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UNG grad students use their healing hands
Students offer physical therapy treatment in Dominican Republic
Melissa Housworth, left, and Darla Pruitt enourage a young Dominican Republic boy with celebral palsy to play with them. The game was a form of therapy.

While most college students soak up the sun on beaches for spring break, nine University of North Georgia graduate students immersed themselves in another culture for hands-on training in La Romana, Dominican Republic.

The students, including Stacy Hubbard of Dawsonville and Melissa Housworth of Braselton, spent their weeklong break providing services to orphans and citizens living in poverty at several small health centers in La Romana, the third largest city in the Caribbean country.

Dr. Phillip Palmer, associate professor of physical therapy, organized the health care trip to provide students with service-oriented learning and international opportunities to prepare them to become leaders in a global society.

“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.”

All of the students in UNG’s doctor of physical therapy program gained experience in practicing physical therapy skills and navigating the 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,” student Kristen Whipple said. “This was overwhelming, but such a rewarding experience. I learned a great deal about physical therapy, the Spanish language and the people of the Dominican Republic.”

Housworth was surprised by the trusting nature of the medical team who worked with students.

“We went to clinics on the first day and they just handed us their patients,” the 23-year-old said. “In the States, you are following doctors and watching them. There, they were very trusting and letting us help.”

The team of physical therapy students 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. 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 Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook.

Hubbard, who was in her second year during the trip, said being in the bateyes was “a little frustrating.”

“We don’t realize how much we have here in the United States,” she said, noting most people do not have a vehicle to drive into town to see a doctor or lack the gasoline for the vehicle. “It’s heartbeaking. We did what we could to give them immediate pain relief, but it’s frustrating there is not more medical help out there.”

The now third-year student explained the medical team she and others worked with only go to the sugarcane fields twice a year. They provide shots, birth control and other minor medical assistance, Hubbard said.

“So, we felt it was very rewarding, because the people we saw had knee and ankle injures and we were able to reduce their pain for the day,” she said.

But helping alleviate pain was not the only upshot. Hubbard and other students injected some fun into the lives of their smallest patients.

“Another student and I helped a boy with spina bifada by doing some exercises with him and trying to make them fun,” Hubbard said. “He was laughing and giggling. 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.”

Several students had particular patients or experiences that resonated with them, but Savannah Ooten said 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.”

Housworth said she was impressed by the focus on patient care.

“Here, a lot of places will want you to see a certain number of patients a day,” she said. “And you have to spend a lot of time writing notes so the insurance will cover (the procedures). There, it’s more about the patients. You do not worry about meeting a quota and what the insurance company is going to say.”

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 remote locations.

“It is so difficult to address these issues, particularly when many of the resources we need are simply not available,” he said. “We do the best we can and celebrate even a minor improvement in movement or function.”

Hubbard said working in the hospital, outpatient clinics and bateyes tied her classroom work and training together.

“Going overseas and doing work with people showed me how much I learned and how much knowledge I have gained,” she said. “We can help people on a small scale or large scale and our people can make a difference.”

For Housworth, she learned how to view time differently.

“I’m a very scheduled person. They were not there at all,” she said. “Our time was unstructured. I realized how great it was to have less structure in your life and not worry about ‘I have to get this patient in.’ I’m going to give them what they need and it’s going to work.”

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