HomeArticlesThe long walk back to yourself: How this hospital revolutionised rural rehabilitation

The long walk back to yourself: How this hospital revolutionised rural rehabilitation

A road accident, a bad fall, a stabbing. A single moment and a traumatic head injury can change everything in your life, leaving you to relearn life’s basics as if you were a child — walking, talking, grasping. When the unthinkable happens, rehabilitation services can be the start of the journey back to a semblance of the life you once had. If you can get them.

It’s a summer’s night in the Mother City and Khayalethu Shukuma is celebrating. It’s payday. And it’s December. 

A relatively recent arrival to Cape Town from the Eastern Cape, Shukuma had spent the past year at his new job as a construction worker. 

But tonight, the music is blaring and Shukuma has had just enough beer to make the city lights go fuzzy. 

It’s a perfect atmosphere. 

Then a man walks by. 

That guy, Shukuma thinks to himself, has been looking for trouble the whole night. The two had already had a run-in. 

Suddenly, the man turns to face Shukuma, looking him right in the eye. That’s when he says it:


The word, an isiXhosa term reserved for boys who have not yet attended initiation school, implies Shukuma isn’t a real man.

Shukuma sees red, figuratively. Then, a glint of silver.

And then, he sees nothing at all.

Between the fall and the rise is rehab

The next day, Shukuma woke up in Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital. The man who insulted him had also brought an axe down onto his skull.  

That was a year ago. 

“This whole side was dead,” he says, gesturing to the left half of his body. Gone too was his ability to speak after the attack, at least temporarily.

Today, Shukuma is sitting on a bed 1 200 kilometres away from Cape Town at Madwaleni Hospital about two hours’ drive from Mthatha. From the hospital window, he can see the green hills spilling out beyond its frame.

Over the hills: Hundreds of kilometres away from any of the Eastern Cape’s cities, staff at Madwaleni Hospital are using the little they have to help put injured people’s lives back together. (Dylan Bush, Bhekisisa)

He’s at the rural hospital’s rehabilitation ward, called Siyaphila, or “we are well”. Shukuma is one of eight patients who have just finished a week of intensive physical rehabilitation — what the hospital calls “block therapy”. 

For some patients like Shukuma, this means working with healthcare workers such as occupational, physio, maybe even speech therapists to regain abilities they might have lost after an accident or a stabbing. For others, such as children with disabilities wheeled in on special prams, professionals will help them with posture and stretching to prevent them from developing, for instance, permanent hunches. 

Typically, explains occupational therapist Erica Bourn, a team of therapists will meet with patients on the first day to brainstorm the week’s goals. 

Some patients might want to improve the way they walk. Others may want to strengthen their limbs. 

Shukuma’s aim was to be able to walk faster, and to stay balanced while doing it. 

Bourn explains: “Sometimes, people need skills as simple as learning to wash themselves again, to use the toilet or to feed themselves.” 

Once the game plan is set, the work begins.

Cash and kilometres — Changing the health equation

A patch of lawn separates Madwaleni Hospital’s general ward and Siyaphila. The rehab centre’s name is spelled out in a mosaic of shiny, multicoloured tiles and mirrors. A friendly hound lazes at the entrance next to a wheelchair. 

Inside the ward, surrounded by the powder blue walls of the men’s section, Shukuma’s features soften as he slowly gets onto all fours on the narrow hospital bed. He places one arm at a time underneath the opposite shoulder, and shifts his weight from one side to the other, leaning deep into the stretch each time. 

This is one of the many exercises that the therapy team taught Shukuma to help rebuild his strength after the axe attack. 

He thinks back on when he started at Siyaphila, still bound to a wheelchair. 

“They gave me exercises, medication, and training,” he says. “Training, training, training.”

It took six months of gruelling one-week-long therapy sessions like this before he could slowly walk again. 

Today, his gait betrays only a slight limp. 

More than two-million South Africans are living with disabilities, show 2011 data from Statistics South Africa. There is no recent information on how many adults like Shukuma need rehabilitation services but a 2006 study among children in Orange Farm — a township outside Johannesburg — found that roughly only a quarter of children who could benefit from rehab services got them. 

The findings, write authors in the journal Child: Care, health and development, probably reflect the situation in most other disadvantaged areas of the country. 

And as of 2015, there was also no data on how many healthcare workers in the public sector were equipped to provide this kind of help, says occupational therapist Kate Sherry in that year’s edition of the South African Health Review by the Health Systems Trust. 

At Madwaleni Hospital, services were there but even then many patients in the past only managed a visit to Siyaphila for hour-long rehab sessions once a month at best. 

“Patients have to travel really far to get to the hospital,” explains occupational therapist Erica Bourn. “It’s expensive.”  

And people often battled to find money for transport — whether in the form of a neighbour’s car or minibus taxis that can charge riders an extra fare to accommodate wheelchairs. 

These costs can put strain on the families looking after patients like Shukuma. 

For the year since he was attacked with an axe, Shukuma has been unable to work, and has been dependent on his father and aunt to provide for him.

He explains: “I lost my livelihood.”

Starry, scarry night: A year-end party, alcohol, and an axe put Khayalethu Shukuma in a wheelchair. (Dylan Bush, Bhekisisa)

Patients who only came one hour a month, healthcare workers soon realised, weren’t able to repeat the exercises at home.

Speech therapist Sarah Wilkins heads up Siyaphila. There’s only so much information you can absorb in an hour each month, she explains.

