In March, two occupational therapists and 16 students from the Program in Occupational Therapy spent a week in Guatemala for the fifth annual service learning trip. Months of planning went into the trip, including member selection, fundraising and a three-hour Spanish class every Wednesday. Working with Hearts in Motion, an organization that unites compassionate volunteers with learning opportunities, the students embarked on a series of unique, hand-on experiences working with local occupational and physical therapists in a variety of care settings.
“We divided the students into two groups. One group traveled to a school for children with special needs and facilitated a discussion to come up with solutions to challenging problems. Other students went to rural clinics, where they got to be a part of initial assessment/evaluation and then developed strategies for intervention and implemented them,” says Catherine Hoyt Drazen, OTD, OTR/L, who led the students groups with Katie Bogan, OTD, OTR/L. “One group identified sciatica in an adult and was able to provide ibuprofen from a medical doctor and guidance on gait and sleeping positions. They found a stick and made a cane for him. This man was so happy, he returned to tell us how helpful it had been. Then, he showed us his loroco (an edible flower) farm and brought several local fruits to enjoy.”
Janelle Hively, MSOT ’14, served as student co-leader for the trip with Hayley Chrzastowski, OTD/S ’15. “During the course of the week, we were able to visit two special education schools, a nutrition center, a therapy clinic, hospital, orthotic/prosthetic center, two senior centers, wheelchair factory, and a village. Diagnoses ranged from stroke survivors to an infant with Spondylocarpotarsal synostosis syndrome,” Hively says. “While we were at Hope Haven, an organization that builds and refurbishes pediatric wheelchairs, we got to see several wheelchair fittings, including one for a young girl with extreme extensor tone. Her head and feet were almost touching, something we probably will not see in the U.S.”
The experiences the students have in Guatemala are very different from clinical practice in the U.S. because so many people are in need of services and more immediate care and assistive technology. “Sometimes, it is challenging to identify a need and not be able to provide the resource or fix because of financial or environmental barriers, but the students did an outstanding job,” Hoyt Drazen says. “They came up with many ideas to modify or use what was available to help make an individual’s quality of life better and assist them in returning to their personal activities of daily living, whether it was washing clothes, coloring, sitting in a chair, or walking with less pain.”
Even with the lack of resources and barriers, being able to use their critical thinking and problem solving skills to help someone accomplish their goals impacted the students on both a professional and personal level. “I was really touched by my experiences with Blanca, a woman who recently had a brain tumor with symptoms similar to a hemiplegic stroke patient. She wanted to be able to do her own laundry again, but had difficulty grabbing the soap with one hand and scrubbing it onto the clothes,” Hively recalls. “We brainstormed what we could do for her. We took a washcloth and used our hairbands to wrap and tie the cloth around her hand like a mitt. That way, she could touch the soap, but did not need to pick it up. We saw her the next day and Blanca told us she was able do laundry independently again!”
Each student had similar, rewarding experiences with the people they met and worked with in Guatemala, and these experiences help shape their clinical skills for future practice. For Hoyt Drazen, her reward is witnessing these moments first-hand. “For me, the most rewarding part of the trip each year is watching the students grow as occupational therapists throughout the week, from needing assistance initially to being able to problem solve independently and come up with solutions by the end.”
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