Kari Johnson’s grandmother was a nurse. Her dad is a doctor.
Health care is in her blood.
Following her family’s example, Kari, 29, is a Chicago-based physical therapist. Since earning her doctorate in physical therapy from Marquette University in 2007, she has focused on inpatient acute care, inpatient rehabilitation and outpatient work with an emphasis in aquatic therapy.
Kari recently decided to take her expertise abroad, joining Therapists Without Borders, a nonprofit that matches professional therapists with underserved communities around the world. Through this group, she spent several months working with patients and training therapists in a small village four hours north of Accra, Ghana.
“I always wanted to volunteer,” she says. “I wanted to give my time to less fortunate people and show people in a developing nation that even if you have an injury or illness, you can still go on to live an independent life.”
The hospital where Kari worked had several small wards with about 10 beds each. Families brought food, water, clean linens and other necessities to patients, and were also responsible for bathing them. Though the doctors could diagnose patients accurately, they lacked the equipment required to treat them properly.
Kari says some of the most difficult challenges she faced were due to the Ghanaians’ differing cultural takes on medical care and healing.
“The people I worked with were the friendliest people I ever met,” she says. “Everyone said hello as you walked down the street. In terms of physical therapy, however, the people I worked with had no concept of rehabilitation, so they didn’t understand that if you try to walk again after an injury you can get better. They wanted a pill or potion, so they had a hard time understanding what I was trying to achieve. But when they did try it, they saw results and they were very happy.”
Now that she’s back home, Kari will be working as Therapists Without Borders’ volunteer coordinator for Ghana, preparing future volunteers for their time in Africa. Kari also hopes to go back to Ghana in the next few years to teach continuing education courses to the Ghanaian physical therapists.
“I definitely helped people,” she says. “I was very proud of the training I did with the Ghanaian therapists. I really think I did help the people I treated to realize they could do things on their own again. Just because they had an injury, it wasn’t the end of their life. I felt really good about that.”