Therapist Aims To Eradicate Disfiguring Disease
By Ed Pierce // February 18, 2013
BREVARD COUNTY • MELBOURNE, FLORIDA – Attending a church presentation more than a decade ago changed the course of Robyn Bjork’s life and fostered her interest in improving the health of people living half a world away.
Over the years, her work has helped thousands and led to her being honored as one of the Central Florida Humanitarians of the Year.
Growing up in Wisconsin, Bjork loved science, anatomy and physiology and chose a career in the medical field.
After obtaining degrees in health science and physical therapy from the College of Saint Scholastica in Duluth, Minn., she moved to Brevard County with her husband, Todd, and son, Hunter, where she works as a physical therapist and wound care specialist for Senior Home Care in Melbourne.
“In 1994 a missionary doctor came to our church and showed pictures of a problem commonly known as mossy foot (podoconiosis) in Ethiopia,” Bjork said. “I believe God commissioned me at that time to eradicate podoconiosis from the Wolaita Zone of Ethiopia.”
She dedicated the next 10 years to developing her skills to become a wound and lymphedema expert, which is vital in treating podoconiosis, a progressive disfiguring swelling of the feet and lower legs common among the bare-foot farmers of Ethiopia and Africa.
The volcanic soil in parts of Ethiopia contains microscopic shards of glass that penetrate the bare foot and are filtered through the lymphatic vessels, physically cutting the lining of the vessel walls and causing chronic inflammation and damage.
In each of the last three years, Bjork has traveled to Ethiopia and Africa to help educate residents about the prevention and treatment of podoconiosis.
“When your boots hit the ground, you have got to be ready to roll up your sleeves and get creative. Everything changes in Africa, so you really can’t get stuck in the western mentality of practicing medicine,” she said. “In 2009, nurse Kristen Mullane and I found ourselves in rural Ethiopia where the people live in grass and mud huts and carry water from rivers, surrounded by hundreds of people with terrible wounds and swelling of the legs, waiting for us to fix them.”
They had a backpack of random supplies, but really not much to work with.
“Looking back at it, I realize really what a blessing this was. Because of our lack, we were forced to look around us and develop a solution based on indigenous resources. We found raw honey, which became the very successful basis of the new wound care program,” Bjork said.
“We even disinfected banana leaves and used those as our clean area to work from. We started our work on the muddy ground outside in the hot sun, under small trees and along the sides of buildings. We teamed up with the Mossy Foot Project and my focus was to train their field staff to continue the work. It has been a great joy to see those 30 people, who had suffered from podoconiosis themselves, become the experts to treat this problem even though they have no medical background and had been outcasts in their own culture. Because of them, a third of the Wolaita Zone in Ethiopia has already been treated, about 40,000 people, with wounds and large swelling no longer a problem in those areas.”
She said her treatment program is basic.
“What I am doing about it is very simple. I wash their feet,” Bjork said. “I clean between their toes. I treat the wounds. I work with my hands to break up the fibrosis of the legs and move the lymph through their body. I apply compression therapy to reduce the swelling.
“I laugh and smile and tell them there is hope. I teach and train. They sing, they think it is a miracle, they say I am a god, they praise the one and true God, they bless me with food, they baptize me with spit, they say they are no longer a cow … the reactions vary but the intrinsic rewards are always profound.”
Her work with foreign health agencies such as the Ethiopian Ministry of Health and the World Alliance of Wound and Lymphodema Care has been nothing short of a miracle.
“I first met with the board and leaders of the World Alliance of Wound and Lymphedema Care in 2010 at their annual meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. I was invited to present at the meeting, and was just returning from a month in the bush of Ethiopia,” she said. “I had been living in a tent and at one point was alone and stalked by a hyena. I was developing a lymphedema treatment program with nurse Margret Tucker.
“It was culture shock coming from the bush to the spoils of beautiful Switzerland. I was intimidated as well because everyone in the room represented national wound and lymphedema organizations of various countries, as well as the World Health Organization. But they all wore no titles and practically adopted me and my project. It was such a humbling and exciting experience.”
She said she was deeply moved to receive the 2011 Central Florida Humanitarian Award.
“The encouragement of others makes a huge difference,” Bjork said.
“It fuels the passion and sustains the soul. Being honored this year renews my spirit and faith and encourages me that others care and there are friends holding the rope for me.
“Some people heal and minister by baking a pie. I’m not good at that. Some visit their neighbors or clean toilets. What is important is to do something and realize the value of what you as an individual have to offer.”
At heart, Bjork said healing others is a worthy vocation.
“My advice is to never forget to look into the eyes of your patient and really see them. Treat each patient as if it were your favorite Grandma, friend or colleague,” she said. “There is a wonderful world of opportunity awaiting you as a medical professional and you will never get bored because there are so many interesting people you will meet and different problems you will treat.”