Simple Things: PT Michael Tabasko '00

Physical therapist Michael Tabasko ’00, M.S. ’01, spends a month each year volunteering abroad.  by Greg Ryan '08

Michael Tabasko ’00, M.S. ’01, never imagined he’d see someone so happy to be given a prosthetic leg. The recipient of the appendage, a Vietnamese man in his late 60s, had had his leg blown off by a land mine years earlier, and was using a piece of timber wrapped with zinc, leather, and bicycle tire as a substitute for an actual prosthesis.

“He was thrilled,” Michael says. “It was worlds better than what he had been accustomed to.”

It was all in a day’s work for Michael and Health Volunteers Overseas, an organization that sends health care providers to developing countries to train professionals in their field. The physical therapist volunteered with the organization in Vietnam in 2006 and Peru in 2007. He began working as an independent contractor in orthopedic medicine in 2004 so he could travel more, and soon found himself drawn to such overseas volunteer work. Michael, who’s based in Boulder, Colorado, spends one month a year in a country volunteering as a therapist, and another two months sightseeing and mountain climbing. The 30-year-old is able to afford such altruistic adventures by minimizing expenses at home, subletting his apartment while he’s away, and staying with locals while abroad.

“I probably spend less in three months,” he says, “than one would spend on a typical 10-day trip to some tropical island resort or trip to Europe.”

HVO’s mission attracted Michael. “The whole goal is not to have an educated Western therapist come in and assume the patient load,” he says. “It’s really to educate [the therapists in the host country].” In Vietnam, Michael taught therapists basic rehabilitation techniques for traumatic brain injuries, a common injury there because of the high number of motorbike accidents. In Peru, Michael reports, the level of therapy is more sophisticated, but many therapists cannot afford continuing education courses. So he focused on catching them up on the latest developments in manual therapy and assessment.

A graduate physical therapy class taught by Deborah Nawoczenski planted the seed for Michael’s volunteer work. Nawoczenski told the class about her experiences in Jamaica, where every year she volunteered her skills with prosthetics and orthotics to help amputees. Her stories inspired Michael. “I remember thinking, ‘It would be really cool to go to a developing country,’ ” he says, “ ‘and be in a place where simple things can make a huge difference.’ ”

Michael plans on volunteering again with HVO this year in Bhutan or Tanzania. His time in Vietnam and Peru has given him a new perspective on what he’s capable of as a physical therapist. “You learn to do a lot more,” he says, “with a lot less.”