Kay Ahern

International Volunteer

Spring03-3 Kay Ahern, Assiniboine/Stone Sioux, PT, CHT, is an experienced physical therapist with a passion for learning and travel. In the latter part of her career she has generously volunteered her time and talent in distant parts of the world. Her international volunteer work has been under the auspices of an organization called Health Volunteers Overseas: Improving Global Health Through Education. “The goal of this organization,” says Ahern, “is to make contributions that are sustainable. This means that we spend most of our time mentoring the local staff and students. Then they, in turn, educate others.” When she’s not traveling, Ahern, a mother of four and grandmother of 12, works part time as a hand therapist in Arizona.

Bhutan and Vietnam

In the 1990s Ahern did volunteer work in Vietnam, where she taught at Hanoi Bach Mai Rehabilitation Center. In 2001 Ahern she worked for four months in the country of Bhutan at the Jigme Dorji Wanghuck National Referral Hospital in the capital city of Thimphu. In 2002 Ahern returned to Vietnam, this time teaching at Da Nang orthopedics and Rehabilitation Center.

At all three health care facilitates, Ahern gave formal presentations to the staff. But she spent most of her time doing teacher education. For example, she would oversee a clinical supervisor as he, in turn, helped his students diagnosis their patients' needs and develop treatment plans. Then Ahern would teach the supervisors and students anything they needed to know in order to carry out the treatment plans.

Before her trips, Ahern solicited gifts of books and physical therapy tools. She helped the Bhutanese and Vietnamese staff members and students use these gifts so they were comfortable using them after Ahern left.

Ahern gave a lot to her colleagues and their clients, but she also learned from them: “I brought back a little more calmness and patience, a little more practicality," she says. "Every day at 11 in the morning in Bhutan, calm descended when we therapists had our tea break. In our busy clinics in the U.S., patients wouldn’t be happy with that, but in Bhutan it is considered a good thing for the therapists to have their tea. Everyone works very hard, but they know how to sit down and be calm and patient. My U.S. colleagues might think it’s impossible to have calmness in our busy hand clinics, but I think you can try. Both the staff and the clients were realistic about what can be achieved. In the U.S., our patients most often feel they should improve 100%.”

Ahern was impressed with the efforts some clients and their families have to make to get help. There are clinics in some of the small towns, but the health care workers seldom have expertise in orthopedic care. Consequently, people, who live in remote, sparsely populated areas have to make their way to a city. For some, this means walking or being carried or carted for a couple of days before they reach a road where they can take a bus to the city.

Travel Advice

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Ahern is an advocate for international travel. “If you desire to learn about other people – how they live, how they think, what they enjoy – travel is wonderful. It is a way to be a participant in the world, rather than an outsider just looking in."

One of her greatest joys is meeting people and hearing their stories. To do this she goes to local markets and restaurants where she engages people in conversation, through interpreters, if necessary. Some international travelers are wary about talking with local people, but Ahern asserts, “People are as kind as you are. If someone isn’t kind, go on to another person.” She found that the many Buddhists she met were particularly kind because they “practiced kindness”.

“Vietnam,” she says, “is a beautiful country. The people are nice. The food is good.” Some of the Vietnamese people educated her by asking tough questions. Referring to what we in the U.S. call the Vietnam War, a young woman asked Ahern, “Do Americans know what happened when they pulled out? Were they concerned? What are you teaching in America about the war?”

Ahern loves Bhutan. “Everything is relaxed. If they have crime, it’s minimal. There is no problem walking alone at night, except for the fact there are no streetlights. People are relatively healthy. They eat lots of vegetables, and they walk because most of them don’t have cars. They have a good sense of humor and are kind.”

Spring03-4 When traveling, Ahern advises, “Know what the norms are. Know what you should expect to pay for various things. Don’t sweat the little stuff..” Kay also feels that it’s okay to put up with some discomfort because of the many joys that you can experience when traveling. For example, Ahern has stayed in simple, Spartan rooms, ridden in non-air-conditioned buses in hot weather, traveled on the back of motorcycles, and made do with all kinds of toilets. “Luxury,” she asserts, “is a toilet that you can sit on.”

Finding Her Path

Ahern grew up in Wolf Point, Montana, a small town on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. “My heritage is rich in Assinboine traditions learned from my grandmother and father and reinforced by my Swedish mother.” Ahern remembers, “My parents were young, and times were very difficult in those depression years. I grew up on the land that my grandfather homesteaded. This was land that my grandmother’s family received during the reservation allotment. These were times when survival and hard work were stressed. People said, ‘Educate the children so they won’t have our hard life.’”

