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WFF and Mekelle University are Creating Ripples of Change

June 21, 2019

Jaimie Bauerlein and patient

By Jaimie Bauerlein, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS

Physical therapy is vital to a woman’s optimal recovery after suffering a childbirth injury such as obstetric fistula. In 2016, Worldwide Fistula Fund invested in providing enhanced master’s degree programming in physical therapy at Mekelle University in Ethiopia. Prolonged, obstructed labor, which results in a fistula, often leaves a woman with additional pelvic muscle impairments and damage that cannot be corrected by surgery alone. Pelvic floor specific physical therapy techniques are taught during advanced coursework, however, WFF supports the entire physical therapy master’s program and invites U.S. therapists to instruct in all aspects of therapy at Mekelle University to support the curriculum.


I am lucky.

I grew up in a fairly affluent home and took for granted much of the privilege that came along with it such as going to school, making annual visits to a primary care physician, and visiting a dentist. For many Americans like me, that is our standard of living, and we often take it for granted.

In Ethiopia, however, this is not the case. Medical infrastructure is simply not available to serve most of the population. The country has just 0.7 health workers per 1,000 people, according to the World Health Organization. WHO recommends 2.3 health workers. Medical professionals routinely work in facilities that are inadequately equipped and staffed, making the absolute most of what they do have in order to meet the needs of as many patients as possible. On my recent trip as a visiting physical therapist for Worldwide Fistula Fund, I was impressed by the sense of purpose and unwavering commitment to excellence in patient care that the students I taught demonstrated.

I am a pediatric physical therapist. While in Mekelle, I taught their Master’s Physical Therapy students techniques within my discipline. Before advancing into the coursework covering women’s reproductive health, PT master’s degree candidates must first demonstrate proficiency in basic knowledge across multiple PT disciplines. The five students I was privileged to work with each day were quick learners, exhibiting a significant amount of growth in their knowledge, critical thinking and handling skills. I had the pleasure of meeting many passionate therapists working hard to create higher-level programs for their undergraduate and graduate students.

Jaimie Bauerlein with Mekelle team

What we have accomplished within the medical world in the U.S. has taken time, perseverance and a never-ending vision for better healthcare, all of which can work for Ethiopia as well. Mekelle University is building its infrastructure one small project at a time with the help and guidance of WFF and those of us who travel there to share our passion, knowledge and skills.

There have been continual improvements made at Mekelle’s hospital and university. The instructors who came before me offered suggestions that had been implemented and made an impact on practice standards. These small improvements add up quickly. Not only does improving standards create better outcomes for patients, but it also means local practitioners are able to advance their own skills. Those practitioners are then able to pay it forward by sharing that knowledge with another health worker.

I truly wish there had been more time to spend developing the young practitioners I worked with, but I am excited to see how Mekelle University will continue to grow. They are so open to our ideas and are in a prime position to make critical, positive changes in healthcare that can have a ripple effect across the entire population.