was incredibly moved to spend time with him; looking into his deep eyes, I could tell that he had seen and experienced things that I could not even imagine. They told of struggle, love, separation, a deep sadness and yet he seemed at peace, with a calm acceptance. I will never forget those eyes.”
The stigma surrounding leprosy remains prevalent in Vietnam, as Maria discovered when a bus driver refused to take her to the leprosy colony and dropped her off in the “middle of nowhere” and told her to walk the rest of the way.
After returning to the UK in time to graduate, Maria moved to Torquay and began working as a physiotherapist for the Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust.
“I love it, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do, and my degree at Plymouth prepared me well for the job,” she says.
Though Maria plans to continue working in the UK, she is keen to repeat her Vietnam experience by again volunteering in other countries where she can use her skills to support others.
“I’ve got the bug now, so I hope to make another trip soon,” she says. “Plymouth provided me with such a lot of support, and the best advice I can give to anyone else studying there is to make good use of all the support available, and latch onto opportunities as I did.”