A southside professor took a trip to the other side of the globe to reach more students who want to pursue a career in physical therapy.
Julianna Gahimer, professor of physical therapy at the University of Indianapolis, is on sabbatical this school year, and she decided to spend her time helping physical therapy students in Danang, Vietnam.
The program is through Health Volunteers Overseas, a Washington, DC-based organization that helps offer teaching, training and continuing education to local health care workers in resource-scarce countries. Gahimer spent nearly two weeks in Vietnam in December 2018 and is returning for another two weeks in March.
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“It’s not mission-based,” Gahimer said. “They just want to spread the news … that they have positions in the world that could use help.”
Gahimer taught a class of 35 Vietnamese students at the Danang University of Medical Technology and Pharmacy. The class was for entry-level bachelor’s degree, which meant the students were about 18 years old — something Gahimer said she was not used to because most doctoral students in the United States are in their 20s.
“They did not speak English. Every word that I said the entire time had to be translated,” Gahimer said.
All her class PowerPoints had to be translated into Vietnamese, too, Gahimer said, and sometimes it was odd looking back to not be able to read her own notes.
The language barrier, though, she said, was not as much as a challenge as she thought. She said many forms of communication are universal such as body-language and laughter.
“Language can be a barrier, but it can also be a challenge and a gift that you can make people feel good just with a smile,” Gahimer said.
The main focus of her content was neurological physical therapy, which focuses on using the nervous system to find problem areas in the body. Some of the technology and practices used in Vietnam are dated and haven’t been used in the U.S. for a number of years, so part of Gahimer’s job is to bring that information and try to break everything down in a relatable way.
“Trying to fit what we’re doing kind of into their world,” Gahimer said. “I think it’s being very pragmatic in terms of a low-resourced country how they can use their hands.”
A part of her experience was being immersed into the Vietnamese culture. She wrote journals every day describing the welcoming culture to Americans, the mountains, landscapes and the food she ate, to which she wrote that most restaurants only serve one item each day. Some elements surprised her, such as the lack of stop signs, people riding electric scooters everywhere and also the amount of torrential rain.
But, despite the welcoming atmosphere, she said there are still obvious residual effects of the Vietnam War, where Danang was a central point. She said there are many birth defects as a result of Agent Orange, a chemical used during the war.
“Historically, I think they’re still trying to recover,” Gahimer said. “The culture is so rich. I think that they’re going to do well, but it takes a long time after a war like that.”
Another aspect of her professional work was training university faculty about teaching new elements of physical therapy and professional development. She calls physical therapy an “art and science,” because the science is needed, but the art of communicating with people is just as important.
“You can’t get all 100 percent science or you’re working with robots,” she said.
Her goal for her upcoming return in March is to create a way for her students to practically apply what they learn on patients. At UIndy, she said the school has a program where students can practice, but Vietnam does not have the same opportunity.
During her short time in her first trip to Vietnam, Gahimer said she learned, “people are the same wherever you go.”
“They want just to enjoy life and persist and get better at what they can do,” she said. “I hope students walk out with just a love of their profession.”