A passion for bringing physiotherapy to developing nations
It was only two years after arriving in Australia as a migrant teenager that Maria Constantinou stumbled upon a career that would take her across the globe and allow her to work with the world’s leading athletes.
“The day I first discovered physiotherapy, I was with two of my high school classmates at a university open day,” says Dr Constantinou, now a Senior Lecturer in Physiotherapy at ACU’s Faculty of Health Sciences.
“I knew I wanted to do something in the medical field, and I said, ‘Oh, what’s this profession? Let’s have a look at it.’ I went, ‘Oh, it’s a medical profession, it’s caring, and it’s along the area I want to work in.’ I started to learn more about physiotherapy, and eventually I went on to study it at university.”
In the four decades since, Maria has forged a stellar career in physiotherapy. She’s an experienced and accomplished researcher, educator and clinician who’s taught in more than 25 countries and treated sportspeople at all levels.
“I love my job as much now as I always have, and I’m passionate about seeing sports physiotherapy grow internationally,” she says. “Sport is a vehicle to keeping people active, and good physiotherapists can assist that endeavour by preventing and managing injuries, and by motivating people to stay fit and healthy.”
In the early years of her career, Maria learned the ropes as a physiotherapist in an aged care facility. More than a decade down the track, as a single mum with four children, her life took a turn when she decided to pursue postgraduate study in sports physiotherapy.
“I thought to myself, ‘I love sport. I love being physically active. I want to see people run.’ So, I turned to sports physiotherapy, and I soon found myself volunteering to treat soccer players competing at the Sydney Olympics.”
The cutting edge
Four years later, Maria was one of 20 Australian physiotherapists who travelled to Greece to treat competitors at the Athens Summer Olympics as part of the host nation medical program. She has since worked at many major games and sporting tournaments and treated some of the world’s leading sportspeople, like tennis legend Serena Williams, “the most committed, incredible athlete I have ever met”.
Maria with Serena Williams.
“I don’t specifically strive to work with elite athletes,” Maria says, “but I really do enjoy seeing their drive, their commitment and the sacrifices they make to get them to where they are.”
Working at the cutting edge of elite sport has been professionally and personally satisfying, but it has also exposed Maria to the shortfalls of sports physiotherapy in developing nations. She’s come into contact with many gifted sportspeople, from countries where access to up-to-date medical knowledge and resources is scarce.
“These athletes are extremely talented, but they just don’t have the same medical support that our athletes have,” she says.
“We sometimes see practices that are along the lines of what we would have been doing 30 or 40 years ago, and that’s simply because the clinicians in a lot of these countries don’t have opportunities for professional development.”
As a result, athletes from developing nations often fail to reach their full potential.
“It’s a real shame because, with some extra education and support, these athletes would be able to perform better in their chosen sport, and they’d also enjoy a better quality of life in the long term,” Maria says.
“It’s made me realise how lucky we are in Australia to have access to the education and resources we have, and how we should be sharing the knowledge that comes from that.”
Making a difference
Through her experiences treating elite athletes, Dr Constantinou has developed a passion for promoting evidence-based physiotherapy and clinical care in developing nations.
Along with her husband, ACU sports and exercise physiotherapist Mark Brown, she has run professional development programs and presented at conferences in Asia, North and South America, Europe, Africa and the Pacific.
“The response we’ve had from some of the countries we’ve worked in is really amazing,” she says. “It’s just so rewarding when a colleague from a small developing nation comes to us and says, ‘Thank you so much for organising this program. We don’t have opportunities for professional development in our country, so I really want to thank you for doing this’.”
After running a series of “train the trainer” programs with clinicians in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Micronesia with Mr Brown, Maria was asked to head to Vanuatu for the Pacific Mini Games in 2017.
In the lead up to the Games, there were just four registered physiotherapists in Vanuatu, preparing for an influx of around 5,000 athletes.
“So we gathered 10 final-year Bachelor of Physiotherapy students from ACU, and we took to them Port Vila to support the host nation program,” Maria says. “It’s such a fantastic experience for the students, and the country itself really appreciated what we did.”
Following the success of the student tour, ACU was invited to return to Vanuatu in 2018 and 2019, with the students spending time in the rural community of Erakor Village, where they treated locals who, in some cases, had endured years of chronic problems.
This included a man who had been walking on his toes for several years after waking up one morning with painful and swollen feet. After treatment and education, he was able to walk flat on his feet once again.
Managing with limited resources has been a recurring theme in the trips to Vanuatu, with ACU students finding novel ways of providing treatment.
“One time, we had an athlete with a suspected fractured knee, and we didn’t have a splint to put on him, so we grabbed a big cardboard box and bandaged it around his leg and gave him crutches to get him mobile,” Maria says. “The students learned the really valuable lesson of how much they can achieve with very little resources.”
While the pandemic has prevented further student trips in 2020 and 2021, Maria and her ACU colleagues are currently developing a telehealth program with the Vila Central Hospital in Vanuatu, to be run through ACU Health Clinics in Brisbane. Maria is also developing the Master of Sports and Exercise Physiotherapy program, starting in 2022, with the course to be open to physiotherapists based in Australia or overseas.
In all that she does, Maria looks for ways to use her passion, knowledge and expertise to make a positive contribution.
“The thing I try to instil in my students, whether I’m teaching, doing research or developing programs, is that the main reason we do what we do is to help people,” she says.
“I think it’s really important that we learn how much we can achieve if we all contribute in some way. We need to have a passion for what we do, a passion for who we are, and a passion for contributing to the society we live in.”
Dr Maria Constantinou, PhD, is Senior Lecturer in Physiotherapy at ACU, having previously worked at Griffith University and The University of Queensland. She is a former Executive Secretary with the International Federation of Sports Physical Therapy, a titled Australian Physiotherapy Association Sports and Exercise Physiotherapist, and a Fellow of the Australian Sports Medicine Federation.
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