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Published in CenterView on July 23, 2012
Boutwell performs a wheelchair assessment and makes adjustments for Sam, a little boy living in Good Shepherd’s Fold orphanage outside of Jinja, Uganda.
Boutwell performs a wheelchair assessment and makes adjustments for Sam, a little boy living in Good Shepherd’s Fold orphanage outside of Jinja, Uganda.

Globetrotting physical therapist finds life-changing challenge in Uganda

By Matt Westerfield

Two months after graduating from the University of Mississippi Medical Center with her doctor of physical therapy degree and a week after taking her board examination, Courtney Boutwell found herself in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, in the summer of 2010.

Eager to see the world and seek out volunteer work, Boutwell and her husband, Brent, spent two months living and working at an orphanage for children with AIDS. It was long enough for her to contract the travel bug.

That calling to have an impact the lives of others along with a thirst for adventure has led the couple to Kampala, Uganda. Living in that impoverished-yet-idyllic sub-Saharan nation has been a life-changing challenge for Boutwell, a challenge brimming with opportunities for her to run her own physical therapy practice, volunteer at local orphanages and learn to see the world from a different perspective.

“It’s a beautiful country, and the people are some of the nicest I’ve ever met — and very selfless, very relationship-oriented,” said Boutwell, a native of Collinsville.

Both graduates of Mississippi State University, Boutwell credits her husband for the couple’s globetrotting tendencies. After South Africa, Courtney accepted a physical therapy travel contract that landed them in San Francisco, where Brent was able to continue his work as a certified public accountant.

“While we were there, he decided he wanted to change his job; he wanted to try his hand at business in the developing world,” she said. “A friend informed him about a position for just his type of skills in Uganda, and it worked out for us to go there.”

Land-locked between the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west and Kenya to the east, Uganda is one of the poorest countries in the world, struggling to recover after decades of violent rule by oppressive regimes. Before that, the nation was a British protectorate from 1894-1962, and the primary language is still English.

The Boutwells moved to the capital of Kampala on the shore of Lake Victoria last July. For the former high school cheerleader from small-town Mississippi, adjusting to life in equatorial Africa was challenging. On top of the culture shock, the heavily populated capital city and the horrible roads, finding work didn’t come easy.

“I researched a lot of different hospitals and organizations and colleges to see if they needed help, and they definitely wanted my skills but they didn’t really know where to put me,” she said.

Eventually she found some clinic space and started her own practice treating mostly expatriates from the United Kingdom, Australia and the U.S.

She said the main reason she was drawn to physical therapy was the chance to build relationships with her patients and to be involved in the whole process of getting them from injury to health.

In her downtime, she began donating her services to nearby orphanages.

“I got together with three orphanages that took in only disabled children, and they had such a need for equipment, orthotics and assistive devices that I decided: There’s something I could do for these people,” Boutwell said. “I was in contact with a company in Uganda that made all those things.

“The quality is a lot different than in the U.S., but they’re also a tenth of the price. And they met those needs at that time.”

She reached out to her friend and former classmate, Kim Martin, a physical therapist at Crossgates River Oaks in Brandon, as well as other former classmates, to help raise money. Martin said members of her church were very interested in helping and through two collections raised close to $1,000.

All told, Martin and other former classmates raised $2,000 for the three orphanages.

“That goes a long way in Uganda, so Courtney was able to stretch that really far and provide a lot of crutches and wheelchairs and other devices for kids at those orphanages,” Martin said.

Martin says she has been amazed by the work Courtney has done and even hopes to visit her in Africa.

“She has been an inspiration to all of our classmates, just to see all that you can do in the physical therapy profession that’s outside the norm.”

Boutwell, who returned to Mississippi this month to visit family, said she and her husband will remain in Uganda at least through December, but they hope to make it part of their lives for a long time.

“Luckily for us, we both have flexible jobs that are needed everywhere,” she said. “Our ideal would be if we could live in Uganda half the year and live in the States half the year, just to be around family more.”

Brent Boutwell currently serves as director of operations for a manufacturing company and aims to continue working to develop business in the country. The couple also has traveled to Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda.

“Now that I’ve been opened up to these possibilities, I can’t imagine not doing them,” she said. “Brent really opened my eyes with his passion for travel and seeing the developing world. I’m learning that I can use what I’ve learned in both places and have more of a balanced life where I know the better things of both worlds.”

The Boutwells in Uganda