PT professor receives high honor

Chelsea Kuykendall, ‘Doah Staff Writer
March 4, 2015

Out of context, being compared to a healthy pelvic floor system may sound more like an insult than a compliment. However, in a physical therapy award recipient’s introduction speech, it was the highest praise for a best friend. Nominated by her longtime friend, and through letters of support for the award nomination, Dr. Karen Abraham was introduced as the award recipient. At the national convention in February in Indianapolis, the Section on Women’s Health from the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) presented Abraham with the Elizabeth Noble Award.

The award, the Section’s highest honor, is named for section founder Elizabeth Noble. It is given to a member who provides “extraordinary and exemplary service to the field of physical therapy for women, or to the Section on Women’s Health of the American Physical Therapy Association,” according to the APTA website. For Abraham, receiving the award comes unexpectedly after a combination of her selfless service, leadership and research over the last 20 years.

Abraham’s interest in physical therapy began with her father’s foot amputation, his therapy sessions she attended and her minister’s wife, who was also a physical therapist. She attended college in Maryland, graduating with her B.S. in Physical Therapy from the University of Maryland-Baltimore. It was while at East Carolina University in North Carolina, working on her doctorate and working for the university in spinal cord injuries, that the Obstetrics and Gynecology department contacted the Physical Therapy department to see if Abraham was interested in working on women’s health in physical therapy. After attending a course on women’s health for physical therapy, she decided to become more involved, specifically with women’s health.

“Most of us take peeing, pooping and having sex for granted,” Abraham says candidly on the subject of women’s health in physical therapy. During her research on women’s health, she became very interested with women in the postpartum period, stating that most studies focused on the periods before and during pregnancy. She joined a task force to create guidelines and material for women on physical therapy following giving birth and was guest editor for a special issue on postpartum rehabilitation in “Journal Section Women’s Health.”

Of her contributions, Abraham listed her major accomplishments as serving on a specialties taskforce to get approval for a women’s health specialty and another specialty council to create a specialty exam, recruiting and training people to write tests. She mentions, in particular, two of her grants in women’s health. One was for speaking with women who had given birth for the first time and more experienced mothers to address concerns and questions. The other grant was for making education packets with information on physical therapy postpartum to be distributed to women through hospitals after giving birth.

Abraham has served on the faculty at Shenandoah University since 2001, and as the director of its Division of Physical Therapy since 2008, she has been able to travel to Haiti, the Philippines and Nicaragua with the School of Physical Therapy and other medical programs, educating local professionals. For such countries, the training is invaluable to those practicing and those being treated. Working for S.U. has also allowed her to continue to work in both the clinical and academic settings as a physical therapist. “I enjoy having the patient connection as a practicing PT but also the interaction with students, helping to train the future generation. Shenandoah, as a teaching institution, allows me to do research and clinical work and teaching, without sacrificing from one area.”

Abraham stated some disappointment in not being able to become specialized in women’s health after all of her hard work in developing the specialty. However, the fruits of her labor have now allowed others to gain additional education and recognition in the field. Her first and foremost goal of her work though has always been to the patient. “I wanted to help minimize pain or improve function with my work,” she states. In working with both women and men in physical therapy, she strives to end the suffering of patients, giving them their freedom and independence back.

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