Nine years ago, a young boy called Owen arrived in Perth from Malaysia, his family determined to find some answers and get some help.
Owen couldn’t walk or sit properly. Everything was being done for him by helpers and extended family and his mum Joyce feared her child would never be able to stand on his own, let alone take a few steps.
Fast forward to now and Owen has just completed his regular annual trip back to Perth to check in at Ability Centre and a catch-up therapy session with the man his mum credits with helping him gain his independence.
Today Owen is striding determinedly along the corridor at Ability Centre’s HQ in Coolbinia, and while he still needs a little support from crutches, he’s a very different boy from the one who had to be carried into the building in 2007.
Watching his progress is Michael Chan, Senior Physiotherapist at Ability Centre and the go-to man for many kids just like Owen willing to travel to Perth from around the world to get the help they need.
At 67 Michael Chan says he should be retired, but with 30 years at Ability Centre behind him and a long list of West Australian kids and adults that he has guided and helped, it may be some time before anyone is willing to let him go.
The passionate physio never set out to build a reputation overseas, it came to him when an Indonesian family turned up at Ability Centre – then the Centre for Cerebral Palsy - 15 years ago, desperate to find therapies for their 12-year-old.
Over the next six weeks the senior physio painstakingly corrected the boys foot position using a combination of serial casting (plaster of paris and fibre glass) and intense therapy.
When the boy’s family greeted him at the airport on his return home he made his own way through the gate using a walker…and the tears flowed.
Word quickly spread through Asia and families have been travelling to Perth ever since…from Singapore, China, Malaysia and Indonesia.
They fund their own trips and their own therapies just to get any help that Michael Chan can offer them in his time between working with his regular Perth based families and supervising students who also help with his overseas visitors.
The secret to his success and popularity is his toughness.
The treatment is intense and he demands commitment. Families must promise to maintain their own therapy and exercises when they return home, with the physio checking in regularly on their progress via video updates and emails.
For parents like Owen’s mum Joyce it’s a small price to pay for progress.
“We can’t believe the difference in Owen over the years. It’s hard work but it’s worth it,” said Joyce.
“We want him to be as independent as possible when he gets older and the community here at Ability Centre is amazing.
We see kids now that we saw years ago and are amazed at their progress and every year we come back and they are walking independently, we are constantly motivated by the kids we see here.”
Michael Chan has lost count of the number of kids he has helped over the years through his work at Ability Centre, many of them now adults that he still provides services to through his hip, spinal and walking clinics.
Kids like Owen, mums like Joyce and all the other families that have crossed his path over the years will ever appreciate the valuable work he does.