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Martel Seeks out Cultural Immersion Experiences in Physical Therapy

Laura Martel, DPT, a 2015 graduate from CU PT, has always sought out culturally immersive experiences.  After graduating from college, she joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Zambia where she worked on a rural education development project, helping teachers become better teachers.  Knowing that she wanted to become a physical therapist after the Peace Corps, Martel advocated with the local physiotherapist to help bring PT services to the school where she was working.


After coming back to the United States, Martel joined the CU Physical Therapy Program and took every opportunity she could to work on global and underserved health projects.  She volunteered at Stout Street Clinic, a health clinic for the homeless and uninsured individuals in downtown Denver. She also worked with a group of students to propose a global health elective in the curriculum.


Martel was also the first PT student to join CU Peru.  This program brings together a cohort of interprofessional students who travel deep into the Amazon to provide trainings for community health workers who have no formal education or health training.  Students teach the community health workers how to take vital signs.  They also teach help them learn when to send patients on the long trek to the city hospital, when they should be referred for assistance with nutrition, maternal health, and now physical therapy. 


In Martel’s first year in CU Peru, she worked with CU Physical Therapy Program Associate Professor, Tami Struessel, PT, DPT, OCS to develop a curriculum on low back pain.  She then traveled to Peru to deliver lessons to community health workers, who traveled up to 12 hours to receive the trainings.  The community health workers were grateful to be able to take treatments back to their villages where people often suffer from orthopedic issues. In her second year in the program, Martel became co-President of CU Peru and traveled again to Peru to deliver health trainings.


Most recently, Martel jumped at the opportunity to complete her final 16-week clinical rotation at the Navajo Indian Reservation in northern New Mexico, one of the most rural areas in the country, Martel had the opportunity to put all her classroom and clinical training into action, learn about rural Native American culture, and help bring physical therapy services to a medically underserved area.


Martel’s clinical experience on the reservation was a complete cultural immersion. Martel says that her patients often travel as much as three hours on the reservation, many of them hitchhiking, to receive medical services. Her patients often do not have electricity in their rural homes, so she is always sure to ask before suggesting that they ice their injuries.  Many of the patients who come to the clinic complain of back pain that they believe occurred because someone cast a spell on them.  In these instances, she works with a traditional healer to provide a dual approach to helping these individuals.


Reflecting on her experience, Martel said, “I love learning about new cultures and the idea that there’s a culture like this right in our own backyard made me want to go.  I’m really interested in working in underserved populations, so it was a good fit and a great experience for me.”