This is part 6 of a series of posts about what my ministry is like.
Remember, I'm just sharing my personal experience with this particular hospital in this particular country. Other missionaries at this same center will have different viewpoints, as will missionary PTs serving in other places.
In physical therapy school, I was taught that the most important part of an initial PT session was the physical examination. Patients may tell run-on stories, may have poor memories, and I may not have time to ask a lot of questions in my subjective history-taking, so I need to rely on my examination skills to make sure I'm getting the real story. We spent semester after semester breaking down each body system and each joint/muscle group, learning groups of tests that would rule in or rule out conditions as well as specific tests that would indicate underlying levels of dysfunction. We also learned to perform several tests and how to ask questions in specific ways that would help us figure out if our patients were magnifying or faking an injury. Bottom line of therapy school: examination is key.
Anyone can be trained to follow a diagnostic flowchart and perform various special tests during an exam, and it's easy to train someone: "If you see ___ problem, prescribe ___ exercise." Where the PT's knowledge and advanced training comes into play is the assessment where we try to figure out why the patient is moving that certain way, what dysfunction led to the injury, and what seemingly unrelated issues are playing a role in the pain/injury the patient is seeing us for. This is the part that comes with practice, and this is the area where a PT can always improve in.
But for me and the patients I see here in Nigeria, examination isn't the most important part.
What is important? Asking questions about her symptoms and explaining how I can help.
First, my patient will guide me towards her diagnosis if I simply ask good questions. She don't really care about the examination tests I do (and with the language barrier and Hausa having a simple vocabulary, she often doesn't understand exactly what I'm asking her to do or can't describe what she's feeling), and there's really no "normal value" to compare her to. My patients don't fit the standard type of pelvic therapy patient, and many times, their internal anatomy has been damaged and reconstructed in an atypical manner. The tests that work in the US usually don't work here.
Second, It's important she understand that I know what her problem is and that I have a plan to help her. I always explain that medication is not a permanent fix (or may not help at all in her situation), and except for a few patients I'm purposely seeing pre-op, surgery is not the answer. In this society, there is a huge value placed on medication and surgery; if you go to the doctor, you leave with a prescription for something or a date for a surgery. That's normal here and that's expected. So when I explain that I am not offering either of those, I have about five seconds before she mentally "checks out" to explain that I'm not holding out on her--I have something different that is actually better for her particular issue. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't. But I still spend several minutes during the initial visit explaining it to her, and I often circle back around to it in later PT sessions. She's got to buy into therapy because she is the one who decides if she'll keep coming back to see me, not some worker's compensation case manager, not a concerned parent, and not a doctor who refuses to do surgery until she's failed conservative therapy.
Another thing we were taught in PT school was to keep an eye out for the unusual. The saying, "When you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras," was pounded into us to remind us to look for obvious answers first and not immediately think of the weird or unusual diagnosis. (I mean, all you have to do is look up any symptom on WebMD and you'll discover that cancer is ALWAYS among the list of possible explanations!) But there are typical presentations and patterns that we commonly see among patients. So we were trained to start with the most obvious and simple explanation and keep our eyes, ears, and hand skills on the lookout for unusual things that might point towards a more uncommon diagnosis.
It's different here. What if I find an unusual condition? What if I discover that what I thought was simple pelvic dysfunction is really something more complex or something more sinister? What if her problem will only get worse because she is HIV+? What if reserach has shown that therapy is not the most effective treatment, but the other treatments are not available here?
Is it wise to treat her for the other conditions I find on examination (dysparunia, SI joint dysfunction, foot drop, pelvic floor trigger points), when her main complaint is stress incontinence? Any pelvic physical therapist reading that last sentence might say "Any/all of those 'unrelated' symptoms could actually be causing her stress incontinence. Go ahead and address those!" But can I explain that in a way to my patient that will help her understand why I'm not directly treating her main complaint? And if I don't teach her something to help with her stress incontinence on the first PT visit, will she come back for her follow-up visits? For me, the answer is usually "no" to both of those questions.
Sometimes, I feel like I'm shooting in the dark because I don't have access to diagnostic testing, a detailed and comprehensive medical history, or a team of others to brainstorm with, so I want to ask every question I can think of and perform every test I can in order to figure out where to start with treatment--but more information doesn't always mean a more accurate diagnosis or better treatment. Is it right to perform these tests when I know my patient does not have access to the treatment for a diagnosis those tests might uncover? Oh medical ethics... how I use thee way more here than I did back in the US! These are hard questions that don't have clear answers.
So I do the best I can with what is available here. I do the most thorough exam that is practical and useful for this setting. I ask God to show me what the issue is when I really have no clue. And I'm careful to say, "I believe ____ treatment will work because you have ____ issue," without promising anything. Because the last thing some of these women need is another doctor promising they'll be cured, and waking up after yet another surgery or another day of therapy and finding they're still wet. There's so much more need here than I can address. There's only so much patient education and explanations I can give to a village woman with no education.
But there are a few that "get it;" they understand the connection between pelvic muscle exercise and symptom reduction. These are the women that go from skeptics to believers. There are a few more that didn't exactly follow the treatment protocols or do the exercises I assigned, but still have improvement--they're happy, I'm happy, regardless of how it came about! And there are a few more that will see me once and instead of staying for follow-up, will go home... only to return a few months later with the same exact problem and receive the same referral to therapy where I tell them the same thing. Even in the US, it takes hearing it more than once to convince some women to try pelvic PT!
I'm slowly learning how to identify and address the one issue that will give my patients the fastest improvement. If she sees improvement, maybe she'll stick around and maybe I'll have the chance to perform a more complete examination and address the underlying issues. Sometimes I only get one shot with these women.
But you know what? Jesus usually just got one shot with those He healed. So maybe the best thing I can do is pray, invite Jesus' presence into the clinic, and allow Him to work through me to effect whatever healing He wants. And isn't that better than any physical therapy session I could design?