One simple lesson I was taught growing up was to put others before yourself. I did not know the true meaning of this lesson until my recent travels to Zacapa, Guatemala. Sponsored by Athletic Therapeutic Institute Physical Therapy and Hearts in Motion, I joined four other students from across the country on a service learning trip to a country we knew little about, Guatemala. We had one mission in mind: provide those in need with exceptional physical therapy and medical services.
Following an orthopedic surgeon’s trip, our duty was to ensure proper recovery and rehabilitation. This is the mission we had in mind at least; little did we know we would be serving these people in a much deeper way. According to the Center for Disease Control, there are 0.93 physicians per 1,000 people in Guatemala. Comparatively, the prevalence of physicians per 1,000 people is 2.3 in the United States. Not only are there small numbers of health care providers in Guatemala, but they are typically concentrated in the cities. As poverty is a norm, transportation to the city for a doctor’s appointment is not feasible to most. In addition, most Guatemalan citizens do not have health insurance, forcing them to pay out of pocket for private health care or wait in long lines at understaffed and under-equipped public hospitals.
One patient we treated recently underwent femur reconstruction, requiring a metal rod. The hospital would perform the surgery but did not have the rod available, requiring the patient to save money to purchase a rod himself and delaying the surgery six months. Finally, the patient purchased the rod and was admitted for surgery, only to find out that the rod was too long for his femur, as the doctor did not provide the patient with the correct measurement information. Despite the mismatch, the doctor inserted the rod because “something is better than nothing.” Stories like this patient’s are not rare in Guatemala; many times over the course of my trip I found myself in awe from medical stories. In addition to physical therapy, we provided patients with general medical services something we would go to our primary care physician for here in the states. We monitored blood pressure, cleaned wounds, and took comprehensive medical histories. In addition, we provided ankle-foot orthosis, joint braces, canes, walkers, and wheelchairs to those who needed them. The most important service we provided to our Guatemalan patients was education. Knowledge about living a healthy lifestyle through physical activity and diet is not prevalent. With our help, our patients now know ways to live a healthy, fulfilling life free of pain.
Despite the poverty they face, the Guatemalan people were among the most joyous and grateful individuals I have ever encountered. In the states, physical therapy is often seen as an intermediate step, blocking people from surgery or further testing. On the contrary, because physical therapy is the sole option for Guatemalans in pain, many individuals waited hours on end to be treated by our team. Their gratitude after treatment was clear: we were given hugs and kisses, offered thanks and prayers, and rewarded with Guatemalan desserts and goodies. The sincerity of Guatemalan people made me realize how something easily accessible here in the United States can be taken for granted.
I experienced the true art of connection while in Guatemala. My role, as the rehabilitation technician on the team, was to provide home exercise programs, teach proper technique, stretch out patients, and educate them on the importance of keeping up with the assigned exercises. Although I was not able to physically manipulate a patient’s joint or diagnose the issue, I offered what I had to give: assistance, knowledge, education or even a simple smile and hug. Despite the language barrier, we connected through eye contact, smiles, laughs, and gestures. The people of Guatemala taught me so much. Their warm, hospitable personalities taught me to maintain an open mind about other lifestyles. Their living conditions taught me to be grateful, and not take anything for granted. The entire experience taught me to constantly give to others. No matter how small, offer what you have to others first. Whether it’s knowledge and skills or simply time and a smile, give anything you can.
Interested in studying abroad or in another state? The International Programs Office can answer your questions about Study Abroad, Exchange Programs, Short-Term Study Abroad Programs, and National Exchange Programs. For more information, visit the International Programs Office in Parenzo Hall lobby, Room 130.
Reprinted from the Squirrel Squire, newsletter of the Honors Program