So the team came up with a plan: Ask patients to come to the hospital less frequently but for longer periods of time. 

Today, it hasn’t just saved patients money but there’s strong evidence to suggest that longer, more intensive therapy is linked to faster recoveries for people, like Shukuma, who have severe brain injuries. 

Patients who undergo this kind of therapy also need shorter hospital stays. This is according to a systematic review of evidence conducted by the Cochrane Center in 2015.  The organisation’s hallmark reviews evaluate existing research on a topic to summarise the evidence for different types of medical treatments.

Cochrane researchers also found that brain injury patients fare especially well in team programmes like the one at Siyaphila, especially alongside others battling the same types of problems.

And, block therapy gave Madwaleni Hospital therapists more time with patients to ensure they understood how to do rehabilitation exercises — and do them well. 

“If you want patients to do their exercises at home, they have to know why they’re doing it,” Bourn says. 

This is especially true when it comes to the rehab centre’s stroke and head trauma patients like Shukuma, since simply popping a pill won’t improve their muscle function. Instead, they have to relearn actions that once seemed like second nature. 

They can also help patients to predict what at home might prevent them from keeping up with the daily exercises they need to do to get better — and how to solve them.  For example, whether people like Shukuma have someone around to help him get to the bathroom.

This kind of planning has been linked to improving how well people stick to their exercise schedules once they get home, according to a 2016 paper published in the journal Musculoskeletal Care. 

At the end of the week, when Shukuma and the seven other patients leave, a new bunch will take their place. 

“One week will be all the children with cerebral palsy,” explains speech therapist Sarah Wilkins, who heads up Siyaphila, “the next it could be all the kids with learning disabilities.”  

But switching patients from monthly sessions to a weeklong stay at the hospital does come at a price, says the facility’s acting clinical manager Andrew Miller. 

Keeping patients for longer pushes up laundry, food, and cleaning costs slightly. But since the building that is now being used for block therapy used to be one of the hospital’s tuberculosis (TB) wards anyway, the increase didn’t break the bank. 

One important change, Miller says, was to make sure there were nurses available to take care of patients while they’re there.  Luckily, patients being booked in for therapy aren’t critically ill, so only one nurse is necessary. 

Plus, Siyaphila allows patients to bring a caregiver along to block therapy, so they aren’t ever completely alone. Moms heading to Siyaphila for block therapy are also encouraged to bring their babies along, which solves the problem of finding somebody to care for them while they’re away. 

Miller says the hospital is hoping to set up a shuttle service for patients in the future but for now, transport costs still fall on patients and their families.

This isn’t what they teach you in medical school

Erica Bourn sits in Siyaphila’s storeroom. A long line of wooden cubby holes sits against one wall, brimming with board games, children’s books and the odd block. The legs of well loved stuffed teddy bears piled on top dangle over the edge. Tucked away to one side is a jumble of seemingly random household items. 

Like most hospitals in South Africa, according to the health department’s most recent rehabilitation action plan, Madwaleni’s therapists don’t have the luxury of fancy therapy equipment.

Instead, simple toys and household items are the tools of their trade. 

Back in the men’s ward, Bhojana Mathunywa is sitting on his hospital bed. In his lap, lies a small cardboard box. Seven washing pegs sit perched on its edge. Mathunywa is slowly, patiently moving the clothes pins around the lip of the box, one at a time. The action of pinching and releasing each one is helping Mathunywa regain fine motor skills after a group of men attacked him.

Not only are these kinds of tools cheap to source and to replace, Bourn says, they’re also designed to mimic the activities of ordinary life, like hanging up the laundry. 

Pegs & progress: Occupational therapists at Madwaleni Hospital’s rehabilitation ward, Siyaphila, use simple household items to teach people how to do everyday tasks again. (Dylan Bush, Bhekisisa) 

Or, perhaps, making bread for the family. Every so often, Bourn explains, the rehab team will set up a baking station for their female stroke and head injury patients improve how easily they can move their upper limbs. 

“The process of kneading helps wake up the muscles again and to retrain them,” she says. 

But this wasn’t something Bourn learned as part of her training. 

“At university, you are taught how to deal with sports injuries from running or cycling,” says physiotherapist Adri Burger. “But not how to rehabilitate muscles you use for rubbing cow dung into the floor of your hut.”

If curricula could use a change to better serve rural South Africans, so too perhaps could the make-up of the rehabilitation professionals they train.

A survey of 150 speech and language therapists, for instance, found that nearly 100% spoke and understood only English or Afrikaans, according to research published in the South African Journal of Communication Disorders in 2016. There is no recent, publicly available data on how many occupational and physiotherapists that come from rural areas are trained each year. 

At Siyaphila, the rehabilitation team depends heavily on specially-trained rehab assistants to gauge how they should tailor their treatments for the rural, Xhosa population they serve. These assistants are also skilled in how to translate important medical advice to patients about their injury, and help explain why it’s important that they do their exercises right. 

Back in the men’s ward, Shukuma is gathering his things. It’s been a long week of gruelling therapy, but if it means he could start work again soon, he’s happy to do it. 

Shukuma throws a suave leather jacket over his red T-shirt and struts confidently across the grounds to start the long trek home.

He says: “I didn’t think I would ever walk again.”

Joan van Dyk was a health journalist, senior health journalist and news editor at Bhekisisa between 2017 and 2023.