At several small health centers in La Romana, the third-largest city in the Dominican Republic, nine physical therapy students from the University of North Georgia (UNG) and Dr. Phillip Palmer, associate professor of physical therapy, spent their spring break providing services to orphans and citizens living in poverty.
Providing students with service-learning and international opportunities that prepare them to become leaders in a global society are key components of UNG's mission, and students gained experience in both areas through the project in the Dominican Republic. All of the students are in UNG's Doctor of Physical Therapy program.
Mary Beth O'Brien assists a young man with a spinal cord injury.
"We live in a global society and cross-cultural experiences like this will help students become more adept at dealing with patients from other cultures," Palmer said. "It also helps them to recognize and appreciate the variety of resources available in the United States to provide care to those in need."
The Dominican Republic has only 1.88 physicians and 1.7 hospital beds per 1,000 people, which is about half as many as in the United States according to the CIA World Factbook.
In addition to practicing physical therapy skills, students like Kristen Whipple were also fully-immersed in a Spanish-speaking culture.
"We were thrown into the role of an independent physical therapist and were expected to communicate well enough to lead a therapy session with each patient. This was overwhelming, but such a rewarding experience," Whipple said. "I learned a great deal about physical therapy, the Spanish language, and the people of the Dominican Republic."
Several of the students had particular patients or experiences that resonated with them, but Savannah Ooten said that the overall experience of patient care is what will stick with her most.
"I didn't know much Spanish going into this trip, and that really gave us a chance to connect on a level deeper than language," Ooten said. "We had to pay attention to their eyes and body language. I think that is good experience for any health care provider, because it teaches us about connecting with patients, and about looking beyond the diagnosis and treatment to find a deeper connection."
The team experienced many challenges and successes while working with the patients.
"One gentleman with severe shoulder impingement syndrome came in with significant range of motion deficits and pain," Palmer said. "When he left the clinic, he did so with near-normal range of motion and without any pain. You could see the excitement in the students' eyes as they realized they could make a measurable impact on the quality of life for patients."
Palmer said some of the more difficult challenges arose when working with advanced deformities that typically require access to resources unavailable in such remote locations. "It is so difficult to address these issues, particularly when many of the resources we need are simply not available. We do the best we can and celebrate even a minor improvement in movement or function," Palmer said.
The team also traveled to outlying bateyes — small villages that specialize in harvesting sugarcane — to provide care to patients who were unable to visit the health centers in La Romana.
"Another student and I helped a boy with spina bifada by doing some exercises with him and trying to make them fun," Stacy Hubbard said. "He was laughing and giggling, and his mom told the translator that she hadn't seen him smile like that for a long time during his therapy. We worked to improve his trunk strength, so he can translate that to his daily activities during home life and school life."
The Doctorate in Physical Therapy is UNG's first doctoral program and is offered on the university's Dahlonega Campus. There are 89 students in the program, which produces about 30 new practitioners annually for this growing healthcare field.