Improving global health through education is the strikingly simple motto heralded by Health Volunteers Overseas (HVO), a small non-profit based out of Washington D.C. since 1986. It was not until I became a first time volunteer through HVO in Lima, Peru in 2010 that I developed a deeper understanding of the power of HVO's mission. I quickly found the power of continuing education went beyond improving the fundamental skills and knowledge of practicing clinicians. It is instrumental in empowering the clinician with confidence in their ability to maximize the care they provide to their patients and find satisfaction as an integral member of the healthcare system.
Richard Jackson, PT, OCS, my current employer at The Jackson Clinics in Fairfax, VA, has frequently said that one of the greatest yet intangible gifts you can give someone is the "gift of confidence." Inspiring words from someone who has been volunteering in the international physical therapy community since the 1970's, initially as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya. While in Peru, I was encouraged to find there were many physical therapists (not to mention nurses and physicians) who had been touched with the "gift of confidence" by past HVO volunteers, but none more so than Ana Herrera, a local Peruvian physical therapist.
Ana has over fifteen years of practice experience and for the last six years she has served as the onsite coordinator for HVO's very active physical therapy program in Peru. Ana tirelessly commits herself to working with each volunteer to assist them in developing their learning objectives, teaching topics, PowerPoint presentations, and translation of all materials into Spanish. Ana cancels all of her patients for the duration of the volunteer's assignment (which requires her to double book the week prior and following a volunteer's visit).
With Ana's help, it did not take long to settle in and feel at home and appreciated. Once the clinicians and students became comfortable with my interactive teaching style in a short couple of hours, I could barely keep up with their challenging, yet humble and insightful questions. As the week progressed I was excited to see the therapists and students begin to assimilate various orthopedic reasoning skills from my lectures into their patient care. Seeing the clinicians improve the consistency and speed with which they evaluated problems, the improved accuracy and efficacy with which they measured impairments and tracked the success of their interventions, and the satisfaction they carried at the end of their work day as their confidence grew was quite satisfying.
The communication barriers were superbly alleviated through Ana's efficient translations. All of her efforts are made in order to guarantee a smooth volunteer assignment and more importantly ensure that the 15-20 participating therapists and students receive a valuable educational experience. She states that she has good reason to take on the additional volunteer workload and is motivated because she feels that without HVO, she would not be as effective of a clinician, mentor, or leader in her local rehabilitation community.
In addition to Ana's enthusiasm and work ethic, her applied resourcefulness in creating a fully functional gym in spite of lacking the necessary support to purchase modern exercise equipment is commendable. She studies Sammons Preston's equipment catalogs to get ideas on how to maximize her patient's recovery with specific equipment that she doesn't have. After hosting many barbeque anticucho (beef heart) fundraisers, Ana is able to purchase some items she needs and have others creatively constructed at a fraction of the cost an American would pay! I was impressed with the sturdy and cleverly devised leg press machine that that she had had welded together from an old treatment table. Her balance board and trampoline were as durable as the ones I have in my clinic. However, my favorite was the arm bike a patient had made from a dilapidated and dysfunctional bicycle modified and bolted to the wall.
This local clinician's ability to improvise and thrive with few resources truly gave me new insight into the blessings that I have practicing in the United States, as well as a perspective on how to be creative with my rehabilitation with or without the use of expensive equipment. Additionally, seeing Ana's self-effacing drive to constantly improve herself and the team around her was infectious.
The emails I receive from Ana to this day that help me feel confident that I provided a valuable service to the local therapy community in Peru. Personally, I have gained in ways that I did not fully anticipate. Without HVO and the new perspectives and relationships I gained through my experience in Peru, I would not be as grateful for the opportunities and resources I have in the US. I am driven to contribute in whatever way I can to the perpetual pursuit of improving health locally and globally through sustainable projects and the vehicle of clinician focused education and empowerment.
Luckily, I'm in an environment that shares a similar mindset, which is what has sprung many of my company's education initiatives - including our Orthopedic Residency program as well as our recent initiative in Ethiopia which is also supported by HVO. With technology brimming around the world, even in developing countries, realizing the mission of improving global health through education is possible through many means, even if you aren't currently in a position to travel abroad. I am fortunate to have recently become a volunteer with a newly forming non-profit, Physiopedia, a collaborative wiki focused on improving access to free and open source evidence based information for all rehabilitation professionals who have access to the internet.
There are a myriad of opportunities around every corner to contribute. Health Volunteers Overseas specifically provides a sustainable and well-established avenue for therapists to contribute to the advancement of their profession and colleagues across the world. It just takes passionate volunteers such as yourself to make it happen. A final thought for you, one frequently espoused by Richard and Anna Jackson, "Once you find your way in the world, help someone else find theirs."
Kris Porter, PT, DPT, OCS is the director of Residency Programs at the Jackson Clinics in Fairfax, VA.
HVO currently has volunteer opportunities in Ethiopia, India, Peru, St. Lucia and Vietnam. If you are interested in volunteering please visit www.hvousa.org or contact April Pinner at firstname.lastname@example.org.