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home Publications Blog Guest Blog — From St. Louis to Ethiopia: Empowering Female Physical Therapists


Guest Blog — From St. Louis to Ethiopia: Empowering Female Physical Therapists

February 27, 2017

Guest Blog by Dr. Tracy Spitznagle

Dr. Spitznagle with patients.

Dr. Tracy Spitznagle* is a WFF Board Member and Chair of the Rehabilitation Advisory Council.

Last summer, while teaching at our Urogynecological Fellowship training program in Mekelle, I was approached by the Clinic Director for Physical Therapy at Ayder Referral Hospital. He is one of the five students enrolled in the inaugural Masters of Physical Therapy program at Mekelle University. He needed to recruit expert Physical Therapists (PTs) to teach specific topics. I was honored to be asked and, with a grant from WFF, I have been recruiting for this project.

Physical Therapy is an incredibly important part of the healing process for women recovering from obstetric fistula and pelvic organ prolapse

Dr. Spitznagle

Often times, the surgical repair does not correct all of the pelvic muscle impairments a patient may have. Pain, lack of control of abdominal pressure, and pelvic muscle weakness can result in issues post surgically such as constipation and incontinence. Therefore, PTs in Ethiopia must be well informed on the specifics of how to diagnose and treat these conditions.

I did not start out as an expert in the field of Women’s Health Physical Therapy (WH PT) but I was motivated by a special group of young women when I was first considering a medical career. I liked the idea of a medical profession related to physical health; I recognized that not all physical issues can be solved through surgery or medication. My personal experiences guided my decision making. I worked at Babler Bound, a summer camp for handicapped Girl Scouts as a life guard. Teaching young women with physical impairments how to swim and play in the water truly inspired me. I wanted to improve health through movement, thus, I chose to become a Physical Therapist. I am still grateful for the lessons I learned helping those young girls.

I met Dr. Wall when he first interviewed at Washington University in St. Louis in 2001. During the interview, he gave me a copy of the inspiring documentary, A Walk to Beautiful, and asked me to consider joining the WFF team. At the time, WFF was working on construction of the Danja Fistula Center. I was thrilled to be able to use my expertise as a Women’s Health Physical Therapist (WH PT) to further the healing of these suffering women.

Dr. Spitznagle Teaching

One concern that I have for the growth of Physical Therapy in Ethiopia is that, unlike the US, there are very few female PTs. Due to the conservative nature of the culture, it can be uncomfortable for women to share pelvic health problems with a male PT. Thus, it is my goal to shed light on the need to support and encourage more women to enter the field of Physical Therapy with the hopes of improving child birth related impairments of the pelvis. WFF’s focus is on women’s health and our motivation is always to serve and empower women. In Ethiopia, we hope to support more female PTs, in a male dominated field, to gain specialty education related to women’s health.

The current educational standard for Physical Therapy in Ethiopia is a Bachelor’s Degree. However, most countries expect a higher degree, either a Masters or a Doctorate to practice PT. I feel compelled to help build capacity for PT in Ethiopia for the benefit of patients that need care. My long term goal is to invest in Physical Therapy education to raise the standard of care as well as engage more female PTs.

We are organizing at least three (3) trips to Ethiopia throughout 2017. On February 27th, I, along with 2 other PTs, will travel to Mekelle University to teach several forms of PT including pain management, joint mobilization and prosthetics. Other teams are forming to teach pregnancy and post-partum Physical Therapy, neurological Physical Therapy and more.

*Dr. Spitznagle is Board Certified in Women’s Health Physical Therapy, an Associate Professor in the Program in Physical Therapy and the Residency in Women’s Health Physical Therapy Coordinator at Washington University in St. Louis. She teaches and conducts research in gender related health issues such as abdominal wall and pelvic floor muscle changes associated with pregnancy, incontinence and pelvic pain.