Physical therapist speaks his patients' languages

Community | October 1, 2019
Dennis Chua family pose on a cruise ship in Ketchikan, Alaska
From the Phillipines and the palace of a Saudia Arabian king, Dennis Chua brings his talent for physical therapy to Ketchikan

Laughter rang from the outpatient rehab cardio gym at PeaceHealth in Ketchikan, Alaska after a woman asked a question in Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines.  The answer, in the same lilting language, was followed by the universally recognized response “Ah, okay!”

Dennis Chua, PT, was working with a patient for whom Tagalog was the first language. It’s Dennis’ first language too. He also speaks English and Bikol, a language spoken on southeast Luzon in the Philippines.

“I see about five or six patients each week for whom Tagalog is their primary language,” Dennis says. “Many of them are older and it’s much easier for them to express themselves in Tagalog than to try to translate what they want to say in their minds.

Some things don't translate

“Some things just don’t translate well,” he notes, “for example ‘nangangalay’. It’s one word but it means something like ‘tired/fatiguing muscle and sore’ when moving your arm up, and ‘pasma’ is a sort of spasm but not quite that. It’s not painful as muscle spasm, but feels similar to fatigue and often believed to be caused by frequent washing of your hands or feet when they are tired.”

Dennis was born in Sorsogon City, Sorsogon in the Philippines. He originally planned to be an electrical engineer but decided to become a physical therapist when a group of PT’s visited his high school to promote the opportunities available.

As the eldest of four, he was looking for the best way to help his family and found a vocation he loves that helps patients with their aches and pains and improves their quality of life.

Growing need for physical therapy

Physical therapy is often listed as one of the top ten growing professions and there is always a need for what Dennis does. He mainly sees patients who come in for neurological or orthopedic rehabilitation.

“My neuro patients come in after a stroke, head injury, spinal cord injury or an accident that involves the brain or central nervous system,” he explains. “The ortho patients need help with muscular and skeletal rehabilitation.”

Dennis was singled out for praise by a patient who noted that he took half his lunch break to treat her intense pain. She says, “Today was exactly what I needed.”

It was his passion for physical therapy that opened a door for Dennis that led him to also learn another language beyond the three he already knew...Arabic.

Yes to Saudia Arabia

Dennis was looking for an opportunity to maximize his physical therapy skills. He and his wife, Judith, had a growing family and when he was offered the opportunity to work in Saudi Arabia, he said "yes."

“I was the breadwinner in the family,” he says, “and this was a way to earn a lot of money in a short time.” He quickly fell in love with the culture and the people there.

“There is a large Filipino community in Saudi Arabia too, so I was still in my comfort zone.”

Working for royalty

In 2005, he began working in the rehabilitation hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, part of the 1200-bed King Fahd Medical City, “and it was like a city,” says Dennis. “It’s a huge medical complex.” A quick Google search shows 30,000 outpatients receive care in the hospitals and more than half a million people are seen in the outpatient clinics annually.

“I had been there about five years,” Dennis said, “and my boss sent me to work with some high-ranking public officials and royal family who were traveling and needed ortho treatment. One was from the Ministry of Health and he recommended me to the king.”

King Abdullah had become king in 2005 at the age of 81.  In December 2010 Dennis joined five other colleagues on the King’s Physical Therapy team. Dennis mainly did hydrotherapy with the king and traveled with him, alternating between United States, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, until 2015.

“I decided after the king died to leave Saudi Arabia and see what other opportunities were out there.” He contacted an agency that specializes in placing traveling physical therapists.

Choosing Ketchikan as family

“They offered me two choices,” said Dennis, “a hospital in Oregon or here in Ketchikan. I chose Ketchikan and decided to stay.

“I love it here. Everything is so close...no traffic, more time with my family.” Judith Chua joined Dennis in May this year from Ilocos Norte, Philippines along with their two children Maegan and Miguel.

“I love spending time with them,” Dennis smiles. “I play basketball with Miguel and Maegan and I like to take walks.

“This is such a warm, welcoming community. Although we don’t have any relatives here, I feel like I am a part of many different families.”

Dennis is finishing his doctorate in physical therapy through an online and classroom degree program through the University of Montana. “I plan to finish in May of 2020.”