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Division of Physical Therapy
UNM Health Sciences Center
MSC 09-5230
1 University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM 87131-0001
Phone: 505-272-5479
Fax: 505-272-8079

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UNM Division of Physical Therapy Expands its International Reach 

The UNM PT Division Study Abroad Program has become a victim of its own success. The service-learning trip to Guatemala has become so popular that there are always more students interested than slots available. In addition, the language barrier intimidates some students who are interested in studying abroad. That prompted me to start looking for an English-speaking country that could use our help. I soon came up with the perfect fit, Ethiopia. So off I went on a 3-week exploratory trip in March and April of this year.


Downtown Addis, complete with modern high rises and crowded streets of cars engaged in what they called driving (I would characterize it as chaos.)

My perception of Ethiopia had been shaped by the country's terrible famine in the 80s, but in truth I really did not know what to expect. As my plane approached Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital and largest city, I was struck by how green and mountainous the landscape was. Sitting at 8,300 feet above sea level, Addis is a contrast in urban development and abject poverty. One can drive by a series of modern high rises, take a couple of turns, and suddenly find oneself lurching down a pot-holed road lined with ramshackle corrugated aluminum huts.

I found the people of Ethiopia friendly and gregarious. They greeted me not with skepticism, as I have encountered in so many other countries, but with curiosity and acceptance. Ethiopians are proud of their country, and are quick to share that Ethiopia is the only African nation never colonized by Europeans. More than a bit of trivia, it helps explain the uniqueness of the culture and languages -- over 80 of them (Fortunately for me, the majority of educated Ethiopians speak English well.)


Dr. Gurney treating a patient with foot drop secondary to a severe right hip fracture at the Missionaries for Charity in Addis. Very few resources are available, so Dr. Gurney fashioned an orthosis out of athletic tape he brought with him. After a bit of gait training, the patient progressed from bilateral axillary crutches to a single prong cane.

Ethiopian food is also unique. I was there during Easter, when many Ethiopians avoid eating meat, and various versions of their national dish, injera, were served for both lunch and dinner. Injera consists of a spongy fermented pancake made of teff, the local grain, covered by wot, a stew of seasoned potatoes, chickpeas, lentils, and beans. One of the local seasonings, shira, is like no other taste I have ever encountered. Despite never being colonized, Ethiopia is not entirely free of European influence, however. The Italians occupied Ethiopia during WWII, and there is still a diaspora left over in Addis. I must admit that after days of injera, I sought out some of the many Italian restaurants in Addis.

Ethiopians practice several different religions. Orthodox Christianity is the most popular, followed by Islam. I was struck by the peaceful coexistence between the religious groups. I asked a small group of locals about this, and I got puzzled looks in response. “Everyone here is religious, therefore we all get along,” one of the locals said, a response the others confirmed with knowing nods.

Ethiopian Woman  

An Ethiopian woman standing just outside a 200 y/o Coptic Christian Church. Ethiopia is made up of mostly Orthodox Christians and Muslims, with several other practicing religions. They are a very religious people who manage to get along without religious conflict.

Ethiopia is a country of contrasts, from the relatively modern medical center and teaching hospital where I taught, to the countryside villages made up of clusters of small mud- and grass- thatched huts. While I was there, I taught classes in the transitional DPT Program at Addis Ababa University. I was impressed by my students, all of whom were PTs completing their final year of their transitional DPTs. They were eager to learn and took great care in preparing the differential diagnosis and evidence-based case studies they were assigned. Many of these 17 students will become instructors in the newly developed PT Program at the University. Ethiopians learn English from an early age, and all the classes at the University are taught in English.


Dr. Gurney with the first (and perhaps only) DPT class. He was impressed with the level of knowledge and skill they possessed.

In addition to teaching, my goal while in Ethiopia was to create a learning experience for the UNM PT students that includes clinical work, humanitarian work, and shared classwork with the Ethiopian PT students. I met with various stakeholders in Addis, starting with the PT Program Director at Addis University. From there, I met with the clinical supervisors of several local hospitals including Black Lion Hospital, the 900-bed teaching hospital in Addis, and Yekatit 12 Hospital, the local burn center. I also met with the folks at the Mother and Child Rehabilitation Center, which has pediatric PT services, and worked at Missionaries of Charity, a Catholic orphanage founded by Mother Teresa that includes some “PT” performed by well-meaning volunteers with informal PT training.

I was able to get out of the city a couple of times to visit the countryside. I visited a small town to the southeast called Bishoftu, which is surrounded by a series of crater lakes, and the northwest Oromia region, which is famous for its biodiversity, including an impressive showing of birds and the gelada monkey, an endemic species that has the distinction of being the only grass-eating primate in the world.


A woman hauling wood down from the mountains just outside of Addis. The wood will be used for construction and heating.

I plan to return to Ethiopia with four students in 2018. The students will divide their time between the clinic and classroom, where they will practice PT in various settings. They will also participate in journal clubs and develop case studies with Ethiopian PT students.

The UNM PT Program has made a commitment to service learning in the U.S. and abroad. If we are successful, the UNM PT Program will offer both the Guatemalan and the Ethiopian options to our students for years to come.

Burke Gurney, PT, PhD, OCS


A pastoral scene 100 km northwest of Addis. 85% of Ethiopians still identify as farmers.