Porter hosts international rehab forum

LEADERS OF THE International Rehabilitation Forum leadership met at Porter Medical Center in Middlebury last week with 60 young leaders (attending remotely) to make plans for advancing their practice. Shown from left are IRF Treasurer Devendra Peer, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Nelson of the Medical College of Wisconsin, IRF Vice President Dr. Meeta Peer, Communications Director Tom Haig, Dr. Hanna Steere of Harvard School of Medicine, and IRF President Dr. Andrew Haig of Middlebury.

MIDDLEBURY — Porter Medical Center in Middlebury hosted leading young rehabilitation medicine doctors from around the world at an international forum last week. Their personal stories were compelling, yet their mission going forward is even more so, said Andrew Haig, M.D., who practices in Middlebury and is president of the International Rehabilitation Forum.

Sixty young doctors, specialists in physical medicine and rehabilitation from over 20 countries, convened online and in person at Porter to advance their work in caring for people around the world who suffer from spinal cord injury, childhood illness, nerve diseases, arthritis, pain and other problems.

Here are some of their stories:

When an earthquake in Pakistan caused over 100 spinal cord injuries, Farooq Rathore and his fellow rehabilitation medicine trainees commandeered a hospital and saved all the victims — plus delivered two babies.

Raju Dhakal travelled home to Nepal after an earthquake there and is now the only rehabilitation specialist in his country.

In Ghana Abena Tannor just graduated as her country’s first rehabilitation specialist and is already leading a World Health Organization policy committee.

Sinforian Kamdou is in the middle of a rigorous training program to become Cameroon’s first rehabilitation doctor — even though his country doesn’t recognize the specialty.

Among the Americans, Tom Haig, a wheelchair-using former professional cliff diver, made yet another great escape on the last plane from Senegal after COVID-19 shut down his program to teach children with disability how to become journalists.

Philadelphia’s Dr. Meeta Peer and her husband Devendra Peer built a rehabilitation program in their native India and are using it to disrupt the failed Indian training process in rehabilitation.

Whole teams of young American doctors are reaching out to build programs in the Caribbean, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

None of them were there to tell their stories. They came to plan the future of rehabilitation in the poorest countries of the world. For over the last year, Dr. Haig has been working with leaders to identify the best and brightest young leaders committed to building rehabilitation medicine around the world. After the pandemic resurgence made an in-person meeting in Middlebury impossible the group met virtually with key leaders convening in Middlebury for the weekend.

Working groups developed strategies to get America’s 70 training programs to focus on global care, and ways for low-resource training programs to recruit the best and brightest into the specialty. Doctors from South Africa, Ghana, Ethiopia, Nepal, and Bangladesh, already caring for people with disability explored ways Harvard’s Dr. Hannah Steere and the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Dr. Mary Elizabeth Nelson might help them build training programs in their countries.

Other programs taught the doctors how to be effective communicators, to create political maps, and to prove value of their work to others; and how Americans can help to build sustainable locally led programs.

Ironically it was observed that although the U.S. has 70 specialty training programs and 15,000 specialists, there is not a single training program in any of the five New England medical schools outside of Boston, including UVM and Dartmouth.

The group will submit consensus papers on their findings to peer-reviewed medical journals. Numerous projects will be completed before they meet again in Portugal (and virtually) next year.

More information on the International Rehabilitation Forum is at It is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to building medical rehabilitation throughout the world. It’s credited with launching the scientific field of disaster rehabilitation, pressuring the World Health Organization to obligate countries to train specialists in rehabilitation, and launching sub-Saharan Africa’s first English-speaking training programs in the field

Haig, who practices Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in Middlebury and Williston, is professor emeritus of Medicine and Business at the University of Michigan and president of Haig Consulting, a group that recently helped the state of Vermont win a $21 million federal RETAIN grant to help keep Vermonters at work after disabling illnesses and injuries.

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