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Physical Therapy Global Ambassador

Toni Sander, PT, DPT, '87 MS, CLT-LANA talks to therapists in Myanmar.

Since joining Health Volunteers Overseas (HVO) in 2006, Antoinette (Toni) Sander, PT, DPT, ’87 MS, CLT-LANA, has literally traveled the world educating local therapists in best practices for physical therapy, then has worked side by side with those clinicians in a patient setting to reinforce the lecture material.

“The mission of HVO is to change global health through education,” says Sander, whose three professional passions are physical therapy (PT), education and travel.

Her first jaunt was to Lima, Peru, where for two weeks she taught a course she developed on lumbar spine, hip and sacroiliac dysfunction. The intrepid traveler returned to Lima in 2007 for one week to present a series of lectures on rehabilitation for post-arthroscopic knee and shoulder surgery.

Most of Sander’s excursions abroad have lasted two or three weeks, including trips to India, Haiti and Myanmar (formerly Burma). In late 2013 and early 2014, however, she spent six months in Rwanda, where she developed a 60-hour course in lumbar and cervical spine rehabilitation.

“It was gratifying to observe how the therapists changed from a generic diagnosis and treatment to assessing the patient from a functional perspective and then designing a treatment to fit a particular patient.”

Sander visited Haiti twice, in 2011 and 2012, where she helped train rehabilitation technicians. “These were small groups of high school graduates who desired work in rehabilitation and ended up working at community hospitals and clinics,” she says.

People seek PT for pain and movement difficulties that can be orthopaedically or neurologically-based. For instance, because Rwanda is heavily agricultural, “we saw a lot of people with back pain and neck pain from working in the fields, as well as from riding motorcycles and walking and carrying heavy items,” Sander recalls. Rwanda and other resource-poor countries, “also have many developmental disabilities in children that need care.”

Dr. Sander developed a certificate course in Rwanda for lumbar and cervical spine rehabilitation.

Dr. Sander developed a certificate course in Rwanda for lumbar and cervical spine rehabilitation.

In addition, trauma is prevalent in most of these countries, due to motorcycle accidents or post-earthquake (Haiti) or post-genocide (Rwanda). “Although the genocide in Rwanda occurred 20 years ago, people there still have problems that keep them from moving,” she explains. “Amputees are a very big population, not just in Rwanda but around the world.”

Throughout all her travels with HVO, Sander has been well received by the local clinicians. “They are very appreciative, and in some cases question why I, as a volunteer, would come so far to teach them,” she says. Likewise, local patients consider a foreign visitor “as a sort of a clinical expert, so patients are highly respectful and truly feel special if they are evaluated and treated by you.”

Often, Sander does not speak the language of her foreign patients; hence, a translator is required. It is more probable that a foreign clinician will speak English.

Sander, an associate professor emerita in the Department of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences at Feinberg, first became interested in PT in the early 1960s, while a junior at a small Catholic high school in Oklahoma.

“My mother introduced me to a woman physician who actually mentioned physical therapy,” recalls Sander. “I had not really heard of physical therapy but began to explore the field over the next year, including visiting some local PT departments. Ultimately, I pursued a BS degree in physical therapy from St. Louis University.”

Prior to 1984, the year Sander enrolled in the master’s program in orthopaedic physical therapy at Northwestern, she worked mostly as a staff physical therapist at clinics in Missouri, New Jersey and the Chicago area. “Northwestern upgraded my skills and clinical thinking, plus bolstered my confidence in patient care,” explains Sander, who returned to campus in 1994 as a contract lecturer in PT. She became a full-time assistant professor at Northwestern in 2001, followed by an associate professor in 2009.

Meanwhile, Sander received an online doctorate in physical therapy from Arizona School of Health Sciences in 2005.

Dr. Sander with husband, Bernie, in Akagera National Park in Rwanda.

Being a health volunteer has taken Toni Sander and husband Bernie around the world. Here they are in Akagera National Park in Rwanda.

She retired from Northwestern in 2011 but continued to teach a course in lymphedema and wound management that she helped develop until 2013. She continues to work with faculty in research and manuscript writing, primarily in the global health arena.

Over the decades, “technology has certainly changed,” she says. “The faculty did not communicate by email at the beginning. But now our students have iPads and we have eliminated paper handouts.” Pupils and faculty now have the Internet as a valuable resource. “All these technologic advances produce strong and committed therapists to serve their community.”

Sander’s PT clinical practice, which spanned three decades, focused on orthopaedics, oncology and lymphedema (limb swelling) management. Among her distinctions are a 2009 Oncology Section Student Research Award for exercise behaviors in breast cancer survivors, sponsored by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA); and this past April, the Donna Frownfelter Community Achievement Award, from the Northwestern Alumni Association, for overseas and community service.

“To do overseas travel, you need a spirit of adventure and a strong sense of flexibility and adaptation to whatever you find,” says Sander, who plans to continue traveling with HVO. “The rewards are that you are immersed in another culture. You can make lifelong friends. Also, you find that medical care, even in resource-limited countries, can be delivered with compassion and effectiveness.”

Sander has been married to husband Bernie for 47 years. The couple has four children and nine grandchildren. “My family is also a big part of my life,” she says.