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Cross-cultural care

Posted 3:29 p.m. Friday, May 31, 2024

Four, first-year UWL Physical Therapy students went to KLE Institute of Physiotherapy and also made local cultural trips in India in January. The students are from left, Sam Bach, Katie Hall, Anna Edsill and Kayla Lass.

UWL Physical Therapy students enhance skills through healthcare experiences in India 

They all remembered the waterfall, one of their first stops in India.  

As UW-La Crosse physical therapy students climbed the rock steps alongside the rushing water, they noticed a man walking on his hands down the jagged path, as he pulled his legs along behind him.  

The sight reminded UWL student Sam Bach of a question posed in a physical therapy class months prior. “If someone is paralyzed, are they impaired? The class then watched a video of a man with paralyzed arms playing the trumpet with his feet. It was a hypothetical question. Here they were in the real world. 

“At first I felt there was nothing I could do to help him, and then I realized I didn’t need to,” says Bach. “This man was not defined by his disability.” 

“He had the brightest outlook on life,” adds UWL student Katie Hall. “He told us about places to find fruits and trees.” 

In the PT profession, students will go on to work with people recovering from injury or disease, and their job will entail encouraging exercises, strategies, and a mindset to improve their quality of life. Students need real world experiences working with people —in diverse cultural and clinical settings to prepare for a PT career, says Steni Sackiriyas, assistant professor of Physical Therapy. 

From oncology units to the OGBYN, four UW-La Crosse Physical Therapy students had diverse clinical and cultural experiences during a trip to Belagavi, India for three weeks in January. Another cohort of students will likely be going again this fall. These hands-on, healthcare experiences were possible thanks to a new collaboration with KLE Institute of Physiotherapy in India, initiated by Sackiriyas, their faculty mentor and guide. UWL signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the KLE Institute in April 2021. At the time, the schools could do nothing in person because of the pandemic, so they started with online student-to-student interactions in Sackiriyas’ Pathophysiology class. 

The first in-person experience in January was impactful, the students say. Working in the clinical setting they experienced the smiles that helped them break through language barriers and new cultural norms that made them question their own. They practiced the concepts they learned in UWL classrooms to better care for their patients like good listening, empathy and adapting to meet their patient where they are. 

“We gained experiences that we never could have imagined in the U.S.,” says PT student Anna Edsill. “One of the biggest examples was learning the importance of religion and socio-economic status in regard to healthcare in India. In the U.S. we don’t ask these questions, but in India it makes such a difference in terms of their rehab process. … It makes you think about your own life and what you have access to.” 

Sackiriyas encouraged the students to interact with locals as much as possible, including with this group of kids that was on a class trip, one of their first local connections. “You could see the kids eyes light up, and it also brought us a lot of joy,” says Bach.

Student Kayla Lass was able to experience doing PT with mothers in the OGBYN floor of the hospital, a PT offering not commonly found in the U.S. They were helping mothers rehabbing from birth and educating them about what to expect in the months ahead.  

Working inIn the Oncology unit, UWL student Katie Hall recalls working on some different compression techniques with a woman with breast cancer and Lymphedema. She couldn’t speak the same language as the patient and also couldn’t directly relate to her experience with these conditions. Still she found a way to connect. “You may not speak the language, but you can still treat them with love, care and respect, and it goes a long way,” she says.  

When Sackiriyas was going to PT school, he recalls having visitors from the U.S. and the impression it left on him as a student. 

“This is kind of like giving back to this community. Taking students from here and giving them that experience of a new culture,” says Sackiriyas. “I’m thankful to these adventurous students.”

This collaboration and the subsequent clinical rotation trip to India for the DPT students were made possible by the full support of the Health Professions Department, PT program,  Graduate Council and KLE Institute. 

Students are grateful to Sackiriyas who brought them the opportunity to meet new people and listen to their stories, something more valuable than anything they could get out of a PT book.  

“The people we met were not disabled,” says Lass. “They were as abled as they can be. When you are treating patients, you are optimizing what they can do and giving them knowledge of what their potential is.” 


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