“My mother wanted me to be the nurse that she had planned to be, but I didn’t want to empty bedpans. I asked the school counselor about options, particularly physical therapy. She sent away for materials. When I read about physical therapy, I knew what I wanted to do. Every course that I took from then on pointed me in that direction

Ahern went to St. Olaf College. Her sophomore year she transferred to the University of Minnesota so that she would be in the best position to secure a place in the university’s two-year long undergraduate physical therapy program. Getting into this PT program was challenging. At that time, there were not many PT programs, and there were many applicants for each space. When she was accepted into the program, Kay was able to get a loan from the Tribal Board of her reservation. When she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in physical therapy, her loans were converted to a grant.

Working and Raising a Family

Ahern worked for three years – first at Omaha Nebraska Community Hospital and then at the University of Minnesota Hospital. She married and then didn’t work outside the house for 16 years while she cared for her 4 children. “One of the positive features of physical therapy is the good system of continuing education,” says Ahern. “When it was necessary for me to take a lead in supporting my family and return to physical therapy, I was able to take refresher courses. I worked with a wonderful mentor who assured me that I would remember my skills. I did. I worked in a small general hospital and then in a large general hospital.” During the seven years that her children were in college, Kay had a second job working weekends as a “jack of all trades” in hospitals. This generalist background later proved helpful in her volunteer work.

Becoming a Hand Therapist

In 1979 when she moved to Arizona, Ahern was hired by Ann Galbraith, one of the pioneers in the specialty of hand therapy. Galbraith taught this new specialty to Ahern directly and also sent her to continuing education seminars and urged her to observe hand surgery. On the road to becoming a hand therapist specialist, Ahern had to go over the hurdles required for becoming a member of the
American Society of Hand Therapists. Then in 1991 she passed the exam that enabled her to become a certified hand therapist (CHT). “This certification was a jewel I was happy to have earned,” says Kay. “It is hard to put in words the absolute passion I have had for hand therapy and the pleasure I have derived from helping so many people regain or enhance the use of their hands and arms after injury, surgery or disease.

Ahern has been active in the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). For three years she served on the APTA’s Advisory Council of Minority Affairs. She also served for 4 years as Vice-President of the Hand Rehabilitation Section of the APTA.

Advice for Prospective PTs

What is Ahern advice to people who are considering a career in physical therapy? “If you have a passion, go for it. Volunteer in a PT clinic while you’re in high school. Look for mentors. Never stop asking questions. Sometimes you may encounter a teacher who isn’t good at responding to question or even puts you down for asking questions. But be persistent. Find someone who you can turn to.”

Ahern's advice to practitioners is drawn from her years of practice in the United States and abroad. “Be respectful of culture. Be aware of what people have and don’t have. Be resourceful. Help people feel better. Don’t focus on perfection. Focus on being the best that you can be!”
This article was originally published in the Spring 2003 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is Burgess Roye, Ponca.)

Update 2010

Kay Ahern reports: "I continue to love the options that physical therapy and being a hand therapist have given me." Kay continues to work part time when she is in Arizona, and she is still working internationally to help local PT staff/teachers and students develop their skills so they can meet their local needs independently

In 2008 when she returned to Bhutan for 5 months to teach, Kay was pleased with the progress that local physical therapists were making. She also worked with PTs and PT students in Bhutan in 2009. Kay is looking forward to another visit to Bhutan in August of 2010 when she and a retired hand surgeon will teach in an area of Bhutan that is relatively new to her. 

Ahern has also become the program director for the hand therapy portion of a hand surgery/hand therapy teaching week in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Speaking of her travels, she says, "I continue to meet amazing people from many different countries who have helped me understand how much we are all alike beneath our skin color, religious preferences and country of origin." In many settings, Ahern meets people who are taking care of each, such as young Bhutanese people taking care of their relatives. "I meet individuals in coffee shops, train stations, hotels, airports, entertainment venues, and on walks.  I have made friends that I visit again and even stay at their homes. So life is good."

Update 2008

Kay Ahern has continued to work part-time as a hand therapist in Arizona. She is also still active in Health Volunteers Overseas (HVO). Since the publication of the above article, in connection with HVO, she has done more volunteer teaching in Viet Nam. She has also taught in India and Peru and will soon teach in Nicaragua.