Posted by vanessa on September 14, 2017

by Alison Scott, CUDPT 2018

From August 13-20, a group of 6 Columbia DPT students spent a week in Guatemala under the supervision of Dr. Lisa Yoon, PT, DPT, PCS, C/NDT for a service learning experience. Alison Scott shares her impressions.

It’s interesting when you take something you learned in a classroom and apply it in real life. It’s even more interesting when you apply it in a foreign country, where they speak a language in which you can’t communicate.

On our service learning trip in Guatemala with Dr. Lisa Yoon, we treated patients and provided care in ways that were quite different from what we would do in the United States. We had to come up with treatment plans that were simple, effective, and easily adapted to the local environment.  For example, many of the people we saw in Santiago had wheelchairs, but most did not fit as well as those you might see in the U.S. Coming up with simple solutions such as adding a board underneath their cushion to provide more support were easy ways to provide more comfort for the patients.

One of my favorite parts of the trip was working with the country’s diverse populations.  In Santiago, we worked with local elders, screening for any potential red flags, taking measurements of heart rate, blood pressure, single leg balance, among others. These are measurements that Columbia takes each time a group visits, and has been tracking them for several years.  We also visited a school for children of all ages with a broad spectrum of disabilities. At the school, we saw patients and left suggestions for the local physical therapists.  One of the children we worked with was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. He was only 10 years old, but because of the lack of available steroid treatments, his disease had progressed to a stage that you wouldn’t see in the U.S. until the child was in his twenties.

In Antigua, we worked with patients at  Transitions, a nonprofit organization that builds wheelchairs for locals and also sells them abroad. Transitions provides a wide variety of services in Antigua, from wheelchairs to prosthetics and orthotics to sponsoring a school for children with disabilities. They also hope to expand into rehabilitation services, so when people come to get their devices serviced, they’re also able to receive therapy.

For me, the most memorable experience was going to the Transitions School. On the day we went, there were 9 students to 1 teacher. All of the students were very different from one another. Some had physical disabilities while some had mental disabilities, but they were all being taught the same curriculum. I can’t imagine how difficult the teacher’s job was, but she seemed to love all of her students very much.

Going to Guatemala was eye-opening. There are many disparities in the way people live. We visited a small town where many people still use wood fires to do their cooking. The amount of resources available to us as U.S. based physical therapists is astounding compared to places we visited in Guatemala.

My Guatemala experience drove home the importance of putting things in perspective. The treatments and solutions we provided seemed pretty basic to us, but for some of the people we were working with they were life changing. By helping parents come up with better ways to transfer their children or putting a wooden board underneath a seat cushion, we were able to make a tangible improvement in the lives of the people we met.

DPT 2018 students assisting an orthotist (center) from Guatemala to position a patient’s hand for a splint. Hung Trinh is to the L of him; Katie Turner is on the far L; Sungjin Kim is on the right, and the patient is in the blue.

L-R: Sarah Lloyd and Sunjin Kim (both CUDPT 2018) working with Guatemalan weavers

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