Mending the living: the physical therapist treating victims of favela violence

The free physical therapy clinic, Instituto Movimento & Vida, is entirely financed through donations.  Photo: Instituto Movimento & Vida Facebook page.
The free physical therapy clinic, Instituto Movimento & Vida, is entirely financed through donations. Photo: Instituto Movimento & Vida Facebook page.


In Complexo de Alemão, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, the daily life of residents is marked by constant violence. The drug trafficking industry is in full swing: exchanges of gunfire are common, and there are frequent police operations in the neighbourhood. A physical therapist opened up a free clinic to treat victims of this violence - ranging from those suffering from stress and drug addiction to those injured by stray bullets.

Since the start of the year, an estimated 632 people were injured by stray bullets in Rio de Janeiro. Of those shot, 67 died from their injuries-- making an average of one death from a stray bullet every three days. These numbers were released on July 6 by the Brazilian daily O Globo, which cited a police report.

"In Complexo do Alemão, everyone suffers"

Mônica Cirne is a physical therapist. She sees firsthand the toll that the tension has had on the health of those living in Complexo do Alemão. For the past few years, the 49-year-old has run a free clinic in the favela. Her patients range from those injured by stray bullet to stroke victims and those suffering from pain related to drug addiction or trauma. She founded the "Instituto Movimento & Vida" (Institute of Movement and Life), a centre that is completely financed through donations.

I lived in Complexo do Alemão for 28 years, so I understand firsthand the terror that reigns there. The population lives under tremendous stress. You never know if you’ll get home alive and everyone is afraid of being hit by a stray bullet. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that, in Complexo do Alemão, everyone is suffering.

Cirne’s physical therapy clinic. Photo: Instituto Movimento & Vida Facebook page.

There is a major lack of public services here. A decade ago, I started giving free consultations in a room that a church lent me. In 2012, the UPP community police force was established in the neighbourhood. They made the situation so much worse-- the level of violence exploded.

There was a huge increase in demand for help at my clinic. I wrote a few Facebook posts asking for support and was lucky to receive donations. I also raised money by holding bake sales and yard sales. With the money I raised through these fundraising efforts, I was able to open a small care centre with all the necessary equipment.

Cirne organized bake sales and special fundraising dinners to finance the institute.

Photo: Instituto Movimento & Vida’s Facebook page.

"People with facial paralysis come to my clinic”

My patients have a wide variety of symptoms. There are a lot of people whose health has been compromised from the stress and pressure and who are at risk of strokes.

I’ve seen patients who had facial paralysis tied to emotional shock or PTSD. I’ve also worked with patients who lost their ability to walk due to a stroke or a gunshot wound. In those cases, our aim is to get them back on their feet so they can walk again. That allows them to get back to work and escape the isolation of being immobile.

Cirne works to rehabilitate a patient. Photo: Instituto Movimento & Vida Facebook page.

I also treat children and adults with respiratory problems. Very often, children develop respiratory ailments when their parents are drug users-- especially if the mother continues to ingest toxic substances while pregnant. Drug addiction is a major issue in this neighbourhood.

"We get about 20 patients a day"

The problem is that I don’t have a lot of resources to support the clinic. I haven’t received any money from the state or city government.

All of the team members work on a voluntary basis. Photo: Instituto Movimento & Vida Facebook page.

During the week, I work at a different clinic. On my days off, I give free consultations at the clinic in Complexo do Alemão. In total, I receive about twenty patients a day. If I could, I’d double the number of consultations, considering the emergency situation.

For the past month, two volunteers have joined me at the clinic. But the amount of work we put into the clinic is exhausting and I need more support. I often get messages from people from the favelas around Complexo, but I don’t have the time or means to extend this project.

According to the app "Fogo Cruzado", ("crossfire" in English), which records the number of exchanges of gunfire in Rio de Janeiro, Complexo do Alemão experienced a resurgence of violence this year. The worst month was February-- when there were close to 28 shootings in 30 days. In the northern parts of the city of Rio, where this favela is located, close to 3,000 children no longer attend school because of the clashes between the police and drug traffickers.

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