In 2014, Dani Fisher ’16, DPT, who was then a Shenandoah University Division of Physical Therapy (PT) student, started talking with a lifelong friend of hers about taking the physical therapy student group, SUPT Thrive, to do outreach work in Guatemala.
Fisher’s friend, Katie Matthews (and Katie’s husband, Tommy) is a missionary at Mision El Faro in Guatemala. “At the time, she was not sure of any opportunities for us, but a few months later, she reached out to me saying that she found this really remarkable school for children with disabilities and that it would be a perfect place for physical therapy outreach,” said Fisher, who now works in the Sports Medicine Department at Kaiser Permanente in Elk Grove, California. Planning for that first trip began in fall 2014, and the first Thrive group traveled to El Faro in March 2015, and continues to do so, a couple of times a year.
In May, the group, featuring three adjunct faculty members (two of whom are also Shenandoah alumni), and 10 Shenandoah PT students, made the most recent trip.
“For me it is meaningful to help in El Faro for many reasons,” Fisher said of the trips that she helped begin. “We are able to provide knowledge to a PT student at the school, which he has been able to use for many patients after we leave. We were able to reach individuals in rural areas who are not able to access medical care and provide education so that they understand what is going on with them and better manage it. It renews my passion in my profession and reminds me why I chose it – so that I can help others improve their quality of life. The people of Guatemala are so kind and generous that I am very grateful for what they teach me and that I am able to give a little back in return.”
The Shenandoah PT students, faculty and alumni were busy in El Faro. They worked with seven patients in their homes, because they lived too far away from clinics to travel to them for care, said Stephanie Mahan, PT, DPT, ATP, SMS, an adjunct clinical faculty member, who also works as a physical therapist for Valley Health Rehab Services & Winchester Rehabilitation Center Wheelchair Mobility, Seating & Positioning Clinic.
“Patients seen in homes had diagnoses including cerebral palsy, spinal compression fractures, clavicle fracture, peripheral nerve injury, burn, muscle strain and stroke. We also worked with three El Faro employees who had minor musculoskeletal injuries,” she said, adding that they also saw many people in outpatient clinics and inpatient hospital settings.
Physical Therapy Students from Shenandoah University. In this trip they did physical theraphies to people in Livingston…
“There is a high need [in the area around El Faro],” said Shenandoah PT student Mike FitzPatrick ’18, MS, CSCS, ATS, SPT, who served as the most recent trip’s student leader. “Physical therapists are capable of identifying movement impairments and finding solutions to these impairments. Many individuals, particularly children, had various neurological disorders that lead to impairments in mobility. As PTs and PT students, we were able to provide wheelchair modifications, brace fitting, therapeutic exercise, and manual therapy techniques to optimize mobility so that those we worked with could move with less pain and accomplish their activities of daily living.”
“I took part in this Thrive Trip because I come from a Latin American family and wanted to start using all of the skills and lessons I have been learning in the classroom to give back to other Latin American families,” said Diana Marquez ’19. “My most lasting memories are from the experiences and conversations I shared with the other physical therapists in Guatemala. We talked of the passion behind this career and about how much of a vital factor physical therapy can be to patients of all types. I also learned a lot about how to take everything I’ve learned and bring it to a more simple clinic and use whatever I have available to make it work. I learned a lot about my own ability to be creative, show compassion, and give back during my week with El Faro.”
Two specific El Faro instances stuck with PT student Amanda Ganey ’19: “The first: My group treated a young man with a spinal cord injury. He used a wheelchair to get around because he could not walk on his own. After we finished our evaluation and strengthening exercises in the room with him we asked if he wanted to get up and walk. He was unsure because the only time he walked was with the support of bars to hold onto. We got him to agree and got him up. We helped him walk down the hall and back. This memory will last with me forever because he did not believe he could do it, but after we convinced him and got him walking, the young man and his father were filled with joy. He was a strong athlete before his accident, so he had lost a lot of hope due to the slow recovery. After they saw what he was capable of doing, I think it restored hope and determination,” she said.
“The second memory: On our first day at the inpatient side of the hospital, my group had the opportunity to work with an older gentleman who was completely unresponsive. We found out before we started treating that if the physical therapist who worked there did not move the patients, then the patients did not move at all. They thought the elderly man had a stroke but were unsure due to the fact that he was not awake when he came into the hospital. We did some bed movement with him and checked his skin to make sure he was not getting any pressure wounds. We could not get any response out of him until we turned him onto his side and he reached out as if he were falling. That was the first response anyone had gotten out of him, which was a great sign. We came back the next day and started doing the same thing we had done the day before. After about 5-10 minutes of us working with him, he woke up. It took us all by surprise, since this was the first time he was awake and alert since he was admitted. When he woke up he told us his back hurt, and we were able to adjust him and get someone to come check on him. This memory will last with me forever because it was such an overwhelming feeling being one of the first people to be there when he woke up after being unconscious for an extended period of time, especially when the cause was unknown. It also made me thankful that we were able to work with this man, because if we had not done any of the movement with him that last day in inpatient, who knows if he would have woken up that day.”
“Doing this work means everything to me,” FitzPatrick said. “The world is getting smaller each day. We are learning, now more than ever, that our actions can create a ripple effect that can be felt around the world. Being a global citizen is paramount to our success and well-being. We are all on this rock together, and it’s time we focus more on building each other up, than tearing each other down. Working with Thrive provides an opportunity for SU’s PT students to understand what it means to be a global citizen. We learn cultural competence and develop an understanding of our place and how we fit into the schema of a global society. We learn about sustainability, and what it means to have a sustainable impact. We are challenged to grow, not only in our profession, but in how we interact with others. We learn from the relationships that we build. We learn from ourselves, we learn from our peers and instructors, and most importantly, we learn from those we work with while on this trip. This has been an invaluable experience for me and is something that should be continued.”
“The people at El Faro were fantastic,” Marquez added. “Their dedication to their work and their faith astounded me and helped motivate all of us to help more and more. People of all ages, of all backgrounds, all coming together to give whatever they can back! I loved every minute of it and I cannot wait to return!”