International trip an empathetic experience for PT students
By Alex Branch
Nine first- and second-year students helped treat and provide health education to men, women and children suffering from orthopedic problems, seizures, high blood pressure and more.
The students worked with Emily Paslay, DPT, a licensed physical therapist and Assistant Professor in the UNTHSC Department of Physical Therapy, and a licensed Costa Rican physical therapist.
“We had one 5-year-old girl with really flat feet who was complaining of lower leg pain,” Dr. Paslay said. “We did some fairly basic interventions, and her mom brought her back the next day to tell us she had much less pain at school that day. It was a great experience.”
The week-long trip was organized by Brandy Schwarz, PT, DPT, Associate Professor of Physical Therapy, through International Service Learning, an organization that guides volunteers around the world in providing essential community and medical services to underserved populations.
Students were housed in a Catholic Church dormitory in the city of Alajuela, northwest of the capital of San Juan, and provided free care to an underserved urban community between Alajuela and San Juan. The group turned an empty, one-bathroom room into a makeshift clinic by arranging tables and chairs, and then went door-to-door to let residents know about the services available.
Interpreters worked with Dr. Paslay and students to measure patients’ vital signs, perform some basic physical therapy treatment and provide health information for patients to manage acute and chronic health conditions. The results were eye-opening.
“In just a matter of a day and a half, I saw the difference we made in someone’s life,” said Heather Elswick, a first-year physical therapy student. “This trip has lit a fire in me to become the best version of myself in my profession.I want to continue to motivate my patients and care for them in the best way possible.”
Madison Butzer, a second-year student, said the trip was a valuable opportunity to practice empathy, a skill emphasized in the UNTHSC curriculum.
“This experience gave us the opportunity to use this trait in a unique and diverse manner,” Butzer said. “We couldn’t even speak the same language, yet we were collaborating as a team to ensure our patients were given the best care possible.
“Overall, it brought these patients true joy, and that is what matters.”
The experience is one of a growing number of international opportunities for UNTHSC physical therapy students. Training rotations have been created in Malawi and Italy, and department leaders are pursing potential partnerships in Australia, Philippines and China.
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