Spirit of Hong Kong 2014

Director recognised for 25 years of training rehabilitation methods in Hong Kong and mainland

More than 20,000 students on the mainland have benefited from Sheila Purves' knowledge of rehabilitation over the past 25 years

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 September, 2014, 3:38am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 September, 2014, 7:29am

Sheila Purves is back in Hong Kong before heading back to the mainland. The Canadian with a British accent - "I was born in the UK and never lost it" - arrived in Hong Kong 30 years ago and has spent most of the past two decades across the border.

Purves, director of the Hong Kong Society of Rehabilitation's international and China programmes, says she's constantly learning from her work on the mainland. There are frustrations, but there are also lessons learned that while a local staff member may do a task differently from how Purves anticipated it, it doesn't mean it won't work.

She has been nominated by the Red Cross for the Spirit of Hong Kong Award for personal contribution to the community.

But she said: "This shouldn't be about me, not as an individual It really is a team."

She added: "I've been doing this job for 25 years and China has changed such a lot."

Purves joined the society in 1983 after graduating from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, with a stay in Switzerland along the way.

The society had a rehabilitation centre in Lam Tin, which was one of the first centres in Hong Kong. "People would come who had been injured in factory accidents. So I quickly had to learn [in Cantonese] 'stand up' and 'sit down'," she said.

Purves cited the late Professor Sir Harry Fang Sin-yang, orthopaedic surgeon, legislator and "father of rehabilitation" as an inspirational figure in her work.

Fang and Man-ban Lee, president of the society, are both internationally recognised and Hong Kong should be proud of what they have contributed to the field of rehabilitation, she said.

In addition to his work in Hong Kong, Fang was keen to help people in China with disabilities to lead meaningful lives, and a call went out to find people who might be interested in working in the mainland.

Purves responded and left for the mainland in September 1989.

She has developed training programmes in community-based therapy for the World Health Organisation's Collaborating Centre for Rehabilitation in Hong Kong. Many of her more than 20,000 students have become influential clinicians, teachers and researchers.

She conducted training courses in Wuhan , Hubei province , for doctors who came from all over China. There were also three two-year courses for medical professionals in Anhui province.

It was a baptism of fire for Purves. "We learned a lot," she said. "We shed tears on both sides."

There were issues of language, differences in culture, expectations and priorities. She struggled with "the working culture, the eating, the lack of air conditioning, what people told me and didn't tell me".

Regardless of the pressures, she moved forward and remains in contact with about 60 per cent of her early trainees. "They complained that the courses were too long and had too much therapy in them," she said.

Most of her work was based in hospitals, but Purves was keen to get out into communities. "We still go into communities where you go into a house and someone has been in bed for the past 10 years," she said.

Purves said it was vital to have skills that can be passed on and carried out by villagers.

"If someone's had a stroke, you can use five different pillows to make sure their arms are in the right place", but the technique won't apply in villages where people don't have pillows, she said, so it was important to teach skills that could be realistically applied.