Around the World with Kay Ahern, PT, CHT

2016 Golden Award honoree Kay Ahern, PT, CHT has volunteered twenty-six times in twenty-three years.

Kay Ahern, PT, CHT has completed twenty-six assignments in six different countries since she began volunteering with HVO twenty-three years ago. For the eight years leading up to her first trip, she met and chatted with HVO staff working at a booth at physical therapy conventions but hesitated to take the first step. Finally, in 1999, she agreed to a two-week assignment in Hanoi, Vietnam to teach physical therapists at Bach Mai Hospital. It was not an auspicious start—when she arrived, the head of the clinic informed her that they had no students and no interpreter. 

Despite this rocky beginning, Ms. Ahern says, “I was hooked.” She continued traveling with HVO all over the world and has taught hundreds of students, made dozens of life-long friends, and collected thousands of stories. One of her many adventures includes traveling from India to Bhutan by bus only to arrive at the border to be denied entry for not engaging a guide to meet her. She was only let through when she threatened to call the king, who she had met, to explain the situation. 

Growing up as a member of the Assiniboine tribe on the Fort Peck Reservation prepared Ms. Ahern for some of the difficulties American volunteers face abroad, like limited electricity and no running water. She knows the importance of flexibility and adaptability, and to her chagrin, is no stranger to squat toilets.  

Since she has returned numerous times to many of the same hospitals over the course of decades, Ms. Ahern has been privileged to witness the changes that have been made in that time, which she says has been “an absolute joy.” One improvement that stands out to her occurred in India, where in 2007 she was asked by a student to just state the necessary treatment without going through any context or thought process. Ms. Ahern asked, “Don’t you want to know the clinical reasoning?” The student could not understand why she should bother. Thirteen years later, Ms. Ahern returned to the hospital to find that clinical reasoning is now an integral part of how students are taught. She has also seen the physical therapy department in Bhutan grow from a single therapist to more than ten and finds that there, too, students are more open to asking questions.  

In 2016 in Vietnam, Ms. Ahern worked with Dr. Thanh who told her he was tired of his technicians telling him they had learned something that he would later test them on with failing results. Ms. Ahern was undaunted and asked Dr. Thanh for just two hours a week with the group of students to practice three types of splints over and over. An interpreter was only provided for the first session. At her final lecture, she had her students present what they had learned with great success. A full year later, Dr. Thanh had them demonstrate these splints to hospital staff; they still remembered the skills. He said of Ms. Ahern, “Do you know why Kay keeps coming back? Because she cares about us and our progress.” 

One of the many valuable lessons Ms. Ahern would like to impart to newer volunteers is, “I learned that I needed to listen more, because if you talk all the time, you don’t learn anything.” She adds that volunteers will often separate themselves from the staff they are teaching, but it is better to see them as colleagues and resources and to value their opinions on their own country and culture—and to not underestimate the people around you.  

Ms. Ahern is not done with travelling. She already has plans to spend two weeks at an Ayurvedic center in India before heading to the Jaipur literature festival. After India, she will travel to Cambodia to volunteer with The Lake Clinic, a non-profit that serves remote and isolated villages in the Tonle Sap Lake area. 

For those looking for reasons to travel and volunteer, Ms. Ahern says, “It’s about expanding your curiosity about the world and the different ways people live and think.” It’s a chance to look beyond what we hear in the news and other media and to really get to know people and cultures: “It’s all about people.” 

A big thank you to Ms. Ahern for all of her service and advice!